Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The increasing fragility of our ability to know and communicate about the world

I've been thinking a lot this past week about the fragility of human communication and of our ability to know the world. That is, I've been thinking about how easy it is, how many ways there are, for human communication and human knowing to fail. This is hardly a new thought, for me or in general, especially in this era characterized by what is sometimes aptly but usually inadequately characterized as "fake news." But it has been weighing particularly heavily this week.

Look at the coordinated right-wing hate campaign against Nora Loreto, for instance. There's lots going on in that situation to make it what it has become: the deliberate and coordinated character of it, how easily many white Canadians become aggressively resistant even to what she did say, and the ubiquity of misogyny are all crucial. But another key element is that there was active, pervasive lying about what she said, done in order to evoke a particular emotional response and fuel the attacks on her. Somehow, the affective power of the lies about what she said was more than enough for lots of people to maintain their outrage and their belief in the lies even in the face of her actual words.

Or look at the various responses to the Western bombing in Syria in the last week. I'm not going to get into the details, but it has all really driven home for me how grassroots politics in the West around war and empire are a complete mess, and not in any easy or singular way. Massive, multiple failures of human communication and knowing are part of that.

In these current examples, technology and social media and the knowledge production practices that have emerged with them are central to the failures of communication and knowing, but this fragility is not tech-dependent. Another example that has been on my mind is a small personal one from almost twenty years ago. It was one of the first times I spoke in a university classroom about my experiences of involvement in activism and organizing. Don't remember exactly what I talked about, but one thing that has stuck with me is that one young woman in the class said some things that made it clear she had understood me to say exactly the opposite of what I had actually said on some to-me politically important points. This shook me. Afterwards, my friend who was teaching the class assured me I had been plenty clear, and that sometimes that just happens. But it still shook me.

Of course, my friend was right – when we come to know the world, we're actively involved in producing that knowledge, and there are a million and one ways that we can get it wrong, whether through our own practices or through how the situation is socially organized. Yes, we are able to meaningfully know the world through our experiences and through our encounters with people and with narratives, yet even without "fake news" and "Russion bots" (real or imagined), that ability is fragile. I do think, however, that even if this fragility of communication and knowing is not tech dependent, it is certainly amplified by how knowledge is produced and how it circulates today.

So. I just don't think those of us who support social justice and collective liberation and so on have really figured out how to deal with this increasingly fragile character of communication and knowing. There are a number of ways of responding that I see among people who broadly identify with those politics, but none that are yet adequate.

Some people surrender to it, and treat this fragility when it comes to knowing the world on any scale beyond our everyday life and then communicating that knowledge not as fragility but as impossibility. I don't think people directly active in movements do this a whole lot, because being active depends on having some faith in our ability to know the world and communicate that knowledge. But I think it is not uncommon in the broader (and much larger) group of people who have social justice-y values but don't have access to collective contexts for acting on those values, and so can only relate to them in very isolated, individualized ways. This is, I think, one of the ways that conspiratorial thinking comes to flourish in progressive contexts, though it can also just feed cynicism, disengagement, and despair.

Other people respond to the fragility of knowing and communicating by rejecting that fragility, by doubling down on a liberal faith in the solidity of our ability to know and communicate, often with an implied "if only" attached. This approach seeks to restore some nostalgic past regimen for how our knowing and communicating about the world was socially organized, whether that is a romanticization of mainstream media or of supposedly more ethical elites of earlier generations or something else.

Then there are other broadly left formations that recognize the fragility of knowing and communicating, and they lean into it – they take every advantage of it in order to push their particular agenda. This may not be a tactic that is as broadly used on the left as it is on the right, but I definitely see the neoliberal pseudo-left as well as centre-left, authoritarian far left, and anti-authoritarian far left people and groups who do it.

So what should we do? I don't have an answer, I'm reflections on this question over the last week have not been particularly optimistic.

All I have is a certainty that we need to figure it out: A way to navigate the fact that our ability to know and communicate about the world is real and genuine, but fragile. A way to navigate all of this that is principled. I think it has to do with putting faith in organizing, including organizing with a strong face-to-face component, rather than online-heavy mobilizing. I think it has to do with centering our political work on responding to the deeper currents of how the world is socially organized, rather than being quite so focused on the details of the moment. (Though of course we must always be able to respond to crises.) I think it has to do with having politics that, yes, are informed by theory, but that are firmly grounded in our everday lives and the everyday lives of our neighbours. I think these must be politics based on seeking the radical conclusions made possible by listening to the everday lives of people around us, people across town, people on the other side of the world.

But I don't really know what doing that might look like in practice under these conditions of increasingly fragile knowing and communicating...except that I'm sure the seeds already exist in what some people in some places are already doing.

And at the moment, I have no ideas about how to defend ourselves from the massive bad-faith interventions by elite and/or far-right forces into our knowing and communicating, and the smaller but still significant mimicking of such bad-faith actions from segments of the left.

1 comment:

Ruth Pickering said...

Thank you for this, Scott. Much to reflect on, and, hopefully act on with more awareness.