You know how, when you are having an argument, occasionally the other person will say “I don’t think you are really seeing this from my perspective.”? Well, he/she is correct. You are not seeing things from his/her perspective. Because, as a human, the only perspective you can fully “see things” from is your own. The only way a person can experience the world of stimuli is with the self as center. Sure, you can try to take the perspective of the other, but ultimately, in doing so you are using your standpoint through which to attempt to replicate the standpoint of the other. The only eyes you can see with are yours. The only ears you can hear with are yours. The only brain you can process stimuli with is yours. The only set of experiences through which you can understand what you encounter is yours. Functionally then, you are the center of your perceptual world. Everything else radiates out from you.
However, that perceptual reality leads us to, sometimes, feel that we really are the center of the universe. And by “we” I definitely mean me. Think about the small situations that happen in life where someone – maybe the boss at work – announces that _____ has been occurring and must stop. The first response most people experience, “It wasn’t me!” Or when we flip the channel and catch the weather report and realize it’s going to be really cold tomorrow, it’s pretty rare for our first thought to not be about how that impacts us individually, even though it’s likely a far more serious issue for someone who is living on the streets.
In online communication, it seems like this can become even more heightened. When the conversation with the boss happens, if there are other people in the room, perhaps that reduces the immediate need for self-defensiveness, because it leaves a small window of possibility that maybe the boss isn’t really talking to you. But, if you are sitting at home, alone, reading that facebook message or blog post that seems to be talking directly to you, it’s easy to forget that there are many many readers and that the writer may not have intended it for you at all.
This might explain, to some degree, the level of defensiveness that happens in online discussions, even on sites that are ostensibly about building community. A writer talks about overly self-righteous yogis and individual readers feel accused and respond from that perspective – even if the writer does not know them and doesn’t seem to be saying that ALL yogis are that way. A mother who is using formula feeding for her infant reads an article about the cognitive/emotional benefits of nursing and feels personally attacked. A man who eats based on a Paleo diet reads a blog post about research on health impacts of animal protein and feels that the author is somehow saying he has made a poorly reasoned choice and responds with anger to the post. And the examples go on and on. I can certainly admit that there are times when I’ve read things online that are positions contradictory to mine and immediately had a defensive or angry response about that claims being made “about me,” and yet the claims really aren’t about me as an individual.
Right about now you might be thinking, “So, what, Lorin? This is all very philosophically interesting (or not), but why should I care?” The underlying point here is that, while the individual-centeredness of our perceptual experience may encourage us to slide into this view of self as the center of everything, when we can’t see it happening, and we respond to messages that contradict our own viewpoints with defensiveness and anger, we lose the opportunity to even approach limited understanding the perspective of the other. And without that, we reduce our potential to grow and change, and the ability to create connection.
The Internet gives us an amazing wealth of opportunity to open our mind’s eye to the experiences of others. We can, however partially, get a glimpse of other ways of being in the world that are vastly different from our own. It’s one of the biggest advantages of this worldwide participatory communication medium. Through online conversation, on discussion forums and blogs and community sites, we have a crazily wonderful potential to widen our perspectives through communication with the diverse other. But, it requires us to be open to “hearing” things that challenge us.
Confirmation of our own viewpoints is a nice thing. And, sometimes we need it. But, without experiencing some non-confirming information, and some alternative perspectives, we stagnate. We can’t develop as individuals or as a community. We risk forgetting that at the end of it all, the universe is about the unity, not about the u.