We, as humans, pride ourselves on our superior communications skills. Next to walking upright and operating can openers, it’s the single most important attribute separating us from our pets and our food.
Over the last 50,000 years (give or take a few) we have refined linguistics to the point of having only 7,000 recognized languages (give or take a few).
At that rate, in the next 1,000 years or so we can expect human languages to be refined into a hybrid of Mandarin Chinese and the version of Spanish not actually spoken in Spain.
That is, of course, with the exception of the Internal Revenue code, which will continue to be written in its own form of English, and the labels of overpriced/overrated wine, which will still be printed in French.
But, for now we can continue to enjoy our blissfully complicated, convoluted and confusing language. From 26 seemingly simple letters we can weave such wonderfully inane words as floccinaucinihilipilification (the estimation of a thing as worthless). Or, you could try antitransubstantiationalism on for size, which would mean you adhere to the floccinaucinihilipilification of transubstantiationalism.
And just to prove that we, as speakers of the international language of commerce, can use really, really long words, we somehow came up with a 1,185 character word for a type of virus that infects tobacco plants (I think it was coined in Texas).
To ensure we adequately manage all our communications, we have developed incredible tools that allow us to check e-mail, talk on the phone, shoot pictures, send texts and drive all at the same time – though, for some reason, turn signals still elude us. We walk about like cyborgs plugged into enough technology to rival the space program.
And yet, for all our different languages, long words and incredible technology, we still adhere to two destructive models of communication when it comes to the important issues facing our society today. Face-to-face, we mask our true feelings and avoid the important topics of the day, out of fear of confrontation or insult. And, in the Jekyll and Hyde universe known as social media, we abandon civility and truth and devolve to petty name-calling and the slinging of half-truths and the worst kind of partisan tripe – equally true on both sides of the political aisle.
On difficult topics, we tend to either say nothing at all, or we flee to the false anonymity of Facebook, where we can slander and denigrate the people we see at the grocery store and church as if they didn’t exist as real human beings.
I admit, when it comes to conversation, I employ a miserly economy of words. I can travel in a vehicle with close friends for hours without saying anything more profound than “I’m hungry,” or perhaps “look out for that deer” – usually uttered about half a second after natural selection has thrown the hapless animal into the hood.
Others tend to say a great deal, without saying much at all (and perhaps you feel that way about my writing). Anyone who has sat through a commencement address, an average campaign speech or a below-average philosophy class knows you can listen to an hour of ceaseless prattle and come away knowing less than when you started.
So, face-to-face, we avoid talking about the many problems facing our community, our society and our supposed system of government – either by saying very little, or by saying a great deal without saying much at all.
Which leaves us with just one venue to talk about the political, social and economic issues of our day: social media. In a forum best left to cat videos and glamor shots of whatever we ate for lunch, we attempt to delve into all those things we avoid talking about in person. And we allow ourselves to be manipulated by every hate-mongering propagandist who happens along, twisting us this way and that with sensational invective meant for one purpose: to sow division and weaken us from within.
The antidote to this problem is simple, and as old as human society itself. Talk to each other. Use your words. And, I’m not talking about that small group of friends you have coffee with, where you know everyone believes the same thing you do, and watches the same gawdawful cable news network as you (and yes, that applies to both ends of the political spectrum).
Talk to someone who sees the world differently than you. Then – and I can’t stress this enough – listen to them. Really listen.
We don’t have to agree with each other. We don’t need to convince each other. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with differences of opinion. But we do need to relearn how to talk to, and not at, each other.
We need to listen, and begin to accept each other as human beings with reasonable cause for slightly different views of the crazy, hateful mess we’ve made of America.