Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ming's Mind Trap

Yesterday today I woke up feeling pretty lousy - quite sore (I've been basically typing at a computer on my class syllabus all period every period all week).  And I guess sort of grouchy - my brain's been much too interested in thinking negative thoughts. 

So as it happens I find myself engaged in two separate internet debates, both involving individuals I would describe as not the most reasonable or intellectually generous.  That's twice breaking my rule of not engaging with people who are crazy.  Although of the two, one was somewhat polite - just incoherent and confused.

Basically I should not have been writing to them.  But somehow in my mental state it seemed really important.  Like I need to respond correctly.  What I should have been doing was relaxing my mind, finding situations for myself throughout the day that would minimize the possibility of conflict and facilitate positive thinking.  Of course, I normally take great joy in thinking and writing about politics and society, so reading and writing on the internet was a reasonable enterprise.  Yet the thing about the internet is that, especially in political and social commentary, it is filled with opportunities for conflict.  And as human interaction is reduced to simple written word, it is much easier to be provocative and behave towards others in ways which in real life would be obviously offensive. 

This is certainly part of its charm: the writing process allows one to be both deliberative and focused more on one's argument than how it might be received.  In real world communication we have developed many normative cues for establishing polite and civil discourse.  Tone of voice, turns of phrase, and body language allow us to navigate each other's emotional space with delicacy.  On the internet, the absence of these cues often leads to impoliteness and unnecessary conflict.  This is especially true when dealing with individuals who lack a good foundation in critical thought and the proper benevolence required to engage in thoughtful disagreement.

So, what the did people do before the internet?  I mean, in real life if you don't like arguing with people you just don't hang out with them.  Usually that means it only happens on holidays when you see the relatives. But now we're in constant contact with opportunities to debate people.  And it's in a totally impersonal way.  I've probably debated hundreds of people on the internet.  I've driven in my car thinking about them.  I've laid awake at night in bed perfecting imaginary responses to them.  But I've never met any of them! 

We just aren't built for this kind of shit.  It's like that hole that Ming makes Flash Gordon put his hand into.  Our fucking hand is in the hole and we don't know what's going on in there!  What the fuck is going on?  But we can't resist putting it in there and seeing what happens.  This is something entirely new to civilization - a worldwide salon that transcends normal cultural, political and class divides.  We are able to interact with the "other" in ways that would have been impossible before, or at least everywhere but the most exclusive cosmopolitan cities, the crossroads of global trade routes. 

The possibilities for intellectual expression are only limited by one's own capacity for thought.  Yet with each new foray into this intellectual sphere, one ventures into a terrain that is in many ways lawless and filled with opportunities for emotional barbarity.  For those of us predisposed to bouts of negative mental disorganization, this presents an ever-present threat to our emotional stability, precarious as it can sometimes be.  There are just people out there with whom reasonable dialogue will be impossible.  The continuing lesson will be to recognize the signs of impending struggle, and to quickly disengage.  The alternative might just ruin your day.

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