Where's My Head?

Mom always said I'd lose it...

Goodbye Twitter - A study in noise reduction

Blog Life

May 01, 2017

I might as well go up and talk to a wall
'cause all the words are having no effect at all.
It's a funny thing. Am I all alone?
What are words for when no one listens anymore?
Missing Persons — "Words"

I was never a big Missing Persons fan back in the day but I didn't dislike them either. Their videos would show up on MTV now and then and they were generally part of the background din that was so much a part of the early 80s. (For any younger people who read this, MTV used to stand for Music Television and actually played music videos. Like, all the time.) I enjoyed the groove but I didn't listen to the words that much. I was distracted by the general new waviness of it all and was more interested in Dale Bozzio's outfit — or rather how little of it she was wearing at any given time. I mean, I was a 16 year old boy after all. But I came across a copy of "Spring Session M" at a flea market the other day and decided to pick it up for nostalgia's sake. Hey, for two bucks I'll take a chance on almost anything. And I was pleasantly surprised by it. It's not high art by any means but I was taken aback somewhat by how much some of it still speaks. In fact, "Words" (quoted above) is probably more applicable today than it was back in 1982.

And there it is in a nutshell. I left — well, technically, "am leaving" — Twitter because it has become nearly impossible to actually have a dialogue about much of anything. No one is listening — only yelling at each other. Simple differences of opinion turn into contentious, personal attacks. To be fair, this is not limited to Twitter by any stretch of the imagination. Being indignant and angry is all the rage these days. It's fashionable. It's the "in" thing. It makes you one of the cool kids. And it doesn't really matter what you're angry about. There's always someone out there who disagrees with you and you can aim your finely honed wrath right between their eyes.

"Eyes" is exactly the right word there, too, because that's how it gets consumed. Far too often we will type things about people online that we would never dream of saying to them face to face. We'll attack them in ways we would never do in person. I mean, that's just not how polite people behave. Our mamas raised us better than that. No, if we're gonna call someone a name we'll do it behind their back and/or anonymously in text, thank you very much. It's all easier that way. It's clean and sterile because they're not really people if we don't have to look them in the eye and say those horrible things, right? If we hide behind a non-identifying nickname and an avatar picture of our cat they can't possibly be hurt by what we say, right? As long as we don't have to acknowledge each other's humanity we can call each other any nasty thing in the book and a few new made up ones for good measure, right?

Of course not.

In fact, I believe that it's the exact opposite. I believe that it's even more hurtful, more damaging, and more destructive to lash out at someone — or some group — from behind the mask of anonymity. It's one thing to be disliked by someone who knows you. A least they're making a somewhat informed decision. But for someone who knows next to nothing about you to determine that you're (a) an inbred idiot, (b) a despicable monster, (c) an out-of-touch elitist, or (d) any combination of the above is a slap in the face followed quickly by a punch in the gut. And it's the height of arrogance and self-importance. [Note: Not name calling here. I'm plenty guilty of this from time to time myself which is why I'm writing about it here. Trying to improve.] And I believe it's even more damaging to the person slinging the anonymous arrows than it is to the target, albeit in a very different way.

The crux of the issue is easily summarized. Nobody wants to be wrong. And even if they are, nobody wants to admit that they are. Wrongness somehow implies that we are inferior to the righties. That we are somehow less valuable if we are less than perfect. At least that's how we act. And for many of us it's been ingrained in us from an early age by our friends, family, and our society at large. It's good to be right and bad to be wrong. And we certainly don't want to be bad. But here's where holding that viewpoint is actually detrimental to us. It's too easy. It takes no effort to be very certain of what we believe.

By way of example, consider these simple math questions. See if you can answer them quickly.

  • A toy bat and ball together costs a dollar ten. If the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
  • It takes five machines, five minutes to make five widgets. How long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

Easy. Did we all get ten cents for the ball right away? And 100 minutes for the widgets, right? But, no. That's not right. See, our brains are made up of two different systems that respond to things. One that responds to things we already know — or think we know — quickly without much thought because why waste that valuable thinking effort on stuff that doesn't need to be thought about? I think of it as the brain's equivalent to fast-twitch muscles in the rest of the body. The other system doesn't kick in until it's obvious that the first one can't handle whatever is in front of it. When you think through those problems, it doesn't take much to see that the ball costs a nickel and the machines will take five minutes to do their work.

To bring this back to today's world, those math problems are pretty straightforward and have actual answers. But what about when it comes to matters of opinion or belief like politics, social issues, religion, etc. We seem to have reached a point where we just allow that first system to do all of the talking without even considering alternative ideas. I'm not saying we should abandon our faith or principles whenever something new comes along but we do ourselves a real disservice to not even think about it. Without that, it's very easy to believe something without really knowing why we believe it. It's really intellectual laziness.

A couple years ago, an acquaintance posted something on Twitter that I responded to. This was someone whom I admittedly don't know really well. We went to college together and were friendly but not close friends but we had reconnected through social media and would chat a bit here and there. Anyway, one day she posted a tweet that said something about how Mrs. Obama was an amazing rock star of a woman and if you didn't agree then you could just go play in traffic or something. [Ed. note — sorry that I can't get to the original wording but that's kinda the point of the story. You'll see.] Anyway, it was obvious from her phrasing that this was in response to something and not just unbidden praise for the FLOTUS. So I asked. Sure enough, she had seen some comment from some guy who was taking issue with the President's wife about something or other and felt the need to defend her. So I replied to her something like, "So you're upset with him that his uninformed opinion of a woman he has never met didn't agree with your uninformed opinion of the same woman that you've never met." Maybe I could have worded it nicer but my point was to try to get her to see that they were both forming their opinions based only on a their chosen media's window into Mrs. Obama. It was based on a fabrication and not on any actual knowledge of who she really is. I tried to explain this to her but she decided it was easier to simply block me and accuse me of trying to create drama. And it was easier. Much easier, in fact. But I wasn't trying to create drama. I was trying to create thought and some dialogue about it. And maybe empathy for differing opinions. But she would have none of it and that's a real shame because she's an intelligent woman.

It's this same lack of willingness to entertain opposing views that is all but gone in our interactions with people who don't believe the same as we do about [fill in hot button issue of the moment here]. Especially online. Most worrisome is who that kind of attitude aligns us with. Polish poet and Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska makes my point. The trouble with "torturers, dictators, fanatics and demagogues," she wrote, is that "they know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish the force of their arguments." I read that quote in "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error" by Kathryn Schulz, a book I mentioned in a previous post. (Side note: I can't recommend that book highly enough. It was a fascinating read. I don't often re-read non-fiction books but I will be going back to this one before too long.)

In her book, Schulz talks about another reason why stuff this is hard to tackle. We simply don't have any idea that we are wrong until we are confronted with it. She calls it "error blindness." I don't know if that's her term or a generally accepted phrase in cognitive psychology but it fits either way.

But by definition, there can’t be any particular feeling associated with simply being wrong. Indeed, the whole reason it’s possible to be wrong is that, while it is happening, you are oblivious to it. When you are simply going about your business in a state you will later decide was delusional, you have no idea of it whatsoever. You are like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, after he has gone off the cliff but before he has looked down. Literally in his case and figuratively in yours, you are already in trouble when you feel like you’re still on solid ground. So I should revise myself: it does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right.   This is the problem of error-blindness. Whatever falsehoods each of us currently believes are necessarily invisible to us. Think about the telling fact that error literally doesn’t exist in the first person present tense: the sentence “I am wrong” describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren’t wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say “I was wrong.” Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Error: we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can’t do both at the same time.

There's actually another way to remove the blindness but it's not easy. You have to go looking for it. But I think most people are truly scared of actively looking outside their comfy bubble and digging into different viewpoints because they don't have a firm foundation for their own. The fear of having your fundamental beliefs shaken is intellectually paralyzing. But I think that everyone should ask first themselves and then others the following question: "Have you ever considered the possibility that you're simply full of crap?" And for it to have any meaningful impact that question has to be answered with brutal honesty. Put into action, it means you have to start from the position that everything you know about something is wrong and then try to figure out what's right. That search may very well bring you right back to where you started but you will then have reached that place for a reason and not by default or because it's what you've always known or because it was what your parents said you should believe.

I'm trying to do this in some ways — like I said, I have been as guilty of this as the next guy — but it will likely never happen on a large scale basis. Few people are even will to admit their errors when staring them in the face. Very rare indeed are the ones who are willing to voluntarily question themselves, to actively go looking for where they might be wrong.

So, to circle it all the way back around, I think we all need to explore different viewpoints and get out of our filter bubble (another book on my "very soon to read" list) and stop hunkering down in our well-worn comfort zones. But we can't do that if we're not even willing to listen intelligently to what they are. Instead of just shouting party line talking points at each other in 140 characters or less, we need to engage in real dialogue with real people who have real names and faces and hearts and souls. Don't get me wrong, I think Twitter can be — and has been — a valuable medium for some things but its quick hit, retweet, sound bite nature certainly isn't an environment which fosters mutual understanding. Going back to the song, if no one is listening, why bother talking? As avid a user of it as I once was, I now find it simply exhausting to weed through all of the grousing and sniping and backbiting to find anything remotely useful. The signal to noise ratio has become so low that it's not worth the time. I haven't actually looked at my Twitter feed in about seven months and my life has gone merrily along without missing it that much with the minor exception that it's how I usually found out about notable people dying. But somehow I got by for 40 years before I ever signed up for it and I'm sure I'll muddle through now.

Anyway, I've rambled on about this for far too long. The end result is that if you usually find out about my new blog posts via Twitter, the one you may have used to get here is the last one. Very soon I'll be deleting my account and closing the door behind me. But I won't leave you hanging, dear readers. I've added the ability to subscribe to notifications of new posts by email. You should see a Subscribe link in the menu. It's fairly no-frills at the moment but I'll be improving it as time goes on. If it doesn't work for you for some reason, let me know. I also welcome your comments there until I decide to actually write a comment system for the blog. It's on the list. Really it is. Someday. Maybe.

Oh — and if you're inclined to kick it old school like it's 2005 or something, you can also subscribe to the RSS feed by using the icon at the bottom of the page. Don't worry. You won't be the only one. (Solidarity!)

Blessings and peace, gang.