Of late I have been embroiled in, or party to, more interpersonal dramas than usual, and I’ve also been on the receiving end of a lot of gossip. This has prompted some reflection. But first, an observation.
A few days ago, I attempted to send an instant message to a friend over the AOL network. As it happened, I mis-clicked on someone I haven’t spoken to in quite a while. Because I have multiple IM accounts on multiple networks, I use Trillian to keep everything organized. When I selected the wrong person, Trillian gave me a box asking me to select the IM account from which the message would be sent. The “normal” account I used for that person was not in the list — meaning, that at some point, the person had actively blocked that particular account on the AOL network.
I was a bit astonished by this, as our last communication, in late July, was cordial. I was sufficiently perturbed by this blocking that I clicked through most of my AOL contacts. As far as I can tell, only one other person — a more recent acquaintance — had blocked me, but in neither case did I expect to be blocked at all.
Of course, I am also aware that there are two or three people who have put me on permanent “invisible” status on Yahoo. I, myself, have done this to a small number of people, usually to discourage a pattern of incessant or invasive messages. But still. Some of the invisible people are folks I know are there (Trillian’s funny that way!) but for reasons that have rarely been communicated with me, they simply hide themselves.
There’s something significant in this. No, I don’t feel bad about what these people have done; those petty enough to block IM accounts without explanation aren’t the sort of people whose opinion I necessarily respect anyway. Rather, this exercise in online blocking, coupled with the recent dramas and gossip, really highlights the us-versus-them mentality that encourages the demonization and depersonalization of those with whom we disagree.
We do this all the time. I was speaking with a friend last weekend and he told me stories about a mutual acquaintance that, on reflection, were uniformly and unfairly negative. A few days ago, a friend was telling me about a date that didn’t go well, and wouldn’t you know it — the date was described much like a child molester. I’d lay money that my friend didn’t have that opinion before the date. And don’t get me started on a series of e-mails with a friend about the presidential race.
It is sad that so few of us are willing to disagree with a person, or a person’s actions, while resisting the urge to demonize that person. I wonder how the relatively impersonal nature of online communication contributes to this; when a person has absolute power to control the flow of debate (by, e.g., hitting the block button), what does this signify for our ability as a culture to engage in the truly hard work of trying to reconcile major differences? How can we move forward in a respectful way that treats others as intrinsically worthy persons, when at the first sign of disagreement we completely and irrevocably disengage?
This sounds like a “theory of communications” question for Duane.