Remember getting a letter in the mail? An actual, honest-to-god hand written letter? I can remember getting letters from my cousins who lived in Virginia (I was a youth in Michigan at the time). It was this really exciting feeling, like Christmas was delivered to my mailbox. I’d open the letter, and pour over every word and sentence three or four times, just to make sure I wouldn’t forget anything. And I’d have that same feeling when writing back to my cousin about whatever it was that I felt he needed to know. Strangely, I don’t feel quite the same way when I open my email.
For human interaction, it’s all about communication. Something like 80% or more of our method of communication is non-verbal. A subtle raise of the eyebrow, a shift in one’s step, a blushed cheek. We pick up on these things consciously as well as unconsciously. It’s the twinkle in a loved one’s eye when you’ve knocked them head over heels. It’s what makes our human interactions so…. human.
We use thousands of words a day to express how we feel, let others know what we’re thinking, ask directions, get help, create emotional bonds. Words move us, hurt us, connect us, uplift us and confuse us.
Social interaction is hard wired into our beings. We are social mammals, and that is something we simply can’t escape. What Darwinian purpose does it serve? Is it to provide family structures in which to procreate and raise healthy, intelligent youth? Is it to protect the pack? Simple betterment of society? Maybe it’s sole purpose is to remind us that we are human, that we are all humans bouncing around this blue ball in the solar system.
For our most hardened, violent criminals, what do we do with them? We lock them away from society. That is their punishment. It’s not so much that they are in jail, as much as it is that they don’t get to belong to society anymore. And for the worst of the worst? Solitary confinement. That’s the ultimate punishment. To be locked away even from the makeshift Lord of the Flies society of prison. No one to talk to for days, weeks, months at a time. This is by far the worst punishment one could endure in a civil society. Personally, I find it to be much, much worse than capital punishment. Death is no punishment. There is nothing in death.
So okay, we know that to remain connected to humanity, we use language and communication and all other kinds of interaction. It’s vitally important to establishing and maintaining any sort of society, even in the animal kingdoms. Yadda yadda yadda…..where am I going with all of this?
Well, I’m certainly not alone in saying that we’ve become disconnected as a society. I’m not the first, and I’m not the last. But it’s not just that we’re becoming disconnected as a society. We’re becoming disconnected from humanity, and what it means to be a human.
You can see this standing in line at Starbucks, the way people don’t want to look at each other, the way they all see each other as competition for who gets their coffee first. You can see it in futbol matches, when friendly competition turns into a soccer hooligan Guinness/rage-fueled street riot. You can see it at the recent town hall meetings with demonstrators drawing comparisons between Obama and Hitler. It’s become less about being a part of society connected to other people, and more about “I’ll do what I want because I feel like it”.
But no where is the disconnect more apparent than right here on the interwebs. We create avatars and handles and nicknames for ourselves in an attempt to hide behind anonymity. We’d rather be catlover67453 than Deb or John. It’s much easier to disregard civility when you’re no longer you, and you aren’t communicating with an actual human. We use vulgarity, “SHOUT” at each other, demean others, and generally act like a pack of starving wolves.
I try not to use extreme examples, as I think they tend to do more harm than good, and lead to people focusing on an abstract example rather than the point at hand. But in this case, I’ll break my code. When slavery was everyday practice here in America, it was easily justified because Blacks were viewed as less than human. Hitler and the Nazis convinced scores of people that the Jews and Gypsies and Homosexuals and all those killed during the Holocaust were somehow less than human. We’ve started to do it now to the illegal immigrants coming from Latin America. It’s an extremely hard thing for a normal, well adjusted person to go off and kill a fellow human being. It goes against our nature. But when made to believe that the person we’re killing is somehow not human, or less than human, it’s suddenly not so difficult.
Obviously, no one is killing each other over the Internet. But the dehumanization is there. When we’re talking to other words on a page with a funny icon of a monkey smelling his poo, it’s easy to tell that icon to go fuck itself. It’s easy to tell it that it’s whole belief system is stupid and childish. It’s easy to it that it’s lifestyle is an abomination. There’s no reason to be civil with a web page.
There’s a reason people don’t talk like this in the grocery store. Part of it is out of respect for others. Some are more shy in public. But mostly it’s due to the connection. When we’re all in a grocery store, even if we’re not talking to each other, we can feel that connection to each other. It’s a part of us. You can’t deny it. You might judge the person next to you at the meat counter, but you still feel that connection to them. You wouldn’t call them an asshole if they happened to make a comment on the health care system that you didn’t agree with. But it’s so easy to when it’s done in an Internet forum or on a comment section on a blog post. And it’s because of the disconnect.
So why is that we treat others with such disrespect once we’ve disconnected? I mean, I get why we treat each other so well when we do feel that interconnectedness. But why act so irrational otherwise? Maybe it’s because that when we disconnect from society, what we’re really doing is detaching ourselves from our own humanity. And when that humanity is lost, our animal nature is all that is left. Or maybe it’s an empty version of ourselves. Maybe it’s holdover primal hunter mentality from our early selves. No round edges, no soft gentle embraces, no loving kindness. Something else takes over, and tells us that it’s okay to treat others like garbage, like prey, like something that isn’t human.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Internet. I blog, I use Facebook, Failblog, Netflix, and all kinds of other wonderful (and time wasting) web pages. I’ve learned so much using it. There are millions and millions of resources here to utilize. Information is being shared in a way never before seen. It’s creating a global community. But we have to ask ourselves what type of community we want to create. Is it going to be one in which we continue to devalue each other and each other’s thoughts/feelings? Will it be one in which we continue to hide behind anonymity, lashing out at anyone with an opinion different than our own? Will it be one in which we continue to disconnect from our humanity? Or will we foster an environment that embraces and makes an effort to connect humans in a more positive way? I certainly hope the latter. It’s really up to us, right now. I challenge anyone with an anonymous handle out there to start using their real name. Put up a picture of yourself. Start addressing people by name. Start connecting to the other people out there, rather than the other avatars.
So back to my first point, about the handwritten letter. Why was it that the letter was something to cherish, something so special while my email isn’t? I think part of it was the effort that went into writing the letter. And someone wrote the letter to me, a human. My cousin knew that I would open the letter by hand, sit there and read it line for line. I suppose it’s one of those things I can’t quite put my finger on, but you know what I mean. There’s something special about good old fashion human interaction. Cheers.
Oh, and because I love solutions to problems, here’s something from Cracked.com