A guest post of mine has just been published over at Mere Orthodoxy. Within it I discuss the resemblance between common dynamics of discourse online and those described in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, using an article by William Deresiewicz as my starting point.
Austen insightfully recognized the manner in which our delight in tight-knit, pleasant, and agreeable communities—and in conversations marked by ‘mutual satisfaction’—renders us susceptible to deep distortions of communal discourse, knowledge, and judgment. When we are all so relationally cosy with each other, we will shrink back from criticizing people in the way that we ought, voluntarily muting disagreement, and will shut out external criticism, reassuring and reaffirming anyone exposed to it. In such contexts, a cloying closeness stifles the expression of difference and conversations take on a character akin to the ‘positive feedback loop’ that existed in Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation, where affirmation and assent merely reinforced existing prejudices. In such contexts, communities become insular…, echo chambers of accepted opinion, closed to opposing voices.
Read the whole thing here.
The post is a very long one and Jake Meador prefaces it with another post explaining why Mere Orthodoxy publishes such long pieces, which complements my post from yesterday on the same subject.
I haven’t read the Deresiewicz essay, but this rings true of the book. However, I’m think that “important differences are dissembles and contradiction cannot be admitted” may be a part of a healthy community. For instance, one of the strongest features of Aquinas is that he makes all the authorities to be correct, synthesizing their seemingly contradictory opinions, and only very reluctantly admitting a contradiction; and similarly, in the Talmud, all the Tanna are correct (usually), and even when they directly contradict, the Gemara works hard to figure out how they can all be correct, deriving the Halakhah from and through a concordance of the disagreements. (I’m not as familiar with other discourses, but I believe the same tendency shows up very commonly.) I’m not sure that this is a criticism of your article, or of D’s, but I’d be interested in an ethnographic analysis of when and how silence about differences and disagreements can be vivifying, and when it can be stifling.
Tou may be interested in Keith Basso’s work with Apaches in Wisdom Sits in Places. (And “Just listen: Listening and landscape among the blackfeet”, I’ll post a few more sources later.) For them, it is in fact the performed silences (silence is always a gesture performed by one with a voice, and the silence itself speaks, as Chretien shows) which unite, whereas the chatter of words divide. An new Apache couple, for instance, will not speak for several months after they become a couple—not till they get to know each other—but will instead stand together, holding hands, in silence. It may be possible to explain some of internet dynamics as an exacerbation of a “Western” inability to be silent together, an inability that online is very literally impossible: If I don’t post, I just don’t post, I am not silent.
(Having read the rest of the article, I think you may find Basso’s book very interesting.)
Thanks for the characteristically thoughtful comment.
Aquinas’ concern to reconcile the authorities—a challenge particularly pressing after Lombard’s Sentences—is a rather different sort of phenomenon, I believe. Not least because contradiction was absolutely essential to Aquinas’ manner of thinking (no thinker before or since has been more closely associated with the expression ‘sed contra’). The issue in such a case has more to do with the way that we handle authorities or a canon and isn’t quite the same thing as resistance to in-group contradiction as such.
A shared silence can definitely be one of the most potent forms of connection. However, such silences are generally inaccessible to us before commonality has been established verbally or—where possible—physically, or in terms of a general reality of shared belonging. Between strangers or loose acquaintances, physical connection often seems premature or inappropriate, any prolonged silence will tend to be ambiguous and uncomfortable, and any shared belonging is limited at best. Hence the need to fill the threatening silences.
Thanks for the recommendations!
Regarding the second full paragraph: I’d agree, provided you said “For WEIRD people…” (Or at least, for “WID people…”) Basso lists six social situations that in which “it is right [In Western Apache culture] to give up on words.” The first is “Meeting strangers.”
Regarding the first paragraph, I think that’s accurate. (And also for the Talmud, which is extremely combative.) The danger would be that, in attempting to overcome intolerance of disagreement, we also don’t tolerate intolerance of disagreement, in the healthy sense(s). In a healthy community of discourse we sometimes insist “everyone is right”, and refuses to tolerate any plain-sense disagreement; and other times we say “that’s nonsense” or shout “KATZU!” or clap in the face of our opponents.
It’s also interesting to me that our current inability to tolerate contradiction is simultaneous with an inability to recognize, let alone reconcile, authorities. We don’t have authorities, whose plain sense contradictions provide a dissonance, whose resolution is then sought (and usually achieved) in intricate reasoning, but a myriad of authorities, who are presumed to agree, and plain-sense contradiction is threatening.
The context of the discussion is a WEIRD one, so that was assumed. That said, the sorts of silences that you are describing depend a great deal upon a pre-existing commonality, of cultural embeddedness, of presence to each other in collaborative labour, and of extensive shared time. It is our lack of such connection that makes silences more threatening.
Your suggestion about authorities really is an interesting one, and worth pursuing, I think. One thing that is noteworthy about Pride and Prejudice, which Deresiewicz observes, is that Elizabeth and Darcy’s community, while much more open to dissent in regards to the cognitive component of judgment, is much less so in regards to the evaluative component. As Deresiewicz remarks, ‘Pemberley is far less tolerant of vice and stupidity than Meryton is … and thus far less tolerant of differences in values.’ This very much ties in with your observation about authorities, I believe.
Gracy Olmstead interacts with my post here. I left some follow-up thoughts in the comments.