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August 28, 2014

The problem with civility

Talk about “civility” on the Internet always makes me a little nervous. For a bunch of reasons.

First, I generally try to be civil, but I’d hate to see a Net that is always and only civil. Some rowdiness and rudeness is absolutely required.

Second, civility as a word feels like it comes from a colonial mentality, as if there are the civil folks and then there are the savages. I’m not saying that’s what people mean when they use the term. It’s just what I sometimes hear.

Third, civility is so culturally relative that demanding that someone be civil can actually mean, “Please play by our rules or you shall be removed from the premises!” Which is I guess what gives rise to my second reason.

Fourth, civility seems to be more about the form of interaction, the rhetoric of the interchange. That’s fine. But given a preference, I’d be hectoring people about dignity, not civility. You can be civil without according someone full dignity. If you treat someone with dignity, the civility — and more — will follow. For example, you’ll actually listen. (Note that I fail at this frequently.)

Fifth, civility and dignity are not enough to make the Net the place it ought to be. I would love to see being welcoming taken as a core value for the Best Net, that is, for the Web We Want. Welcoming the stranger is one of the originary traditions of the West, from Abraham inviting strangers into his tent, to the underlying theme of The Odyssey. (Another of our originary traditions: killing or enslaving strangers.) In embracing the stranger, we accord them dignity, we recognize our differences as something positive, and we humble ourselves. So, given a choice, I’d rather hear about a welcoming Net than a merely civil one. (Here’s a shout-out to the new Pew Internet study that reports that we’re not welcoming unpopular views on social media.)

Point five-and-a-half is: Just as welcoming precedes civility, safety precedes welcoming. This is a half point not because safety is a half point but because the outstretched welcoming hand entails reassuring the stranger that she is safe. And more than safe. Safety is essential, but it is obviously nowhere near enough.

Let me be clear, though. When I talk about “the Net,” I’m being misleading. The entire Net is not going to be characterized by any one set of values. And we don’t need the entire Net to be welcoming, civil, and a place where all are treated with dignity. (Safety is a different matter.) But we do need more of the Net to be welcoming, civil, and dignifying. And we absolutely need the networks where power and standing develop to go far beyond civility.

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January 27, 2014

A gift from God

I know I’m late to the love fest, but I’ve been under the flu. I read Pope Francis’ Message for World Communication Day when it was issued on Jan. 24, and I only get happier upon re-reading it.

NOTE please that I am outside of my comfort zone in this posting, for two reasons. First, I am not a Christian and I know I may be misreading the Pope’s words. Second, I am going to evaluate and expound on what a Pope says. Chutzpah* has a new poster boy! So, please think of this only as me trying to make personal sense of a message that I find profoundly hopeful. *[The joke this links to is not really about chutzpah, but it’s a pretty good joke.]


The first thing to note are the ways the message refuses to go wrong. The Catholic Church put the “higher” in “hierarchy,” so it’d be understandable if it viewed the Internet as a threat to its power. Or as a source of sinful temptation. Because it’s both of those things. The Pope might even have seen the Internet quite positively as a powerful communication medium for getting out the Church’s message.

But he doesn’t. He sees the Internet as “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter,” as the post’s subtitle puts it. This is because he views the Internet not within the space of communication, but within the despair of a fragmented world. Not only are there vast inequalities, but these inequalities are literally before our eyes:

Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows. We have become so accustomed to these things that they no longer unsettle us.

Traditional media can show us that other world, but we need something more. We need to be unsettled. “The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity,” Pope Francis says, and then adds a remarkable characterization:

This is something truly good, a gift from God.

Not: The Internet is a source of temptations to be resisted. Not: The Internet is just the latest over-hyped communication technology, and remember when we thought telegraphs would bring world peace? Not: The Internet is merely a technology and thus just another place for human nature to reassert itself. Not: The Internet is just a way for the same old powers to extend their reach. Not: The Internet is an opportunity to do good, but be wary because we can also do evil with it. It may be many of those. But first: The Internet — its possibilities for encounter and solidarity — is truly good. The Internet is a gift from God.

This is not the language I would use. I’m an agno-atheistical Jew who lives in solidarity with an Orthodox community. (Long story.) But I think – you can never tell with these cross-tradition interpretations – that the Pope’s words express the deep joy the Internet brings me. “This is not to say that certain problems do not exist,” the Pope says in the next paragraph, listing the dangers with a fine concision. But still: The Internet is truly good. Why?

For the Pope, the Internet is an opportunity to understand one another by hearing one another directly. This understanding of others, he says, will lead us to understand ourselves in the context of a world of differences:

If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.

This will change our self-understanding as well, without requiring us to abandon our defining values:

We will also learn to appreciate more fully the important values inspired by Christianity, such as the vision of the human person, the nature of marriage and the family, the proper distinction between the religious and political spheres, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and many others.

(This seems to me to be a coded sentence, with meanings not readily apparent to those outside the fold. Sorry if I’m misunderstanding its role in the overall posting.)

The Pope does not shy away from the difficult question this idea raises, and pardon me for having switched the order of the following two sentences:

What does it mean for us, as disciples of the Lord, to encounter others in the light of the Gospel? How…can communication be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter?

That is (I think), how can a Catholic engage with others who deny beliefs that the Catholic holds with all the power of faith? (And this is obviously not a question only for Catholics.) The Pope gives a beautiful answer: we should “see communication in terms of ‘neighbourliness’.”

“Communication” as the transferring of meaning is a relatively new term. The Pope’s answer asks us to bring it back from its abstract understanding. Certainly the Pope’s sense takes “communication” out of the realm of marketing that sees it as the infliction of a message on a market. It also enriches it beyond the information science version of communication as the moving of an encoded message through a medium. (Info science of course understands that its view is not the complete story.) It instead looks at communication as something that humans do within a social world:

Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.

From my point of view [more here, here, and here], the problem with our idea of communication is that it assumes it’s the overcoming of apartness. We imagine individuals with different views of themselves and their world who manage to pierce their solitude by spewing out some sounds and scribbles. Communication! But, those sounds and scribbles only work because they occur within a world that is already shared, and we only bother because the world we share and those we share it with matter to us. Communication implies not isolation and difference but the most profound togetherness and sameness imaginable. Or, as I wouldn’t put it, we are all children of G-d.

Then Pope Francis gets to his deeper critique, which I find fascinating: “Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression…” And “Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour.” The primary threat to the Internet, then, is to treat it as if it were a traditional medium that privileges the powerful and serves their interests. Holy FSM!

Pope Francis then goes on to draw the deeper conclusion he has led us to: the threat isn’t fundamentally that the old media will use the Net for their old purposes. The actual threat is considering the Internet to be a communications medium at all. “It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘connected’; connections need to grow into true encounters.”

The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others.

The most basic image we have of how communication works is wrong: messages do not simply move through media. Rather, in the Pope’s terms, they are acts of engagement. This is clear in face-to-face communication among neighbors, and it seems clear to me on the Net: A tweet that no one retweets goes silent because its recipients have chosen not to act as its medium. A page that no one links to is only marginally on the Web because its recipients have chosen not to create a new link (a channel or medium) that incorporates that page more deeply into the network. The recipient-medium distinction fails on the Net, and the message-medium distinction fails on the Web.

Now, this does not mean that Internet communication is all about people always encountering one another as neighbors. Not hardly. So the Pope’s post then considers how Christians can engage with others on the Net without simply broadcasting their beliefs. Here his Catholic particularity starts to shape his vision in a way that differentiates it from my own. He sees the Internet as “a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope,” whereas I would probably have begun with something about joy. (I’m pointing out a difference, not criticizing!)

Given the tension between his belief that faith has a way to alleviate the pain he perceives and his desire for truly mutual engagement, he talks about “Christian witness.” I don’t grasp the nuances of this concept (“We are called to show that the Church is the home of all” – er, no thank you), but I do appreciate the Pope’s explicit contrasting Christian witness with “bombarding people with religious messages.” Rather, he says (quoting his predecessor), it’s about

… our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence.”

Since that seems to imply (I think) a dialogue in which one side assumes superiority and refuses the possibility of changing, the new Pope explains that

To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.

The Pope is dancing here. He’s dancing, I believe, because he is adopting the language of communication. If the role of the Catholic is to engage in dialogue, then we are plunged into the problems of the world’s plural beliefs. We western liberals like to think that in an authentic dialogue, both sides are open to change, but the Pope does not want to suggest that Catholics put their faith up for grabs. So, the best he can do is say that the “other’s” viewpoint be “entertained” and treated as worthwhile…although apparently not worthwhile enough to be adopted by the faithful Catholic.

There are two points important for me to make right now. First, I’m not carping about the actual content. This sort of pluralism (or whatever label you want to apply) takes the pressure off a world that simply cannot survive absolutism. So, thank you, Pope Francis! Second, I personally think it’s bunk to insist that for a dialogue to be “authentic” both sides have to be open to change. Such an insistence comes from a misunderstanding about how understanding works. So while I personally would prefer that everyone carry a mental reservation that appends “…although I might be wrong” to every statement,* I don’t have a problem with the Pope’s formulation of what an authentic Christian dialogue looks like. *[I simply don’t know the Catholic Church’s position on faith and doubt.]

I find this all gets much simpler – you get a nice walk instead of a dance – if you stick with the program announced in the Pope’s post’s subtitle: dethroning communication and putting it into the service of neighborliness. I believe the Pope’s vision of the Net as a place where neighbors can help one another lovingly and mercifully gives us a better way to frame the Net and the opportunity it presents. I assume his talk of “Christian witness” and becoming “a true point of reference for others” also gets around the “dialoguing” difficulty.

In fact, the whole problem recedes if you drop all language of communication from the Pope’s message. For example, when the Pope says the faithful should “dialogue with people today … to help them encounter Christ,” the hairs on my Jewish pate go up; if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s to dialogue with a Christian who wants to help me encounter Christ. Framing the Net as being about communication (or information, for that matter) leads us back into the incompatible ideas of truth we encounter. But if we frame the Internet as being about people being human to one another, people being neighbors, the differences in belief are less essential and more tolerable. Neighbors manifest love and mercy. Neighbors find value in theirs differences. Neighbors first, communicators on occasion and preferably with some beer or a nice bottle of wine.

Neighbors first. I take that as the Pope’s message, and I think it captures the gift the Internet gives us. It is also makes clear the challenge. The Net of course poses challenges to our souls or consciences, to our norms and our expectations, to our willingness to accept others into our hearts, but also a challenge to our understanding: Stop thinking about the Net as being about communication. Start thinking about it as a place where we can choose to be more human to one another.

That I can say Amen to.

 


I apologize for I am forcing the Pope’s comments into my own frame of understanding. I am happy to have that frame challenged. I ask only that you take me as, well, your neighbor.

 


In a note from the opposite end of the spectrum, Eszter Hargittai has posted an op-ed. You probably known Eszter as one of the most respected researchers into the skills required to succeed with the Internet – no, not everyone can just waltz onto the Net and benefit equally from it – and she is not someone who finds antisemitism everywhere she looks. What’s going on in Hungary is scary. Read her op-ed.

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January 20, 2011

What English sounds like

Here’s a video of Italians speaking gibberish that is supposed to — and does — sound like English:

I got there from a comment from Elmo Gearloose (possibly a pseudonym) to a BoingBoing posting of Rush Limbaugh imitating what Hu Jintao sounds like to him — which strikes me not so much as racism as boastful ignorance. If it’s outrageous, it’s because it’s so inhospitable and unwelcoming.

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March 21, 2010

In praise of hospitality

The opposite of the screaming matches on the Net is not screaming back and is not staying quiet, but is hospitality.

This is a core term we Americans sometimes don’t pay enough attention to. Oh, we’re hospitable and sometimes spectacularly so, but other cultures hold the standard closer and higher. It’s one of the moral values that are not negative: Don’t steal, don’t lie, but do go out of your way to welcome those who are unlike you. Appreciate them. Enjoy talking with them. Understand that they find difficult the normal customs that you take for granted, so ease their way. (In fact, Loman Tsui, of the Berkman Center, is writing a dissertation that focuses on hospitality as a key virtue for news media.)

The story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming dusty strangers who turn out to be angels says it all. So I’ll stop now. It’s just that having been treated to kind hospitality today, it is on my mind. It is a virtue that makes the world better immediately.

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June 2, 2009

[berkman] Lokman Tsui: Beyond objectivity

Lokman Tsui is giving a Berkman talk called “Beyond Objectivity: Global Voices and the future of Journalism.” This is based on research he’s been doing for his doctoral dissertation.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Lokman has been long interested in the Chinese Internet. He was born and raised in Amsterdam, and says that the Dutch often don’t like difference and diversity; they’re struggling with the idea of cultural complexity. After wrestling with what to study, he talked with Andrew Lih and came away wanting to study something that works but that we don’t understand well. Lokman chose Global Voices.

He’s interested in “how the world comes to know itself.” Lokman thinks journalism is crucial to this. James Carrey [sp?]: The public is what forms when people get together to talk about the news. Now, with the Internet, we have strangers everywhere. “What does that mean for the kind of journalism we want?” Lokman cites Habermas. We need to re-think journalism. “My purpose here is not to celebrate the Internet” or to dismiss the dangers, but to see it as an historic opportunity. By thinking about the global nature of communication, we can design better institutions.

His research begins with a study of GV as a a “newsroom.” What are the journalists’ routines? How do they socialize? How do they get news? E.g., it used to be easy and convenient to get info from gov’t sources, leading to a bias towards those sources. But the GV newsroom is different. Multicultural, global. And the newsroom is online, which leads to different interactions and shapes the news. We need a new conceptual toolkit to understand it.

Is GV journalism at all? GV is the trickster of journalism, in Lewis Hyde’s sense: it provokes us to respond and develop. GV and journalism are both ways of seeing. There are three ideals of journalism, intertwined with ideals of democracy. (1) Professional J, with liberal democracy, aimed at providing information. (2) Alternative media, with participatory democracy, aimed at representation. (3) Public journalism along with deliberative democracy, aimed at conversation.For a long time, we’ve taken objectivity as the “gold standard” of journalism. But this doesn’t make sense for public journalism; it makes no sense to ask whether a conversation is objectivity. How do we judge conversations? GV gives some hints. GV supports “communicative” democracy (a la Iris Young) , aiming at conversation, and replacing objectivity with hospitality. Habermas was thinking of coffee houses where people have to bracket differences to enable conversation. Hospitality enables conversations even when there’s a disparity of power. Differences can be very useful in having a good conversation. E.g., the powerful host serves the guest, subverting the power relationship. That’s hospitality. It’s a way of judging journalism as well, seeking to include difference and diversity.

Hospitality goes back to Kant’s “Perpetual Peace.” His third law suggests that hospitality is a right based on the fact that we share a world. Kant says we cannot refuse a visitor if it will lead to his/her destruction. Hospitality is about access, recognition, and appropriate response. Arendt wrote about intersubjectivity as a way toward truth. We now have an abundance of stories on line. The constraints have changed, so the way we judge journalism should change. The challenge is that, while the cost of speech as gone down, our attention is still scarce.At RottenTomatoes.com, the objectivity is in the dry summary. But the subjective reviews are more interesting and useful. The professionals should aggregate and amplify all these voices. You need to put them all together. What would an aggregation site look like for the news? It’d look a bit like GV. You get curated news and posts and tweets, and then comments and conversation.

Q: [me] Why has the term “hospitality” become less used precisely when we are most in contact with different cultures?
A: It may be partially due to the paradox of choice, and a fear of the unknown that’s come about in recent years. We’re very happy to send our products, our TV programs, and our money everywhere. But the flow of people is restricted. And it’s a matter of being able to listen, which some places are better at than others. I’m playing with the hospitality ratio: how much you listen vs. how much you speak. E.g., how many films you import vs. expert. A few years ago I looked at how many links link back to you and how many links to others. I compared a-list blogs and newspapers. Newspapers didn’t link out much at all.

Q: How do we train people for journalism?
A: J is a craft as well as a profession. The Internet is making us think about J as a craft: pursuing excellence for its own sake in something you care about. Most GV people think of themselves as craftspeople. Q: Where’s the hook in what you’re saying? And, btw, journalist didn’t come out of people seeking the truth but hard-drinking people who were getting paid to present a point of view. Also, you might look at Erik Erikson.

Q: Hospitality is reciprocal. How might the concept of respect apply to journalism?
A: Reciprocity is a huge part of hospitality. It means journalist need to include more views.Q: There are many public spheres, even within GV.
A: Yes.

Q: Does GV connect to other kinds of civic spaces, other than journalism?
A: GV isn’t just a bunch of people trying to do journalism. It’s an infrastructure for other sorts of projects, such as translation, herdict.org… There are tons of other civic practices there. Q: [ethanz] I want to temper some of your optimism. I think it’s great that you’re offering a new criterion — hospitality — for evaluating journalism. I think these ideas get stronger in combination. My main criticism of your work is that you’re not critical enough of GV [which Ethan co-founded]. GV is at best partially successful.

[I missed the last few questions. Sorry.] [Tags: ]

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