Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Opinions Are Balloons: Social Media Manifesto for Conversation

A question I've heard asked more than once this week is, "How is Thanksgiving going to be? What if people bring up politics?" There seems to be a higher-than-usual degree of anxiety about this, although who knows. 
What I suggested to one person is that it is not so much what we talk about as how we talk about it. If politics is too painful or contentious, something else might be best, but I would actually recommend finding a topic where other views or opinions are present and practice the art of conversing and comparing differences. 
Coincidentally, I recently felt the need to make a statement about a culture of conversation for my Facebook page. Perhaps there is a thought here that might be of use:
Welcome to “my” page on Facebook. I put “my” in quotes because obviously none of this is mine: I don’t own this platform or how it is designed. As Facebook users, it is important to remember that we are not the customers - we are the product. Facebook is a business that caters to advertisers, who pay for the opportunity to advertise at us. 
Nonetheless, many of us find Facebook useful for staying in touch with friends and family; networking; sharing items of interest; or some combinations of these things. I use Facebook for all of these purposes. I use my page to post articles on a range of topics of interest to me, and that I think some people who see my Facebook page would also find of interest. Sometimes I state my opinions. Most of what I post is set to universal access, meaning anyone can see it. I don’t post secrets on the internet. If I don’t want it published, I don’t publish it. Some of my personal life comes through in funny stories about my kids or statements about my feelings on personal topics, but for the most part this is for people who like to read and write. 
It is also a place for people who like to converse, discuss, and even argue a little bit. And here is where I feel a need to state some ground rules. In doing so, I realize I am also proposing a bit of a manifesto for the art of conversation on social media. So be it. Feel free to share your thoughts and/or share this note if you think it is worthy. 
I grew up in a household where it was assumed that people can compare different points of view, disagree, and even question each other a little bit (not too much, but a little bit), in the spirit of conversation. This works really well when participants buy into it, and think of conversation as a way to build something no one could have experienced on their own, and a way to test ideas or propositions with people who can be trusted not to attack you personally. 
So please know that I am not trying to convert anyone to my point of view, anger anyone, or engage in combat. I may say that an argument is weak or foolish, but if you are a human being, you matter in my book. I exhibit human failings, misunderstand things, sometimes let my sarcastic thoughts grab the mike - but generally I try not to be a jerk. People are free to disagree with me, and I actually appreciate it when it is done in the spirit of discussion instead of trying to win me over to something, belittle me, or accuse me. What a gift it is when someone says, “I follow that. I arrived at a different conclusion. Here is where I am coming from.” There is nothing offensive or defensive about this, it’s just people comparing notes on what they’ve seen and how they think. We need more of this, I would suggest. 
In fact, that was once considered to be a function of conversation and written letters. (Yes, written letters - the original “text message” - and an art I still practice.) Social media is a tool that can be used for these purposes and that is one way I attempt to use it. When we lament social media’s impact on culture, we rarely point out that people are engaging in written arguments. Look at this, we’re writing! If half of this activity were in written letters, the USPS would be loaded. (And the arguments would probably be better.) However, a general lack of experience at this art is frequently evident.

The community of people who frequently read and comment on this page include people from various social classes, gender and racial identities, occupations, philosophical outlooks, and political orientations. You are all human beings I value, and I ask that people engaging here try to engage in a similar, humane spirit. Compare different opinions by all means. No attacking one another, please; no personal insults please; if you feel the spirit of this ground rule has been breached, state your case and let us give it due consideration. I will delete as needed; I am happy to say I rarely need to wield my zapper.
Occasionally, I am asked about my Buddhist practice, since I am unafraid to disclose my positions about some issues, and I state them with confidence. Is this incompatible with Zen practice? That’s a really good question and something I have taken time to reflect upon. I think this question reflects an assumption that argument must be contentious: a fight to assert ego rather than a way to communicate and explore. 
First of all, beware of cliches about Buddhists. People who practice Buddhism have a range of opinions and they can discuss them just like anybody else. I've met Buddhists with liberal opinions, conservative opinions, and socialist opinions. Some Buddhists are comfortable discussing personal opinions, some prefer not. Some go as far as to participate in activist politics, whereas some refrain even from voting. The content of a person's opinions has nothing to do with being a "good" Buddhist. Zen, in particular, is about paying radical attention to why you do the things you do. Why discuss opinions? How is it beneficial to the project of awakening with all sentient being(s)? Is it about puffing up yourself, or contributing something to a communal good, or what?
As my friend Jason, who is now a zen teacher himself, sometimes asks: do you use your opinions or do your opinions use you? 
One thing practice has helped me see is that my opinions are not part of my identity or my skin, that there is nothing to be defensive about if someone disagrees with you or questions you. Opinions cause suffering when we feel a need to defend them as if we were defending our body. Clinging to opinions is suffering. If you're not clinging to opinions and being defensive, you can play with your opinions, turn them upside down, go at them with an axe. 
Thinking clearly and well allows us to nurture principle and act on it courageously. That’s good for me and I hope good for you. Yes, social media easily lends itself to insulating ourselves into like-minded groups and living in a bubble; but it can also be used for engaging and exploring the world in ways I can’t with just my books. And if a defensive reaction does appear, aha! An opportunity to examine something! On a daily basis - I emphasize daily - I observe tiny defensive reactions in myself about the funniest things. Generally, they have to do with personal interactions rather than written arguments. 
If you ever have the opportunity to work with a zen master, defensiveness will be the big obstacle. Zen masters pop every one of our precious balloons; it's what they do. Clinging to the balloons is suffering. If you're not attached to the balloons you can play with them or not as you choose.
I'm not a zen master or playing that role, but I enjoy conversation and I use my space on Facebook for that activity. No one is required to participate. I don't ask that people agree with me. I like learning more about the person and perhaps the issue we are discussing.

On the other hand, a lot of people have defensive reactions about their opinions: “Don't bop my balloon!!” They will take disagreement personally. Their instinct is to fight, to use argument as a way to hit at the person instead of explore the topic. That's when it is time to step back. This would happen in my household growing up. Occasionally a conversation would become contentious; a friendly argument would not feel friendly anymore. That’s when it’s time to make tea, pour wine, switch to something else, step back. If you do not trust my intentions or my honesty, if you are not willing to read slowly and process before reacting, if you are interested in "winning" something, if you are making false statements about what I wrote, then we are not engaging in the same activity, and besides wasting our time it can damage our personal relationship. That would be sad and pointless.
So let’s review:
  • Opinions are balloons, and balloons are for bopping, flicking, deflating, and popping.
  • Opinions are not who we are but we can use them to express relationships, aspirations, and value.
  • Differences are not a threat to you and actually exist to help you explore who you think you are.
If these statements seem strange, it is because our culture is on a very different track. The logic of market relations and exchange value has contaminated the way we conceive of social relations. Our culture emphasizes individual achievement over collaboration and commonwealth; personal heroics over collective action; top-down authority over ground-level solidarity. Utility and profit dominate humanistic values. It is a condition that has paved our slide into an increasingly authoritarian society.
But I’m a guy who still writes letters by hand, reads, meditates, engages in art and politics, and I use this space as an extension of that project. Conversation is a key value here. If you are entertained by trolling and verbal combat, excellent - there are places for that elsewhere. 
Now that (I hope) we understand each other, I hope you will write me a note. Ask questions, comment, tell me a story. 
Oh, and if you want to give written letters a try, fire away and I promise to write back to you (this includes international letters): Algernon D’Ammassa, P.O. Box 84, Deming, NM 88031 USA.

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