Wasted words?

by Terence MacNamee

One of the problems of life in modern society is being heard if you have something to say. Under a dictatorship, the situation is clear: you are not allowed to speak your mind. If you want to, you have to do it secretly, in some kind of underground setting. In the democratic West, there is free speech. But often enough this turns out to be an illusion: you can say what you like, but nobody is listening.

George Steiner wrote how the Soviet regime persecuted poets and writers who questioned or satirized it, and they had to circulate their writings by samizdat. The regime, he notes, was actually paying them a compliment. It took them seriously. “What Western regime flinches at a poem?” he asked rhetorically.

More recently, the Internet has been providing great opportunities for people to speak their minds and discuss things with others. Governments in some countries still don’t like this, of course. Yet in the Western World, the new technology often just reinforces the old lesson that you may speak but you will not be heard – where it counts.

Navneet Alang wrote a piece last year about this in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Looking at the comments section in online editions of newspapers, he was struck by the tendency of the commentators to be excessive, inflammatory and offensive. He thought it came from a feeling of impotence and powerlessness. There is the option to comment on what you read, but deep down you know it will have no effect.

The unpleasant and cringe-worthy comments one sees in these online forums, Alang says, need not be a reflection of what their anonymous author is really like. “Instead, they may actually be a very understandable human response to the fact that the comment box is a strange, frustrating kind of double bind: a chance to speak your mind, but a reminder that no one is listening.”

He called for solutions “providing ways for everyday people to stop feeling so disenfranchised.” I do not know what these solutions might be. But it is already something, I think, if we can identify the problem.