Saturday, June 28, 2008

Blog Comments, Families, Us and Them

I started this blog not because I expected anyone to read it, but because the act of writing clarifies thought. I had been meaning to do more writing for some time, but didn't have an excuse or outlet.

If you look through the posts, at least so far, the comments are made by a small set of people. These folks are my immediate family, the clan for which I am the "Pater Familias". That title does not come from the Roman honor, but from a line in the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou". The title of that movie came from a fictional book in another wonderful movie, "Sullivan's Travels".

I am finding out that the comments are an interesting part of the blogging experience, even if they mostly come from my own family. The comments themselves usually have something to say. They are also touchingly protective. They announce "See, I'm reading this. I care". This protective attitude is amusing because, when my children were little, they assumed I was indestructible. To this day I am often mistaken for a trampoline. On an emotional level, one of the favorite pastimes of the family is putting me in humiliating situations. For example, when I had some friends over on Halloween to help in building a fence, my clan insisted I spend dinner dressed up in drag as a beauty queen, complete with toilet paper sash announcing my title "Miss Evil Colorado".

This is part of what I call the hierarchy of social identification. Most of us identify with a whole set of groups that extend from family to peers to school/work, community, nation... This is one of the most powerful forces in human society and sets the stage for collective action. On the dark side, it separates "us" from "them" and allows our collective action to be unspeakably cruel. A family, as with most social groups, has plenty of internal friction. But facing outward, will present a united front and protect its members.

It is demonstrably true that humans band together into trust groups. Innate traits like skin color or epicanthal folds are easy markers. As a regrettable consequence, each of us tends to exclude those with innate differences as not part of our group. This is natural, but not inevitable. For example, imagine a room with two black and two white men. If one white man and one black man both have gang tattoos and one black man and one white man are both wearing expensive business suits, they will initially pair up based on clothing rather than skin color.

None of us belong exclusively to a single group and all of us are capable of forming strong associations with almost anyone. Put a group of musicians from around the world in a single room and in short order they will be forming new associations based on their shared passion for sound.

The identification with social groups and antipathy toward outsiders seems to be a base human trait. I know of no social group without some degree of this. The positive part of this tendency is the ability to come together to work toward a common goal. On the negative side, the separation between us and them allows “us” to treat "them" without any consideration other than our own aim.

Separation of "us" from "them" is often justified because “they” are different from “us”. Biologically, this is hogwash. Each of us has parents and there are familial traits. Some of us are blonde and some have black hair. Some groups of people have lived with enough isolation to show adaptation to their surroundings. For example, groups living farther from the equator tend to have lighter skin. These differences are marked enough so that pathologists can identify human groups from these physical traits. That said, humans are also nomadic and relatively recent. This underlies a remarkable degree of genetic homogeneity. I liken the differences between humans to the differences between brown spotted and black spotted Dalmatian dogs. As a species, we have so little genetic diversity that some scientists postulate that the species was reduced to a very small number of individuals in the not so distant past.

Because there are physical differences between human groups, it is interesting to ask if there might be analogs in other areas. For example, some groups of humans might be more or less capable of mathematical reasoning or eye/hand coordination. I think this is unlikely. Variants like skin color give an advantage in a particular region. Mental and social advantages have no such geographic constraints. People with the advantage will quickly spread the genetics outside their own group. Only extreme geographic isolation could keep advantageous adaptations out of the general gene pool. Human history is filled with tales of travel, conquest, and stranger's babies. Unjustified claims of essential differences between groups of people have been used to justify genocide. To counter this tendency, the standard of proof for assertions of fundamental differences between groups must be extremely high. I know of no evidence that there are physical differences between human groups that elevate the fundamental capabilities of any group. This is especially clear when we look at genius. Genius is characterized by some capability that is far greater than normal. Think Leonardo da Vinci, Mahatma Gandhi, or Michael Jordan. Genius springs up around the world and cannot be characterized by family, "race" or any other factor I know of. There are musical families, but to paraphrase Aaron Copeland : there was nothing to indicate that Leonard’s parents would produce a Bernstein.

Our upbringing affects who we are, not just emotionally, but physically. There is evidence, for example, that people brought up speaking a tonal language tend to respond differently to sound than those brought up speaking non-tonal languages. In those cultures, a higher percentage of people perceive absolute pitch. Our bodies change based on our environment, but are especially malleable before adulthood. There are some abilities, like language acquisition, that fall off as we grow older.

Humans are genetically pretty homogeneous, but in values, and hence behaviour, we vary greatly. Because we learn behaviour from each other, values and behaviour tend to be cultural. The biggest influence is family followed peer groups and finally the culture as a whole. Some societies are monogamous, some have men with multiple wives and some have women with multiple husbands. In some societies butchers are respected and prosperous. In others they are outcasts. Food taboos are so strong that it is difficult to imagine violating them. Culturally forbidden foods include fish, insects, dogs, and pigs.

Even in groups with strong cultural mores, there will be rogues. Every society has outcasts and criminals. Some people, gangs, clans, and governments are dangerous to outsiders. That is one of the reasons that we look for cultural allies. They may help protect us from the dangerous humans. But the tendency to bond in groups is more than a need for protection. We also have a need for acceptance by others in our group. The combination of fear and the need for acceptance and protection is very powerful. A social group can manipulate individual humans to do literally anything. They will rape, torture, and murder neighbors with whom they have lived peacefully for years. They will kill themselves and their own children. That is, the very groups we rely on for protection from the dangerous humans can also transform us into those dangerous humans.

Everyone thinks they have things they will do and things they will not do. However, the power of circumstance and persuasion move these lines. Totalitarian regimes recognize this so they create programs to make everyone complicit. Right now you would not think of killing the Jew/Black/Korean/Armenian shopkeeper on the corner, but in light of the past actions of people like him, would you be willing to keep an eye on him and report suspicious activity? Would you if there were a payment? One thing leads to another. Lines are drawn between us and them. They are clearly threatening. You are one of us. You have shown it by your actions – even accepting favors or money. But your status is provisional and must be earned by showing your commitment to us. You must show your commitment to us by acting more strongly against them.

We are all susceptible to these forces, but we can also recognize them. It is up to each of us to recognize both the danger and the opportunity in the strangers among us. Some wariness is important for self protection. But given a chance, that person who is currently part of "them" may be a valuable part of "us" in the not distant future.


Masasa said...

(Fair Warning: possibly one of the longest comments you will ever receive)

Speaking only for myself of course, I think you have over-simplified my motivations for posting comments.

I read and post on a variety of blogs.

You would be correct if you are assuming that most of the time I have some association with the blogger ahead of time. There are simply too many blogs out there to narrow down my options without some connection: a family member, a friend, a colleague, or someone I know from another online context such as a parenting discussion board.

Similarly but distinct nonetheless, a sizeable handful of blogs I read because I came across them when searching the internet and/or "blogosphere" on topics of interest, such as faith, adoption, or sustainable living. Often these are blogs I read regularly, but less frequently than those of people I know. The reason for this is not what one might expect. It's not really because I don't have a prior association with these people. The primary reason I read these regularly but still less frequently than those in the first category is because these are the type of people *I* find interesting...BUT they are not as likely to be interested in *me.*

If I post on their blogs, I am much less likely to find that they will in turn become a regular reader, and commentator, on my blog. Perhaps this is a function of the breadth of material I cover on my blog: at times it can be about mundane personal stuff, while other times I post on random topics of interest to me. My blog does not have a topic-related focus (like you, my first motivation for starting a blog was to carve out a place in my life for writing and thought-development). So the opportunities for conversation are reduced in this second category, and *I am always going to be less invested in relationships where the conversation is minimal.*

A third category of blogs are the blogs I come upon because the writer posts comments on another blog I read, or is linked from that person's blog. We share a common interest or association, or we wouldn't both be reading the same blogs in the first place. But here is where it gets interesting.

In this third category, the extent to which I continue regularly reading and posting on these blogs depends primarily on the "fullness" of my prior "blog-reading" schedule in addition to *whether they fill a void.* For example, if the writer I know by association posts similar things as the writer who authors the blog we both read, I will usually stop by his/her blog on occasion but do not *regularly* read the blog (unless I comment and then they come and comment on my blog, in which case, we've entered into a shared conversation).

I actually will regularly read some blogs that are totally off the wall of my usual interests simply because they stimulate my mind once I get to reading, and I am not reading similar stuff elsewhere on the web. So in fact, in this category, I am actually a bit *less* likely to regularly read blogs of those who have many shared interests...simply because I am likely already reading other blogs on those topics of shared interests.

My final category of blogs I read is this: stuff I come upon by happenstance. You know this old story, for start doing an internet search on something, and one topic leads to another. Pretty soon you are in a totally different place than where you set out to be, but you find it interesting, so you stick around. These blogs make great reading for a while, but often I find my interest to be strong yet short-lived. I do, however, periodically check back in on particularly memorable blogs despite their status as being a random read for me.

I have a pretty singular motivation for posting comments on a blog, regardless of the above category into which it fits. My motivation is conversation. Yes, sometimes the exact nature of interest in the conversation has slight variances. With family and friends, I have found our blogs to be an interesting medium to get to know everyone just a little bit better, in addition to having some common or shared interests. This happens a lot in other categories, but my starting level of investment in the relationship is just a bit different.

And this starting level of investment in the relationship actually brings me to the following. Because I post comments with a fairly singular motivation (to be in conversation), I post comments on blogs for this reason almost exclusively: because I think the person on the receiving end of my comment has some interesting things to say, and I feel that my comment helps me to hear more.

This ultimately keeps me motivated to post comments on blogs where one of three things happen:

1. The blogger posts responses to comments.
2. The blogger visits my blog and posts comments. (OR)
3. While the blogger may not respond to each comment, the blogger does post conversational responses in further blog posts.

The most gratifying I have found is when the blogger visits my blog and posts comments. It says to me, "what you have to say is interesting to me too, and I like our conversations," or "thanks for talking with me...I'd like to get to know you better," or "let's keep talking about this," or "let's talk about other stuff too," or "I am learning something from you," or "I am learning stuff about you, and I like that."

So when you boil it down to the most simplified form, yeah, a comment on a blog says, "I am reading this. I care." But that is not the truest and most full account of comment motivation.

Do I not care about those whose blogs I don't comment on? Absolutely not! I will often read a stranger's blog only to find myself very sad for them when I learn their sister has breast cancer or tremendously joyful and relieved for them when I learn they have found a job after months of joblessness. So I try not, for example, to feel too bummed when someone whose blog I read regularly doesn't in turn come to post comments on my blog. Because I know it is more complex than that.

When the starting level of investment in the relationship is higher, it usually also means that there are other means of conversation with the person. Thus reading a stranger's blog does take on a slightly different connotation. At the same time, I have "internet buddies" I have known for 10 years...some I eventually met up with "in real life." People who sent cards to me and G. for our wedding. People I have sent baby blessings upon the birth of a baby, and even people to whom I have sent flowers upon death of a family member. I have people I have spoken with daily online for 5 or 10 years, people I consider friends. A commitment to a stranger online develops as it does in real life, through an ongoing growing investment in the relationship with one another. A shared interest or association is often a tremendous start to that, but it isn't the exclusive start.

Alright, enough rambling from me. I just felt like maybe this was skimming the surface of something still deeper.

Love, S.

P.S. The phase of thinking you were indestructible was sort of short for me. Because I am so anxiety-prone, I began at a very early age (despite outward actions that might seem to the contrary) to worry very much about all my family members. Heck, not even just family members. I remember worrying about musicians on Saturday Night Live. Did these musicians KNOW they were coming on a show of jokes, I wondered. Some of them seemed so serious in their songs, and I worried that they didn't know what SNL was before going on and that they were in essence the butt of a greater joke. How silly it is to think of it now with my adult sensibilities, but I really worried about it for a while as a kid. With you, I always worried that someone-- even us as a whole family-- would hurt your feelings.

I was actually just thinking about this the other day. I was driving down the street and passed a biker on the wrong side of the road. It reminded me of a time when I was little, and in the car with you, and you saw a young biker (young teen, perhaps) riding dangerously and on the wrong side of the road. You slowed down and talked to him about it, and he responded defensively. As a kid, that nagged at me for days. I felt sorry he treated you the way he did. I knew your heart was in the right place, and I worried you had been hurt by his reaction.

Now as an adult, I do stuff like that all the time myself, and I have the life experience to know the different ways people might react to me and to feel comfortable with that and go forward anyway. I also know you had (and obviously still have) that too, but when I was a kid, I worried that somehow you didn't realize that person might be harsh with you. It didn't occur to me as a kid that your age and life experience was semi-protective, you know, and that you were making choices according to the "risks" you felt worthwhile.

It's late, and I haven't taken my anti-seizure med yet tonight, so I may not be making any sense. I hope the whole comment isn't incoherent.

Silver Gerety said...

"On an emotional level, one of the favorite pastimes of the family is putting me in humiliating situations."

Heather and I are still planning on signing you up to compete on Master of Dance. We really think you have what it takes!

sf said...

Colin is very, very sorry he did not make the cut for Flower Girl on May 24th.

plastic stanchions said...
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