The New Ethics of the Social Chasm
Q: What are Green social ethics?
I. GREEN ???
Firstly, I love the perverse niche-ness of that question. It presumes people are familiar with the friendly developmental colour codes used in developmental models such as Spiral Dynamics & Integral Theory — and then, on top of that, it probes for even more nuance! Well done, you bastard.
For everyone else, let’s explain what we’re talking about. This query points toward how people expect social interactions to be handled appropriately in the “green” atmosphere of a pluralistic, ecological, digital, postmodern, contextual, critical, systemic, sensitized, post-colonial, and deconstructively constructivist sensibility.
Our mainstream media and our major social platforms are teeming with disgruntled persons insisting upon some new sensitivity rules around social communication OR denouncing these new ethics as vile, regressive and suppressive OR maybe just plain confused about what the heck it all means.
Consider these sorts of questions:
Do we need transgender bathrooms?
Should a single person be referred to as “they” ?
Are my preferred pronouns really a life or death issue?
When did “progressive liberals” stop defending socially upsetting content and start trying to legislate what I can and cannot say?
Is my grandfather racist — or does he just speak in an old-timey way?
Can you imagine these questions being asked in the 18th century? Or even the 1950s? They are recent developments. These are among the many confused questions that arise under so-called postmodernity.
Such areas of cultural uncertainty point toward a powerful shift in social dynamics that is occurring in tandem with the massive increase of human populations, the broadly shared awareness of planetary risk & international interdependence and the ongoing unfolding of the digital networking revolutions. Modern civilization has produced these conditions and we now have to adapt to them, critique them, harness them, integrate them. And what we might call the postmodern ethos — as viewed, seemingly, from some lofty metaprogressive position — challenges modern systems.
Specifically, it challenges them to enfold their “externalities.”
Externalities are all those pertinent factors that are not counted in a system so that it can appear to make very efficient, very fast progress in a particular direction according to a small number of abstract metrics. In Raj Patel’s book The Value of Nothing, he famously explains how much a cheap fast food hamburger would really cost if the company had to pay for everything. Ecological economists point out that we don’t calculate the monetary value of what the tree is doing before you cut it down. We don’t count housework or child-raising as labor in the economy. Certain races and genders don’t get full status in terms of how our systems operate. The survival of the oceans is not counted in the incentive structure of Chinese driftnet mega-fisheries.
You get the idea. Modernity leaves out many things — and so postmodernity has to complain about that. If we don’t fix these problems then our “success” will kill us all.
So we are starting to see human beings improvising a new social sensibility that belongs to this mood of critiquing modernity, existing in a transcultural planetary setting and being neurologically reshaped by the endless branching juxtapositions and dislocations of the digital environment.
What sort of sensibility is this?
II. OUTGROWING FOLKSINESS ?
Recently I was watching a “Key & Peele” comedy sketch that ended with the two brilliant mulatto comedians discussing the ambiguities of a distended female abdomen. She might be pregnant. She might be fat. What do you say to her — and when?
The familiar friction that generates the comedic potential resides in the parallax between conventional social instincts and an emerging awareness that people are likely to be insulted when you communicate about them based on first impressions.
This problem is at the heart of most Key & Peele sketch comedy.
They performatively articulate the key issue of the new social ethics of public communication. That issue is the emerging unnatural gap between our colloquial reactions (to obvious visual content such as pregnancy, skin color, gender, etc) and people’s authentic intimate social experience. We would like to relax and act as though our impressions and categories are reliable enough to use as a basis for constructive social communication YET we are increasingly aware that many people are not comfortable with such exchanges.
We don’t want to lose the ease, warmth and spontaneity of casual response patterns nor do we wish to unnecessarily upset people. It is vexation that prompts a great deal of contemporary social commentary from various “sides” of the political scene.
It would actually be quite lovely to feel that everyone was part of the same reality, working hard to co-create a culture in which we could treat our first glance categorizations as useful frames from verbal articulation, physical intervention & trust-building. But that cannot be the case when digital tools expose us to everyone, everywhere, all at once in a mutant layer of trans-cultural planetary complexity.
These new problems do not typically rise in small rural towns or old feudal kingdoms. Traditional social ethics emerged over thousands of years, helping us to cultivate fairly homogenous societies with officially codified organizational rules based on the simple overt features of human beings and their heredity. Simplified, reliable societies. Places where “we” felt like we had a great deal in common with all those who occupied public spaces.
Most of the people that you met had a common language, similar appearance, shared needs and challenges, recognizable hobbies and a commonly assumed narrative of conventional social organization and metaphysics. You could act on that. You could speak from that. If you had a feeling based on some obvious facet of another person’s appearance — it was probably a correct feeling.
See something, say something.
Postmodern ethics expects people, in many ways, to suspend their immediate mental and social categorization. In the bazaar of contemporary life, you no longer have high confidence that the people you’re dealing with will match your handy stereotypical categories. Most likely you will have to wait for some special additional gestures of friendliness, safety and permission before you start acting as if you are in some shared social space in which your categories and terminology can be trusted.
Normal folks still feel as though they can (and should) be able to identify you, name you and evaluate you based on whatever stands out to their gaze. The old folksy style of attributing nicknames — based on the simplest contours of the data — is an excellent example.
A tall man is called Stretch. A brown-skinned man is called Darkie. A pregnant woman needs to be immediately identified and announced as such!
What’s more (as numerous aggrieved contemporary mothers will tell you) folksy people even feel entitled to put their hand on your abdomen after the most superficial possible identification of your condition. And why not? After all, for them, your body belongs to the clan.
Two different worldviews are in play. These people assume that they are “not strangers” because they belong to the same community as you. But you might think that they ARE strangers — if you have been raised in the transcultural electronic context. The definition of who is a social familiar is now contested between these contexts.
III. LEARNING TO HESITATE PROPERLY
Nietzsche — that famous Germanic critic of populist Christianity — was full of high praise for the way that the Bible taught barbaric Europeans to “hesitate in the presence of a book.” That’s an interesting thing to praise. It reminds us that each new phase of technological culture has to learn how to pause, hold & discipline itself in ways that might initially feel quite unfair and unnatural. I suggest that something similar is going on with the emergent postmodern ethics of social communication.
It reminds me of a story:
Many years ago, on a public transit bus, I sat across from a sullen adolescent girl with bright green hair and a pierced face full of artless metal rings. I watched with curiosity as the elderly, conservatively-dressed fellow (seated next to her) squirmed. It was clear that he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Finally, invasively, judgementally, he said, “Are you doing this to get attention?”
She replied quietly, “I don’t want your attention. I don’t want to be treated differently than anyone else. The way I look is normal — not strange.”
This is the social chasm.
A gulf of strangeness exists between your immediate public responses and your ability to access to meaningful social exchange. The old man thought that the girl was showing up socially in a strange form — and that this was an invitation for feedback. The girl thought that she was NOT showing up socially at all. Merely being visually present on a bus is not a relationship or invitation for commentary. It does not presuppose a rich set of shared meanings. Relationships, shared meaning and invitations do still exist — but they are not on the surface anymore.
If you see something, don’t necessarily say something.
Of course, these are not absolutes. Speak up and intervene if it looks like someone is in the “bleeding from a headwound on the sidewalk” category. However, we are teaching each other a new degree of caution. That irascible conservative postmodernist Nassim Taleb is constantly pointing out the danger of using our assumptions to intervene in complex systems. Hasty action, whether in the invasion of another country or in conversation with another human, often causes more problems than it solves. Our mental models make lack adequate skin-in-the-game to appreciate the nuances of the situation. So hesitation becomes a virtue.
It might be okay to socially intervene in public if people can be assumed to be your friends, neighbours, co-religionists or fellow countrymen. In that case, your spontaneous associations might provide valuable feedback.
Generally, however, we no longer inhabit such a world. The new ethics require a higher grade of self-control that accommodates the uncanny gap between actual mutual space and merely public, common & physical spaces.
Economic Curmudgeon: Why aren’t kids today voting in elections or taking the available jobs?
“Kids Today”: The mere existence of the job and the voting booth, as socio-physical structures available to everyone, do not yet constitute an invitation to engage. Just because I see something does not mean that I am receiving the signals needed to indicate actual social opportunity. That’s why you should never answer a phone call! There is not yet any indication of safety, reward or a shared frame of cultural understanding. Other gestures would be required.
IV. THE GARGOYLE BETWEEN COMMUNITIES
Modern technology, culture and media tailor themselves to exploit/serve our old folksy needs by providing a set of “mainstream” information and habits. A commercially produced economic and ethnocentric hegemony (if you like them fancy words).
This enable people who group toward the mainstream to:
(a) count on being widely embraced
(b) expect most people to agree with your categorizations
(c) 'helpfully’ criticize minority abnormalities.
That’s all good stuff. It is entirely appropriate to want that level of relaxed social confidence, inclusion and functional status. It is also necessary to have such things in order to reduce anxiety, work together on common projects and secure our intergenerational survival. These are reasonable community drives. These attempts are not the problem. The real problem is that you are no longer in your community when you are in public.
The common social space of the 21st century is now so large and complex that it no longer serves as a reliably shared field of meaning.
The social commons is not a community but rather it is the minimal intersection between our actual communities. Therefore public ethics begin to shift from pretending that we have a communal sense of categories and values to pretending that we do not have such mutuality UNLESS we have entered a special portal of invitation to a sub-network in which we can verify each other as being safe, resonant and reliable participants.
It is/was a beautiful thing to be able to assume that your neighbour is basically similar to you. That is very human but it must be, at least partially, jettisoned. The woman next door might actually be a man. Or a jihadist. She might get “news” that says the exact opposite of the news that you think everyone is hearing. Maybe her body has invisible viral companions that would kill your family? Perhaps she is deadly allergic to some ordinary feature of your house? She could be dyslexic, sociopathic, quasi-autistic, a Scientologist or a genetic mutant. Perhaps those fashionable glasses she wears are secretly filming you and uploading everything she sees into them damn’d internets?
You cannot tell any of that at a glance.
The dress, breasts, lipstick and long hair do NOT convey enough information. They are poor tools for usefully categorizing a person in a planetary-digital context. There is (he repeated ad nauseum) a chasm between your first impression & any actual social engagement. This chasm or gulf or gap or moat is distressing. We cannot handle it automatically. It has not been around long enough for us to grow a reliable instinct. So we must be vigilant because a sinister gargoyle is perched over the door to this Gothic cathedral.
What does that mean?
It means that we must exercise some interesting new self-control when we are in public inter-social spaces. You have to be a little bit on guard. Twitter, Facebook, Starbucks, the Taxi Cab, the Restaurant, the Bus Stop and (maybe) even Christmas Dinner are NOT necessarily mutual spaces in which you have been pre-verified as a social participant who can constructively share their preferred interpretations of the world.
The social commons is no longer automatically a social niche.
The gargoyle reminds us that we will must start to learn those special signals that indicate where social niches are actually available and where we need the self-awareness and self-discipline to unlearn, monitor or bracket our quick responses to stimuli the commons..
Here’s a charged example:
Consider those poor denizens of ethnocentric Islamic pseudo-traditional culture in which the “sanctity of women” and the “decency of men” are preserved by a habit of keeping females draped in head-to-toe black coverings. This practice is not necessarily wrong. Some women might even freely choose it. That’s possible. Perhaps it even exalts them in comparison to lurid, commercial, degenerate Westerners? Unfortunately, this general tactic does not work very well in a global network context. Why not? Because it fails to cultivate the discipline — the skill set — needed to handle the complexity of worldcentric cultural spaces. Basically, it goes too easy on people.
The women don’t have to choose clothing that negotiates the social commons while subtly advertising the specific communities to which they are willing to respond & the men don’t have to publically control their responses to exposed female flesh. Those skills are not being built. The ethnocentric ethic is designed to prevent the experience of this social chasm.
Today, where the chasm cannot be prevent, we require a new set of behavioral skills and internal struggles that will not feel natural until we get quite good at them.
At the heart of these new skills is the distinct realization that what you encounter in public is not necessarily “for you.” Your emotional and physical and evaluative responses are not supposed to be overtly triggered in the commons. Perhaps we need to return to a more natural pattern of vigilance. Nature is full of attractive poisons, camouflaged animals and visual decorations designed to mislead all onlookers. Traditional and modern societies have tried to helpfully simplify the situation but we may now have strayed back into some kind of jungle…
Having a penis only might indicate a man.
A woman may not be willing to have sex just because is drunk in your appartment.
That “blatant racial slur” only could be racism — or it might not.
This “obvious dummy” may be a normal example of neurodiversity functioning with a high level of some other kind of intelligence.
The person you’re talking to about how awful Trump is… might actually be a secret Trump supporter.
The ethics of the information jungle are based in the stark awareness that our first level of social perception is not longer where the invitations are located.
V. “SLANT-EYED GOOKS,” ETC.
We no longer want to hear the Japanese described as yellow. Even if they are actually yellower than the person doing the describing! That fact seems irrelevant.
We don’t want to hear about slopes, fatties, midgets, slant-eyed gooks, darkies, porkers, retards, etc. These are troubling terms. Why? We say that it is because they are “offensive” or “rude” or that they are associated with some legitimate historical grievance. Yet we are also vaguely aware that words themselves cannot be inherently problematic. Even very disturbing words can suddenly have their associative social valence called into question. The famous Toronto Slut Walk was one of many movements to “take back” a seemingly offensive & derogatory term. Only a little impartial mentation is required to see that all of our words are in constant fluctuation relative to their associative social charge.
Therefore it is not merely the historical usage of language in social power games between types of people that matters but rather the important gulf between common usage & vetted spaces of collaborative meaning-making.
Take that wicked and notoriously offensive combination of English letters “n i g g e r.” How dare I even place those letters in that order! It is like I have confessed to being a witch! This combination of letters is (justly) excluded from most official contemporary discourse owing to its historical association with unjust oppression, violence and social relations that are, in hindsight, deeply dehumanizing. Hopefully, we agree on most of that.
Yet the ethic to which it points is not so obvious. We are all aware that certain black communities (and their close allies) assertively retain the option to use this word amongst each other. What does that suggest?
It implies that the problem is not with the word itself but rather with the use of the word in unverified public spaces — as opposed to real social contexts in which people actually feel enough security and conviviality and common meaning to sustain its usage.
Mutually verified qualities of safety, friendliness and meaning-making form a membrane that allows some people in & keeps other people out. Those who merely happen to inhabit the general speaking space of civilization are not necessarily invited in. A gargoyle perches over the entrance.
The 8 billion humans are not in a community together and so their social spaces must reflect an inter-ethic related to the ability to find, verify and feel into each other. The public culture of digital humanity is a train station — not a particular train.
VI. CO-CREATING A NEW ETHOS
Have you heard that plaintive refrain of the traditionalist-modernist who complains that, “We aren’t allowed to say this or that word anymore! We are being cancelled!”
Their grumpy upset is understandable but, in most cases, no one is actually stopping them from saying anything. The general issue is that public space cannot be counted upon as a consensus framework in which your quick feelings will guide you toward successful articulation and social interaction.
A new ethos must emerge to handle this problem. It will emerge by starting to understand what the new ethics are trying to do AND how the opponents of the new ethics are often pointing to the very same issue. Liberals, Conservatives and Progressives are all pointing, in their own ways, toward this new chasm.
“Mainstream” spaces are inter-spaces. They are like being in a hallway and seeing someone through a crack in the bathroom door. Should you start talking to them? Announcing what you have seen? No. Of course not.
Or perhaps only in a few deliberately humorous circumstances.
It is an obvious faux-pas to act as though what you have seen through the door’s crack is an invitation. You are NOT in that private room. And all around us today are private rooms negotiating between each other in public space.
This is tricky but not perplexing.
There is no great mystery to the postmodern communication ethics. It makes sense. However it is also a process. As decent human beings, we should give each other a lot of slack. Anyone can be mistaken and anyone can be mistakenly evaluated as being mistaken. We all off have off days. There is legitimate room for provocative philosophical critique and comic appropriation of offensive materials. No one, regardless of their social values and political commitments, is perfectly adapted to the constantly changing social waters.
And frankly it’s okay to be offended and upset or reminded of “dangerous” things.
That’s life. Okay. But we no longer need this sense of desperate, often angry, confusion. The social chasm is obvious. Let’s just deal with it. The difference between the old social ethic (let’s work together to cultivate a world where it’s easy to categorize each other at glance in an assumed common meaning-space) and the new social ethic (there are simply too many people, too much noise, too many variations and not enough information available at the social surface — so shared cultural confidence is available in small, more particular settings) is comprehensible.
We can start learning to recognize and accommodate the social chasm.
According to Vulture, here’s Key and Peele’s 5th best sketch — interrogating, as always, the social chasm between easy visual engagement and actual social experience:
(BTW I needed to set my VPN for the United States to view this.)