The Forgotten Economy of Words


I don’t know how much it costs me to keep this site up and running. I don’t just mean how many hours I put into creating content (not enough) or how long I spend updating themes and menus (probably too much), but also how much money comes out of my pocket to keep you all wallowing in my pure creative genius. When I launched this site some years ago, I forked over a sizeable wad of cash for domain registration, site hosting, web mail, etc., but I did so in a single payment that would cover years of service. I can’t say precisely how much I’ve spent on each article or short story, though you should be absolutely certain that before I put up any material I ask myself, “What is this going to cost me?”

Most of the time, I stay far away from politics, and up until recently I’ve kept an arm’s-length away from religion. This is, I told myself, a refuge from the unashamedly divisive world where disagreements equal mortal insults, but things have been changing—and will likely change even more—and it’s

All

Your

Fault.

Not the personal “your,” of course; we both know I’d never say anything bad about you, but the collective “your.” The “your” that’s composed of anyone who has a Facebook page or a Twitter feed or any other link to social media used to propagate empty, hollow rhetoric. Now, trust me, I understand that the empty, hollow rhetoric that you share isn’t empty or hollow, or even rhetoric in the derogatory sense, but all the other feeds are filled with shared, retweeted news articles or scientific studies or pseudo-scientific studies or vile tirades that are empty, hollow rhetoric that is empty and hollow. And rhetorical.

Most of you know that I maintain two different FB pages—three if you count the pages for American Fantasy and Through the Blind—but I use them for different purposes. As alluded to above, my author page is reserved for more professional interactions and erudite discussions. My personal page, however, is one that I use to engage those shallow arguments and worldview debates. In short, on my personal page, I tick people off. And this is how I know that the ever-increasing divisiveness of the world is entirely your fault.

I really do enjoy discussion. Earnest conversation with the shared goal of gaining a deeper appreciation for the people involved and a better understanding of their ideas. I tend to ask a lot of questions. I’m not as much the quiet listener as I’d like to be, but that’s because my curiosity drags me along, flailing on the end of the leash as I try to temper its dogged pursuit of knowledge. This penchant for asking innumerable questions, difficult and uncomfortable questions, has given me a reputation as someone who is ostensibly quarrelsome.
But only in online conversations.

I love sharing face-to-face conversation with close friends. There’s no better way to become my friend and build a deep, emotional connection with me than to share hours of intimate talk. Not once in the past during one of these personal exchanges has a friend, associate, or acquaintance told me that I’m mean or heartless or bigoted or inconsiderate or whatever. Literally, never. And literally, literally, not the literally that is figurative. Literally, never.

But I have had the misfortune of trying to have the same kind of conversation through social media with some of these same close friends, and it isn’t long before they start telling me what a horrible, nasty human being I am. How unloving. How insulting. I’ve been told, “I’ve never known you to be intentionally hurtful, but…” But, all of a sudden when discussing something we’ve discussed before, you no longer see my facial expressions or my hand gestures or hear the tone or volume of my voice, so you add on some adversarial angst and presume I’m being intentionally hurtful, et al. People who know me have modified what they know of me to turn me into an internet bully.

Can I show you how this works?

Grab your Bible and read Matthew 23. I want you to read this chapter twice. First, I want you to imagine a Jesus that looks like this:

Angry Jesus is angry.

How did that sound in your head? Did you hear the anger in his voice? Rage? When he calls them hypocrites, did you hear it as a loving rebuke?

I’m guessing no.

Now, reread it, but I want you to read it as coming from a man who deeply loves those whom he’s chastising. Imagine a man so intent on saving the souls of the Pharisees that he allows himself to be tortured to death on their behalf.

Did you hear the heartbreak in his voice? Did his voice crack as he yelled after them? Was he weeping as he spoke? If not, can I recommend that your imagination isn’t working right, or perhaps that its stunted by presumption? Check out this video (yes, until the end), then we’ll continue (jump to 1:20):

Do you get it? Your assumptions color what you read. If you feel as though you are in an antagonistic conversation, you will read responses in an antagonistic voice. You will ignore the possibility of genuine interest, curiosity, a willingness to learn. Even when those words coming from a person you know and trust and respect. If you’ve never known the person to be intentionally antagonistic, don’t assume they’re being intentionally antagonistic.

If you fail to value the words given to you in the spirit they are given, you are devaluing them and the person they came from. If you are in a serious conversation, give the other person the benefit of the doubt that their words have been chosen specifically for a specific purpose. If they haven’t, it will become clear, and you’ll then have a line of inquiry of your own. Clarify the meaning of the words given in the spirit of cooperation, and you will find that the value of the conversation increase immeasurably.

Inherent in this approach is the necessity to measure your own words. You need to choose your words specifically. If you just throw them out without proper consideration, again, you’re devaluing both your time and your friend’s. If you’ve said something that actually resonates with someone—even if it creates dissonance—you’ve said something effective. Take a measure of pride in that, accept that you’ve made a connection with another human being, and use it as an opportunity to learn and to teach. You’ve said something, but now is the time to truly communicate.

While misconstruing a person’s words and intentions is disrespectful, damaging, and wasteful, it isn’t the only way we abuse the value of our words. One of my biggest pet peeves in the social media age is unaimed and unsupported post sharing.

Here’s the deal with social media: When you post something or share something (be it post, article, or video), you are stating that you connected to it on some level. Maybe you agreed with a political opinion, or you found a hidden cam video absolutely appalling; you wouldn’t be sharing the media if you didn’t think something (one way or the other) about it. You shared it because you have an opinion and you thought it was worth showing to other people.

Many times I have commented on a shared post or voiced an opposing opinion only to be told, “I don’t want to argue/discuss/debate/talk about it.” Well, how about you just tell me why you shared it? No? Okay, well, thanks for wasting everyone’s time.

One of the great things about social media is that it gives everyone an outlet to express their thoughts, views, and opinions. The tragic downfall of social media is that it gives everyone an outlet to express their thoughts, views, and opinions. The great illusion that it creates is that since everyone has equal access, everyone’s opinions are also equal. Well, I’ve debunked that before, so I won’t get into it here, but I’ll summarize by saying: That’s wrong. That’s stupid and it’s wrong.

Zoidberg wisdom.

I’m sure whatever the thing is that you posted that you don’t want to spend any more time talking about is really, really, truly, very important, but if you aren’t willing to talk about it any further, you’re telling the world that you don’t think it’s really, really, truly, very important and that we shouldn’t waste any more of our time on the subject. You are admitting that what you wrote/shared/posted is nothing but mindless, idle chatter. You threw out valueless words expecting others to give them worth, and when someone actually wants to give them value, you try to scrape them back.

Listen, I’m not saying that I’m better than anyone. There are certainly countless occasions on which I’ve scattered words without measuring their worth, but I try very hard not to waste your time. I’ve paid for this outlet, so I understand that everything that I put here has a cost. Every paragraph. Every sentence. Each and every solitary word has an intrinsic value. And on this site, I could monetize that cost if I really wanted to do the math. (I do not want to do the math, by the way, and will not.)

I want my words to resonate with you. I want them to create dissonance. I want them to touch you so deeply that you feel compelled to respond. I want you to question me. I want you to argue with me. I want you to get irate. I want you to laugh and smile. I want you to change your mind. I want your opinions to be bolstered. I want you to share my work. I want you to quote me.

I want you to feel something when you read what I write!

Otherwise, what’s the point?

No, my friends, we are better than that. We ought to respect each other enough to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Unless someone’s directly insulting you (and not just the implied ones you’re assuming) or cussing you out, treat those words over the internet as sincere and respond with kindness. Answer questions honestly and directly. Never assume hostility, because it will destroy honest discourse. Never presume the other person in the debate is being intentionally antagonistic; the tone you assume probably only exists in your mind.

If you’re going to post something, do so understanding that what you share might evoke a response; which is presumably why you posted it in the first place. Don’t minimize the value of what you shared by refusing to discuss it. Tell people why you posted it. Tell them why you think it’s important. Be willing to educate others on your view. If you aren’t willing to engage on a topic that has connected you with another human being, then you shouldn’t have posted it.

Lastly, don’t think the fact that social media is “free” means that your opinions are equal with everyone else’s. They aren’t. On some subjects, you may have a mastery of the subject that lends your voice authority; in which case, you are obligated to share what you know. On other subjects, you are woefully (completely?) ignorant, and you have a responsibility to ask questions and learn more before demanding others respect your opinion. Don’t die on a hill you know nothing about.

In short, seek to understand the economy of words. Don’t let your words be worthless. Don’t let them be idle. When it’s time to check out of this cold and heartless world, we will have to answer for each and every word that we speak, so let’s think them out ahead of time. Let’s measure their worth and make sure the words we use serve the purposes we intend.