As a creative writer who surely (if slowly) works toward writing publishable fiction and poetry, I am often disappointed that I can’t seem to make myself blog more frequently. The internet has changed the face of publishing, making it easier for writers to make their work available to a wider audience, so I feel as if I should be using this to my advantage. I am especially envious of bloggers like Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans who are able to keep up a regular blog while working on their other writings.
I don’t feel guilty — I have a lot on my plate. I am working full-time to put food on the table, taking a Hebrew class and (with what little time remains) trying to do reading and gather materials for applications to PhD programs. But I do feel disappointed — mainly because I realize that the voice I would like to have in the blogosphere is stilted by the medium itself. I can’t tell you how many times I have begun a blog post and failed to finish it simply because the things I am passionate about are controversial (what isn’t these days?).
I don’t have a problem (in theory) with starting controversy. When well-approached, controversy can be an avenue of learning. But controversy is emotionally taxing and when played out on the internet, the repercussions are multiplied. If I blogged on controversial issues (and people actually read my blog), the ‘dialogue’ which would follow might be very difficult to handle. Face-to-face dialogue is hard enough. When an opinion is posted on the internet, anyone can weigh in (some people feel like they must do so) and many are unthoughtful about the way in which they dialogue on the internet.
If I had the internet voice that I desired, I would not have the time or energy to moderate comments and respond to them. I would be exhausted by Jimmy Joe’s quickly-typed, abrasive respond to my post on the psychology of gender roles. I would be irked by Jane Smith’s skewed question about my post on higher criticism. Turn off the comment option, you say? Maybe I’m just not in tune with the blogosphere, but I’ve never seen a popular blog without a comment section. And of course people can still post a link on their facebook and comment there, and write their own blog response. The nature of internet technology makes it easy to remain faceless. While facelessness doesn’t necessarily have to lead to verbal violence, it makes it much easier for people to commit acts of verbal violence without thinking.
Verbal Violence: distancing the Other
In his book on the psychology of killing in warfare (On Killing), Lt Col. David Grossman provides a curious conclusion: humans (and other animals) find it very difficult to kill their own species. This may come as a surprise because this often not how violence is portrayed in the media. Whether the violence we see is perpetrated by detectives or cold-blooded killers, we see humans shooting other humans with ease and little guilt. (Of course there are exceptions to this. In the British television series Wallander, for example, the main character is distinctive for his reticence to shoot even murderers; he has a remarkably visceral reaction to his first kill.)
Grossman claims that, for the most part, humans must be trained to kill and that killing is made easier by dehumanizing the other: objectifying the other person until the killer sees not a human face but an enemy, an ethnicity, a cause, an idea, an animal. Grossman discusses technological advancements in warfare and relates the physical distance between the killer and killed with the ease of killing: it may be easier emotionally for a pilot to drop a bomb on an entire city of people than to kill a single person in hand-to-hand combat. He claims Alexander the Great was militarily successful, in part, because of the phalanx method of killing in which long spears were used. The enemy was far away and thus easier to kill.
The human face, in particular, appears to be a factor in the human reticence to kill. Grossman cites an example where many in an army could not kill until the opposing army was on the run and had turned their backs. Because the first army could not see the faces of the people they were killing, it was easier to kill them.
Of course, killing is by no means the only kind of physical violence and even violence in general is not always physical. An act of verbal violence is in many ways easier to commit than physical violence because it is more abstract (and consequently more difficult to identify concretely as violence). Grossman connects the ease of killing with the physical distance between the killer and killed. Distance creates a relational separation which makes it easier for a person to vilify/dehumanize the other.
In light of this, it is not surprising that the internet as a medium conduces verbal violence. On the internet, we can be nameless and faceless if we wish. We can write a blog post with a polemical tone – or we can comment polemically on a blog post without thinking that there is another person on the other side of the screen. We can put up memes that oversimplify complex issues and make fun of people holding a different opinion. We can post short, provocative status updates on Facebook which not only state our opinion in a nutshell, but portray those who disagree with us as ignorant or unthinking.
This kind of ‘dialogue’ is really anti-dialogue because the point is not thoughtful, peaceful engagement bent on pursuing understanding and truth. Its purpose is to capitalize on the distance of ‘the screen’ by creating a further wedge between ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘I’ and ‘Thou.’ Re-imagining another human being (or group of people) as hostile or ignorant inhibits us from seeing the other as a person, a flesh-and-blood living being. Verbal violence validates our own sense of identity because it forces us to take our stand in relation to the other in such a way that we are defined by our hostility toward the other (or by perceived hostility from the other). We not only end up objectifying the other, but objectify our own selves because we do not take our stand in a person, but in an idea or emotion.
This is not to say that ideas or opinions do not matter or that everyone must ignore differences of belief for the sake of peace. It simply means that our primary thought, the primary word we should utter must be: “Thou!” Our first thought should be: this being is a person created in the image of God (regardless of the extent to which s/he presently embodies that image). And for this reason, we must cultivate a posture of respect towards others regardless of whether or not we think we will agree with their opinions. This is the beginning of real dialogue.