I got into a bad habit a few years ago that I thought I had broken. Over the past several years I have had a dozen or so letters to the editor published by our local city newspaper, usually in response to someone else’s letter to the editor that annoyed the hell out of me. I read the paper on-line, and soon discovered that it is possible to comment on any letter or article immediately, with postings collecting underneath the letter on the screen. Such discussions often go in directions vastly different from what the original letter suggests. The philosopher and teacher in me wants to jump into such discussions, especially when they involve important issues that mean a lot to me. With the recent addition of Facebook into my life, lately I’ve been finding it hard to resist the temptation.
What happens, though, is not a discussion. The battle lines get drawn instantly on every possible issue between conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious, all protected by the anonymity of a screen name. So “X” calls the writer of the letter under consideration a “bleeding heart” because she is calling for additional funding to be allocated for environmental issues, “Y” calls “X” a “typical Republican moron” because all he/she cares about is his bank account, “X” responds that “Y” must be a “liberal with his head up his ass” because global warming is only a theory, several other posters get involved within five minutes, and we’re off the races.
At this point I should either click on the sports section or turn the computer off. Instead, I take at least 30 seconds to craft the “post to end all posts” on this topic, in response to which all other contributors to the discussion will, after a moment of respectful e-silence, fall over each other in their gratitude for having been shown the light. What happens instead is that “X” and “Y” (as well as many others) turn on me for all sorts of unexpected reasons. I must be more of a liberal with his head up his ass than “Y” is (“X”), my ideas will never work because I sound like an “ivory tower pointy headed intellectual” (“Y”). Or even worse, sometimes the discussion goes on as if my post had never occurred. It’s bad enough to be e-trashed on a discussion forum; it’s far worse to be e-ignored. So now I really should turn the computer off, read something, write something, take a walk, talk to a human being—anything but continue participating. But of course I have to respond (if I’ve been misunderstood and insulted) or post even more eloquently and pointedly (if I’ve been ignored). And throughout the morning I find myself frequently returning to the website to see who has posted, what they’ve said, and spending more time contributing to a discussion that never was a discussion in the first place. It’s like driving by a bad accident on the highway—I have to look.
Why am I doing this? I’d like to believe that my participation in such “discussions” is a well-intentioned but misplaced instance of my teaching vocation in action. All teachers want to facilitate the opening of closed minds, the establishment of the life-long process of learning. Now I know that the participants in these “discussions” are not my students, but I have in the back of my mind the glimmer of hope that if a person is interested enough to participate, that person might also be interested in learning something, in broadening horizons, in realizing that even the most obvious “no brainer” sort of “truth” might be wrong. And I’m accustomed to encountering resistance from my experiences in the classroom. As Vera Brittain writes, “most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.” I fully realize that defensiveness is a natural reaction to having one’s most treasured assumptions challenged, so I expect resistance. Learning and opening up hurts—that’s why they killed Socrates, right? Richard Rorty says it nicely: “The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete, and powerless.” So I try not to do that. But I’ve never been so frustrated in my life, to the point that a couple of weeks ago in the middle of a typically rigid and inflexible discussion I posted “If there’s any one who regularly posts here who has ever, even once, changed their opinion on an important issue because of something someone posted here, please post and let me know!” And no one ever did.
But guess what? If anyone else had posted that challenge, I would not have answered it either. Because I’ve never learned anything new or changed my mind about anything from participating. Well I guess I’ve learned one thing—I’m just as rigid, inflexible, and intolerant as everyone else who participates. I can account for that partially because of the format; dueling sound bites and bumper sticker slogans, wrapped in anonymity, seldom lead to anything but arguing and e-yelling. But there’s more to it. When I step from behind my self-righteous “facilitator of lifetime learning” teacher screen, I’m just another worried, insecure human being who is scared to death that he might not have all the answers. That’s who is typing the contributions to these forums on my computer, not someone who has “seen the light” and wants to help others see it too. As I accuse others of being unable to listen, to think, to deliberate, to imagine that they might be wrong, I realize that there’s no place inside of me where I even for a moment suspect that I might be able to learn something from an extreme pro-lifer, from a hard core conservative Republican, from a person whose religious beliefs include the Earth being created 6000 years ago, from someone who is convinced that global warming is a hoax and natural selection is “just a theory,” or from someone who thinks that the solution to gun violence is more guns and who believes that the bombings in Boston last week would not have happened if those watching the race had been packing firearms. Who died and made me God, so sure that the value of another’s opinion is directly proportional to how closely it matches up to mine?
So it would be best for me to stay away from such forums—they don’t offer many opportunities for growth. But the first word in the monastic rule has come to mean a great deal to me is “Listen.” Perhaps a good post-Lenten exercise for me would be to spend forty days reading the comments on letters to the editor carefully and never saying anything. Just e-listen. I don’t think I can do it.