My wife, Stella, recently shut down her account on the social-media-platform-that-must-not-be-named. “It feels like I’m walking away from a fight,” she said. “Almost everything I read there is a signal as to what side the poster is on. Or an attempt to promote the idea that, ‘I’m smart!’ Or, ‘I’m right.’ It’s all ego. I’m guilty of it, too, in that environment.”
Stella herself acknowledges that her cynicism certainly leaves out a lot of the beauty and benefit of social media, yet no one can deny that something has gone horribly wrong with online communication. We can do better than this.
Whether the degeneration of online communication is a cause or an effect of society’s intensifying polarization, I cannot say. Regardless, I know it is possible to host dignified, respectful, nuanced, and evolutionary conversations on large online participatory platforms. I know it because I’ve seen it, or glimpsed it, anyway. You probably have too, here and there before, to your dismay, one community after another broke down.
How can we hold the vision that those glimpses reveal?
I can’t answer that for sure, but I would like to offer an idea that I will implement in a discussion community I am establishing right now. Really it is more of an invocation than an idea. I offer it here for anyone who wants to use, adapt, copy, modify, or evolve it for their own community. Open-source principles, you might call them.
A Call to Reverence
Instead of patronizing community members with rules or even guidelines about being respectful, I invoke the principle of reverence. Reverent communication carries the awareness that one is addressing a sacred being. It is not the same as solemnity; it includes humor, playfulness, and ease as well.
To maintain reverence means noticing habits of polarization and judgment that arise in the presence of difficult information or difficult emotions. Even a community conceived as a sanctuary will inevitably mirror the divisions and conflicts of the outside world. The answer is not to avoid them or to plow them over with positivity. Rather, the community can hold them in a non-ordinary way.
Specifically, that means that we help each other
- to express anger without diverting it onto hate
- to hold grief without diverting it onto despair
- to share compassion without diverting it onto pity
- to interpret each other’s words generously
- to let go of being right and seeming smart
- to value each person’s unique window on the world
- to be willing to see each other fully, shadow and gold
- to be willing to be truly seen ourselves
Challenging material is sure to come up in any community once it progresses past initial politeness. If we can hold reverence through that process in one community, which mirrors some of the divisions and conflicts of the larger world, then there is a chance for the world to move toward peace as well. To the extent we succeed in holding reverence, we establish a precedent and prefigure a possibility. Here is a chance to cultivate the skills of holding each other through that process.
It is much easier for me to admit I was wrong, when I’m in an environment where no one is shamed for holding wrong beliefs. It is much easier for me to speak my truth, when others are welcome to speak theirs. It is much easier for me to question my beliefs when humble people surround me. In a community that provides such conditions, each member can grow beyond where they could alone.
A Call to Inquiry
Gigi Coyle, my dear friend and a guide in the Way of Council, offers a mantra for speaking in circle that I think can be profitably translated into online conversations. The mantra is W.A.I.T. – “Why am I talking?” On the surface level, it is an antidote to habits of dominating others with one’s speech, or speaking to get attention or approval, demonstrating how smart you are, or signaling in-group membership. All of these habits can dilute the power of our words. WAIT, however, is not actually meant as a device to suppress those habits; it is meant to illuminate them. It is not a rule that says, “Never speak if you are just doing it to gain approval, seek attention, show off, etc.” It says, “If you do that, know that you are doing that.”
WAIT springs from a deep trust in human beings, that says whatever wound or insecurity might drive your habits of speech, who you really are and what you really want is to serve the group, the conversation, and the higher purpose that brought it together.
In WAITing, we understand ourselves as more than separate individuals. Many voices, each with different motivations and goals, murmur within us and around us: the voice of the ego, the inner child, the higher self; the voice of beings of nature, spirits, and ancestors; the voice of social forces like patriarchy or peace; archetypal voices to which we may be attuned…. Which shall we allow to issue from our mouths or fingertips? Gigi asks, “Which one wants and needs to speak? Which one may be heard and actually serve life, healing, and contribute to more love, truth and wholeness?”
In an actual circle of humans, only one person can intelligibly speak at once. On an online forum, many conversations can run simultaneously. Attention-seeking or dominating speech can’t monopolize the group’s listening as it can in a live gathering. Nonetheless, people (hopefully) have lives off line too. If they read your post, then they are not doing something else. So another motivation for WAIT is the recognition that the attention of other people is precious. In fact, if I may wax metaphysical for a moment here, attention is the only thing we truly possess. Whatever we pay attention to is a kind of food. By paying attention to something, we accept its imprint and it becomes part of ourselves. To offer something for another person’s attention is not a trivial act. WAIT recognizes that and helps bring consciousness to that offering. Therefore, it too is a principle of reverence.
The question “Why am I talking (or posting)?” might not have an answer you can explain in words. The answer could well be a feeling. What feeling-state are these words coming from? Who am I, as I speak this? WAIT is a moment of self-considering, a mental and emotional check-in, that may result in hitting delete, or in changing some wording, or in replacing the words with others, or in no change at all. It helps uncover what one really wants to say (or not say).
As with reverence, WAIT allows light-hearted banter, humor, wit, and customs of etiquette, as well as discussion of personal and social issues. It is not an overriding rule or guilt trip meant to squelch bad speech. It operates from underneath, subtly aligning conversations to their best potential. It also establishes a habit of mindful intention that may bleed over into other areas of life. By maintaining a constant background question of “Who am I, really?” it induces, on the community level, an inquiry and an awareness of “Who are we, really?”
I am curious to see how my experiment hosting a community on these principles will turn out, and I welcome anyone else to use them as they see fit.