I experienced my first criticism on social media not long ago. It probably hadn’t happened before because my posts are usually garden-related — green heads of lettuce and giant sweet potatoes, which as far as I can figure, aren’t offensive (whether people care, of course, is another story).
The criticism was in response to an essay about my year of living in Russia. After seeing it, I wanted to write about how we misread things online and forget the person on the other side of the screen.
Social media both connects and disconnects us. That’s what I wanted to write.
But then I realized that wouldn’t be honest. Because here’s the thing: I responded in kind. I deleted the comment and unfriended the writer. I complained about the lack of dialogue online, but I didn’t do any better.
I was recently introduced to Margaret Wheatley’s “principles of conversation.” One of these is we remember that conversation is the natural way humans think together. The process of conversation is how we figure things out.
When online conversations blow up, we miss the necessity of having multiple minds working together. We need that because there’s a lot we just don’t know. The things we face today are complex, and the degree to which we see many of them is new.
We need to acknowledge that we don’t know and that we need all kinds of thinkers. On social media, we also miss the necessity of time. Social media doesn’t allow for time, and time is a requirement for learning.
I don’t think much is figured out on social media. There’s so much content, overwhelming noise, without, it seems, much listening. As we see truly scary things and injustice happening — and near an impossibly polarizing election — it’s easy to see that we argue a lot online. It saddens me that things like refugee crises, racial injustice and terrorist attacks incite anger and division.
When we only argue, the effect is doubled — there’s the event’s initial pain and destruction, and then we further that through division.
I’m not sure social media is the best place for these conversations — so much is lost through brevity and without tone or nuance — but it seems that for now, this is where we like to talk.
Richard Rohr writes about the beginner’s mind, “a posture of eagerness” that “knows it needs something.” Rohr is a Franciscan priest, and his discussion spiritual, but it applies here.
Instead of proving something, where would we end up if we approached conversation with a beginner’s mind, with curiosity, acknowledging there’s something we need? For conversation on social media to be useful, we have to be curious and listen to one another.
Otherwise it’s just competing noise.
Wheatley writes that we haven’t been rewarded for waiting or asking questions, just for having opinions and winning arguments. But listening is an incredibly valuable contribution. Social media makes instant response all too easy.
What if we waited a few minutes — or an entire day — before responding? Or talked face to face? We can reflect on why we are responding as we are. We can ask questions to understand another’s perspective.
So, back to the opening story: We got through it. It took time, and it was hard, and in moments, upsetting, but it was worth it.
Gut responses are often based in fear. But if we enter conversation with a beginner’s mind and curiosity, we have a chance to listen, learn and reflect.
We can choose not to respond out of fear — and make no mistake, it is a choice — and instead work, with patience, toward understanding.
Kara M. Bollinger works at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and writes nonfiction and poetry. She blogs about urban and community gardening at wateredlove.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.