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Conversation is the roar of the tide, not a ping from a radar.

One of the things I’ve noticed from watching Facebook is that the nature of conversation is being fractured. Facebook, Twitter, and other such mediums encourage the use of soundbites, basically snappy and memorable phrases. Conversations become about headlines, rather than content or context.

The thing is: that’s not how we actually exist.

Our conversations are actually built in a context; it’s the sound of the tide crashing on the shore. What Facebook does is encourage the use of one wave out of that whole tide, as a complete representation of everything that person says, while ignoring the impact of everything else that person believes or thinks or even has said in the thread of that conversation.

What you end up with is an endless series of snap judgements, not a comprehensive picture of what someone thinks or who that person is.

The result is a ruinous, judgemental, callous, libelous society of fools, a subculture built around extraction of tiny phrases to reinforce bias. We don’t look for reason, or balance; we only look for something we can use.

Witness one fellow saying that “no-one has the guts to allow poor people to wither and die.” (Warning: this link is from rawstory.com, and therefore is editorially suspect. It’s spun, folks, spun hard. I don’t care if you agree with them or not, but you should know the source material is intentionally tainted to encourage a political view. In general, people who quote rawstory.com and a few other such sites on Facebook are almost instantly discounted, for me.)

John Johnston, who is challenging Democratic state Rep. Chuck Moseley for the 10th District seat, said during a social media discussion on poverty that “no one has the guts to just let them wither and die.”

The Valparaiso resident told The Post-Tribune on Tuesday that his comments were simply hyperbole, and he told the paper no thoughtful society would allow people to go hungry.

I’ve mentioned hyperbole before:

Avoid hyperbole, statements that are exaggerated in order to illustrate a point, unless you actually know your audience is going to recognize it for what it is. The truth is that a public audience of virtually any size will not recognize hyperbole. Some in the audience might; maybe even most. But assuming everyone will recognize it is going to lead to you having misrepresented yourself.

Hyperbole is sometimes useful. Not always, of course, but sometimes. But the use of snippets of conversation as a basis for judgement makes hyperbole actively harmful, even though it shouldn’t be. The quote from John Johnston is a good example. He might have been laughing as he said it; he might have been deadly serious. It doesn’t matter – in the conversational mode of the day, the way the text can be spun is all that matters.

People – including reporters – should instead look at a person as an entire being. I don’t know John Johnston, but if I was reporting on this meeting, I’d try to look at who the man was, and what he actually did in life, before deciding that he hated poor people. Maybe he works at a food bank; maybe he’s lower-class himself.

What does he actually think? That’s pretty relevant, and no, a sound-bite isn’t enough. You can suggest that one instance of a crime has mitigating circumstances without suggesting that every instance of that crime has mitigating circumstances.

Imagine two men are shot by the police, for example. In both, the men were running from the police. One, however, might have been a 19-year-old kid, frightened by all the references in the news to young men being shot down without cause, and the other might have just robbed a store at gunpoint, allegedly shooting a store clerk.

Let’s say a person – “Sam,” who doesn’t exist – suggests that one of them deserved being shot. That doesn’t mean that Sam thinks the other also deserved being shot. But without understanding or characterization about Sam, we have no idea what kind of person Sam actually is. If Sam spends his time ranting about illegal immigration, flies a Confederate flag, and mourns the oppression of the Ku Klux Klan, well… those things serve as some form of characterization. Maybe they’re not complete – maybe Sam is directly affected somehow by illegal immigration, or maybe he’s from the Deep South and doesn’t have negative connotations about the Confederate flag, and maybe he’s ignorant as to what the purpose of the Ku Klux Klan really is – but these, too, are characterization points that serve to inform us of who Sam might really be, inside.

These things form the tide that serve as Sam’s makeup, whereas his statement about a shooting serves only as a single wave.

The tide is far more important.

Look at who people are. What they say and do is relevant, of course, but their motivations are rarely as simple as “I hate white people” or “poor people deserve to die” or “shucks, she was asking to be raped.” (To my knowledge: no-one asks to be raped. Ever. If she asks, it’s not rape. If she thinks she didn’t ask, she didn’t ask.)

People are tides, not waves. Before rendering judgement, we should always look at as much of the picture as we’re able to.

We should read with emotion and reason, with reason having control. Sure, visceral reactions are fine, and they’re even necessary if we’re to consider ourselves emotional creatures… but visceral reactions are often based on primitive thinking. They should be tempered by reason and rationality. Fight or flight is not a decision to be made lightly, when you’re trying to actually learn something from someone else.

Be human. Read rationally. Sometimes rage is justified – but few people are all good, or all bad. Consider the context of the person with whom you’re engaged, and try to understand them – while there’s nothing saying that the person isn’t a total jerk, chances are that people have redeeming qualities even when they’ve acted inappropriately. (This is not the same as excusing inappropriate behavior; it’s still inappropriate behavior, and such behavior has legitimate consequences.)

Be human.

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