Can We Talk More About What Really Matters?
by Randall Amster
Sometimes it seems as if the dream of peace moves further into the distance with each passing day…
Outside the “radical fringes” of the political spectrum, the silence is almost deafening. This is despite the palpable and (by now) incontrovertible nature of the conjoined crises in our collective midst, as the nexus of economic, ecological, technological, and militaristic challenges before us deepens by the day. Drudgery, droughts, and drones, oh my! Reality possesses a “fantastic” quality that often makes it seem as if we’re moving through a colorized version of an old-school horror flick — a notion reified in the cultural near-obsession with trite invocations of the much-anticipated “zombie apocalypse.”
In the midst of communicative plenty, we tend to say very little. Left, right, and center, the songs remain the same. Brows furrow and fingers point, yet the machinery of destruction continues unabated. One calamitous event seamlessly bleeds into the next; one war front yields to another; each contrived political logjam sets the stage for the next round of verbiage sans verisimilitude. If your angst about any of this can’t be expressed in 140 characters or less, please just keep it to yourself, thank you very much.
Well, I’ve already exceeded that limit (as well as the carefully cultivated parameters of the cultural attention span), so if you’re still reading this — what the heck is wrong with you? I’m sure there’s a status update to post, a barrage of tweets to scan, a bevy of emails (if you’re still that retro) to delete, a series of voicemails to process, a queue of shows on the DVR beckoning. I used to think that we’d reached a saturation point of “functional distraction” in our workaday lives, but now it appears more dysfunctional in its pervasiveness. The Situationists once cleverly noted that “Big Brother is you, watching,” but today we might add the dualistic idea that Big Brother is watching us as we watch.
Indeed, everything you watch watches you. We are both object and subject, voyeurs of our own reality shows, peeping Toms looking in our own windows. In short order, we’ve reached the totalization of social surveillance, except for the fact that deeper incursions yet remain right around the next corner. Privacy is passé, nearly denigrated as being “quaint and obsolete,” and everyone is an amateur publicist. Again, in the fringes one can still find a few hand-wringing lamentations over this state of affairs, but in the vast morass of the majoritarian mass, there’s little said about any of this beyond participating in it.
We don’t talk enough about the impending death of privacy. We don’t talk much about the double-edged nature of technology, about the ways in which the emerging global web both connects and ensnares, about how the Town Square has yielded to Foursquare. We don’t say nearly enough about the psychological impacts of these rampant technological changes, particularly on young people. We don’t spend enough time discussing the present we’re being subjected to and the implications it has for the future we’re leaving to our children. We don’t address climate disruption in a manner nearly enough to mitigate it, despite a rapidly closing window of time in which to act. We expend our energies coping with and reacting to the world being put before us (one that is both imposed and chosen), but we aren’t saying nearly enough about the world we would actually want to live if we could create it anew.
We’ve probably all heard John Lennon’s musical plea to “give peace a chance.” It’s a powerful sentiment, perhaps a necessary one, but it’s not sufficient. Making our voices heard above the din is critical, yet if we merely do this in service of a generic message for “peace” (or any other oft-repeated, decontextualized, and easily coopted moniker) we’re not likely to alter the paradigm in any significant way. Yes, we need to say more about peace, but in a manner that highlights actual practices, local initiatives, global networks, human-environmental synergies, historical exemplars, and future prospects.
In the mid-1990s, Pink Floyd released a song called “Keep Talking” that sampled Stephen Hawking’s electronic voice: “All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.” In principle, this is crucial: as long as we continue to be in dialogue with ourselves, each other, and the world around us, we can continue the human experiment and strive to achieve elusive, asymptotic goals like peace. Yet just as many social movements have learned, merely providing people with information is insufficient in itself to change behavior. Talking is good in general, but it still matters what we’re talking about. In other words, more speech is better if it corresponds with substance; there needs to be a fit between quantity and quality.
In today’s sociopolitical climate, we seem to have allowed quantity (and its cousins, volume and growth) to trump quality (along with its corollaries, value and utility). Those with the loudest voices, the biggest budgets, and the largest stockpiles of armaments tend to set the agenda. The small-is-beautiful communards, the soft-spoken storytellers, and the free-economy practitioners are often relegated to either second-class status or outright persecution. The Lorax (re-released absent some of its most profound lessons) may have spoken for the trees, but today it may be more poignant to create moments in which humans fall silent long enough to hear what the trees are saying for themselves: breathe.
The quiet experiences, the spaces between our urge to speak — these may help us to find meaning in listening rather than talking. Or, perhaps more to the point, this may help us to talk about what’s truly important rather than what’s currently trending. Reality sometimes feels a bit like a perpetual RSS feed beamed wirelessly throughout the course of our day right into our cerebral cortexes. Indeed, the near future may literally hold such things in store for us — as children are implanted with RFID technology (in the name of security, of course), as our e-credentials (and thus our locations, histories, statuses, etc.) are always with us in a fully-wired world, and as mere thought becomes sufficient to navigate this web.
There’s a constant din of incessant information swirling around us. Sometimes we’re able to make something of this information and deploy it in the form of knowledge. Infrequently, we demonstrate the capacity to discern its efficacy and ethicality as a nascent expression of wisdom. Perhaps in the end, amidst all the chatter, it’s what’s not being said that broaches the latter. And so, on a day when we celebrate one of history’s greatest orators for the cause of peace, here’s a nod to all we aren’t saying…
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008).