Monday, February 23, 2015

When empathy fails


Once I talked here about some negative effects of communicating via the Internet. Especially in the on line social media, direct physical contact is usually absent. We do not see each other; we do not hear each other. The only thing we do with the other is exchanging texts and often pictures, too. However, these pictures usually present a positive image of us. We don’t show what we don’t like. Moreover pictures are static. So, we don’t show facial expressions and emotions to our conversation partners, and we don’t see theirs. Let alone that we shake hands or hug. As a result we tend to become rude. “Happy slapping” is the most extreme form of it, but there are also more subtle forms of lack of manners. We don’t say “How are you?” any longer. When we meet someone for the first time and have a question, we don’t say “Excuse me. May I ask you ...”. No, we simply ask, although we never would get the idea to behave that way when we wanted to know something from a stranger. And we don’t say “Goodbye” or “See you later”, when we finish a conversation and want to go off line. Many people in social media do so. Politeness doesn’t seem to belong to the Internet manners for them. But is it something new?
I think there is at least one type of social situation that has a bit the same characteristics as the social world of the Internet and that is older: Traffic, and then especially modern traffic with cars. I think that modern traffic is a kind of predecessor of the Internet. Or rather some aspects of it are. I’ll stress here only those aspects and I’ll ignore the differences.
It’s true that when we drive, we see each other. But do we really do? We see other persons in the cars passing by but actually we hardly experience them as such for we are boxed up in a cage and most of the time we (and “they” as well) drive with such a speed that the other drivers are hardly more than flashes. Only when the cars go very slowly or have to stop, and especially when people in the cars are gesturing, they tend to become again like persons of flesh and blood, but only for a part for we still can’t hear them, closed off as we are in the cages of our cars. As Michel de Certeau might have said: The cage divides, on the one hand, the driver’s interiority and, on the other, the external world of the passing cars as objects without discourse. The consequence is that we tend to become rude. We tend to ignore traffic rules, especially speed limits; we tend to cut on other cars; we excuse ourselves less often for our mistakes than we would do in “normal” life; and who knows what more. In short, we tend to become assholes. When we get in our car and close the cage, we close our empathy, too. Much is new in the Internet but nothing comes out of the blue.
But is all this – I mean being closed off – only negative? Retire to your study, close the door, and think about this quote from de Certeau: “Glass and iron produce speculative thinkers and gnostics. This cutting-off is necessary for the birth, outside of these things but not without them, of unknown landscapes and the strange fables of our private stories”. So, driving a car can have positive effects for the mind as well. Nevertheless, I would rather speculate and bear thoughts in my study than in the cage of my car, for there it might end with a jolt.

Quote from Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press, 1984; p. 112.

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