Facebook vs. friends? (2)

More from the same essay:

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls. The same path was long ago trodden by community. As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish “community” and the medical “community” and the “community” of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we’re lucky, a “sense” of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience.

So information replaces experience, as it has throughout our culture. But when I think about my friends, what makes them who they are, and why I love them, it is not the names of their siblings that come to mind, or their fear of spiders. It is their qualities of character. This one’s emotional generosity, that one’s moral seriousness, the dark humor of a third. Yet even those are just descriptions, and no more specify the individuals uniquely than to say that one has red hair, another is tall. To understand what they really look like, you would have to see a picture. And to understand who they really are, you would have to hear about the things they’ve done. Character, revealed through action: the two eternal elements of narrative. In order to know people, you have to listen to their stories.

But that is precisely what the Facebook page does not leave room for, or 500 friends, time for. Literally does not leave room for. E-mail, with its rapid-fire etiquette and scrolling format, already trimmed the letter down to a certain acceptable maximum, perhaps a thousand words. Now, with Facebook, the box is shrinking even more, leaving perhaps a third of that length as the conventional limit for a message, far less for a comment. (And we all know the deal on Twitter.) The 10-page missive has gone the way of the buggy whip, soon to be followed, it seems, by the three-hour conversation. Each evolved as a space for telling stories, an act that cannot usefully be accomplished in much less.

Facebook vs. friends?

Being just about the only person I know who isn’t on Facebook, I was interested in this essay by William Deresiewicz about human connection in the Age of the Twitterati. Some samples:

Facebook’s very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.

…Facebook seduces us, however, into exactly that illusion, inviting us to believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group. Visual juxtaposition creates the mirage of emotional proximity. “It’s like they’re all having a conversation,” a woman I know once said about her Facebook page… “Except they’re not.”

Until a few years ago, you could share your thoughts with only one friend at a time (on the phone, say), or maybe with a small group, later, in person. And when you did, you were talking to specific people, and you tailored what you said, and how you said it, to who they were—their interests, their personalities, most of all, your degree of mutual intimacy… Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

Of course, there’s no necessary mutual exclusivity here, but I do wonder to what extent the one form of communication is crowding out the other. More later.

more on this – an extraordinary documentary

Many people can connect with a restorative approach when the hurt or harm involved is quite minor. In the context of really horrific events, most of us will shut down instantly to even the possibility of this. That’s why the documentary mentioned in the previous post is so powerful. Who could even imagine the scene near the end of the film, in which the mother and daughter of a woman raped and murdered at the age of 26 hug Gary Brown, one of the two men responsible? Who could believe the picture below even possible?

It sounds simply crazy, doesn’t it? Why would Ami White, who was five years old when she lost her mother, Cathy, want to ever lay eyes on either of the men responsible for her death? Why would Linda White, Cathy’s mother? The story is told here, and some testimony Linda gave to the House Judiciary Committee in 2009 is here [currently unavailable, it seems]. The documentary, again, is here, in four parts (about 45 minutes).

For many in a similar position, of course, there is no desire to have any connection at all. But for some there are lingering questions, and for some a connection to the perpetrators of the violence is felt to be a necessary part of healing. They feel a need to communicate to the other person something of the quality and depth of their grief, and to feel that they have truly been heard. They may also have a curiosity about the perpetrator: What drove them to do what they did? Where did it come from? They hope that some kind of more human understanding may help the process of living with almost unbearable loss.

The preparation for this kind of meeting takes a long time, needless to say. This particular meeting took place 15 years after the murder and involved over a year of work I think to bring about – many meetings on each side with the really wonderful facilitator, Ellen Halbert, who is the one in the picture below. The first stage of contact was an exchange of letters, and only some time after this was an actual meeting arranged. The courage of Ami and Linda White that comes out of this film, and also the compassion, is just extraordinary. (Interestingly, Ellen Halbert also came to this kind of work in part out of a violent experience in her own life: she had been raped, stabbed four times, and left for dead in her own home by an intruder.)

Another day later and I’m still demolished by this film, finding it hard to focus on much else. One of the things the Whites discovered when they began to participate in the program was the nature of Gary Brown’s life. His childhood was extremely abusive and he was taking all kinds of substances, including heroin and cocaine, by the age of eight, the year, also, of his first (of ten) suicide attempts… As the prison warden says at one point in the film, looking through Gary’s records: this kid never had a chance. And one of the most beautiful moments in the documentary is hearing Ami in voiceover sympathize with his life over the past 15 years, in prison, as we watch scenes of that life.

Obviously this kind of process is not going to work all the time. But if this could be achieved even in such a horrific set of circumstances, imagine how much more we could do across the board if we wanted to.

empathy is not a zero-sum game

I think part of the difficulty people have in letting go of the urge to punish is the notion that somehow any amount of genuine empathy we extend towards someone who has brought about harm is given at the expense of a recipient of that harm.

And going further: that the more unleashed our hatred of the perpetrator, the greater the love we must really have for the victim. You can see this clearly in the phenomenon of people who cheer at public executions.

I honestly feel the reverse of this to be the case. It seems unarguable to me that the deeper and more fearlessly we can go in trying to understand how terrible actions come to be committed, the deeper our empathy for the direct recipients of those actions too.

A documentary I saw yesterday (in gratitude to Newcomb for introducing me to it) highlights this idea in an almost unbearably moving way. It’s close to unwatchable in the horror and pain that is its subject, but for any who can I highly recommend it. (Just don’t plan on being able to focus on anything else for the remainder of the day…) It’s in several parts, the whole thing being about 45 minutes.)

More in other posts.

restorative practices and compassion

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the restorative practices movement (sometimes called restorative justice, though I think the former has become a more inclusive term) is one of the most progressive and amazing things going on out there. Those who work in the field rightly point to all sorts of problematic aspects with the retributive system we have and more generally the impulse to punish. And they demonstrate all kinds of real benefits to the restorative approach.

There’s a lot to say about this. For now I only want to mention one connection that doesn’t seem to get talked about enough. And this is that from the standpoint of radical interdependence, the understanding that every thought, word, deed, phenomenon comes out of an ultimately illimitable mesh of “causes and conditions,” ie that such a mesh is inescapably coextensive with the mesh that is the universe itself, no other basic approach to reparation or justice can be considered truly compassionate.

When we stop condemning/scapegoating some people as simply “Bad”/”Evil” because simply too much of what they have experienced in their life has led them in certain harmful directions, we are left with the far more difficult task of trying to see those paths more clearly. And that, surely, is the beginning of compassion itself: stepping into the other person’s shoes.

Which, of course, can be extremely hard to do because it dissolves the barriers between “good me” and “bad them.” It forces us to see that, if we were that other person … we would be that other person. That’s a tautology only on the surface. Our “goodness” really does depend on someone else’s “badness.” Both are products of far too many conditions to even begin to hold in our heads at once. A retributive attitude, however understandable in certain circumstances, ultimately doesn’t make sense. I don’t think that in the end we have much of a choice but to keep moving, inch by step by leap, in the direction of love. Into an ever more expansive empathy.

Michael Chabon nails it

From an interview published yesterday (my emphases).:

“The men in Chabon’s books all come in pairs … in every possible permutation: fathers and sons, business partners, collaborators, lovers…. These permutations interest him mostly because, in real life, men have so few options for how to relate to one another. ‘It’s your buddy or your business partner or your romantic partner,’ Chabon says. ‘Or your enemy. That’s it. That’s all we’ve got.’

“Chabon envies women’s relatively greater emotional freedom, he says. And he believes that ‘a lot of the things men feel in terms of confusion and frustration and lack of emotional connection and fulfillment is because the accepted possibilities are so paltry.’ With his books, he says, ‘ultimately the question I’m asking is: What does it mean for two men to love each other? Do male friends love each other? And if they do love each other, what kind of love is it? Do they say they love each other? Do they even know they love each other?’

“Chabon does love men. He has written, in his nonfiction, about sleeping with one man and falling in love with another, and although he’s close to many women, he says his mental category of ‘best friend’ is, by default, male. (‘If I were casting the part, I’d call in men.’) But he is profoundly frustrated by how men behave, or rather by how they misbehave, a problem he sums up as ‘dickishness.'”