Thursday, November 8, 2012

What does it take to understand a community?

What a confused person sitting at a computer might look like.


As I talked about in a previous post, I’ve been spending a lot of time focused on the Why? Radio Twitter feed. I’ve discovered that it isn’t just a technology I don’t understand, but that there are deep cultural aspects I’m going to have to come to terms with if I’m ever going to truly grok its purpose. In this respect, I was schooled today, first by my public philosophy class, and later by one of the students individually. They have tried, with no amount of exasperation, to get this dense old guy to see what is so obvious. People read Twitter on their phones, not on their computer, they explained, and because posts are more spontaneous and less personal than on Facebook, it’s not creepy for me to look at other people’s tweets. (Please God, don’t let me spell that last word wrong in the previous sentence.)

While my learning Twitter is largely a trivial problem, it is also indicative of a much more serious philosophical issue. As a newcomer, what does it take to authentically understand, or even become a part of, a new community?

 I’ve thought about this question a lot. My second book, On Alasdair MacIntyre, asks how one shares another tradition’s way of thinking, and my first and my forthcoming books are both about entering into others’ emotions and reasoning. Perhaps most immediately, I’ve spent more than a decade learning to live in a place tremendously different from where I grew up. This last bit, by the way, is so prominent in my life that Clay Jenkinson writes about it in his new book. Here’s how he describes me:


I know a highly educated man who teaches at the University of North Dakota, who told me that after ten years of living and working in North Dakota, he now believes he has finally learned how to survive this place. Ten years. “You still can’t get a good bagel here,” he concludes with a world-weary sigh. (For the Love of North Dakota, p. 68.)


Granted, Clay has made a secondary career as a populist, painting North Dakota as the great misunderstood Valhalla, and I don’t begrudge him his rhetorical success despite the fact that he’s away from home 300 days a year. And knowing Clay (whom I love and respect dearly, and who, I suspect, feels the same way about me), I’m  quite aware that it’s the second part – the bagel part – that made him grin ear to ear when he wrote it. But I think the first part is more important. Why has it taken me ten years to learn how to live in the state? Because North Dakota is a tremendously complicated, subtle, and tradition-rich community, and it should take me a long to feel at home. I, for one, would think it tremendously insulting and dismissive to be in a place for a few years and then declare that there’s nothing left to learn. Whatever North Dakotans are, they are not two-dimensional rubes.

All of this is to say that the Twitter confusion is analogous to many experiences we all share when we move, travel, enter a new job, or marry into a new family. And all of that is made more complicated by the fact that the differences are, for the most part, more often invisible when we first begin. We have to discover what’s new before we internalize it. The reason why it took me ten years to learn to “survive” is that it took me three or four to understand how much of an outsider I really was.

Oddly enough, the thing that threw me the most about Twitter was my students’ observation that people read it on smartphones and not a computer. Never, in a million years, would that ever have occurred to me, but once they explained it, it makes sense. Cultural understanding always feels obvious once it’s comprehended and natural actions always follow from the realization. With Twitter, this means that I should post pictures but not links to articles. It also means I should ask brief questions that encourage someone to talk about with the person next to them, not that I should expect them to type out a response.I don't need to go into more detail unless you too are learning how to tweet.

Once again though, we see that we see that the great questions of our age are embedded in the small activities of life. And while it’s probably too simplistic to claim that my ability to learn Twitter is indicative of an American’s capacity to understand Iran, I think it’s all roughly the same stuff. I think our ability to use our imagination in order to enter into a new way of thinking should be celebrated and encouraged, even for the silly technological stuff like a social network. There’s a very fine line between the trivial and the profound, and we needn't be reminded that tweets were so important to the Arab spring and to the Iranian almost-revolution that preceded it. Tools are built on cultures and if we can share one, we can share the other. 

Now, if only I could get a good bagel in this damn state.

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1 comment:

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