Recovering Our Humanity through Writing and Conversation
Conversation Across Your Networks, Part 3. A series focused on conversation within The Networks of Relationships Series.
Welcome To The Machine
My plan was to write about how to have conversations with our connections on social media. However, all of this went sideways as I reflected on Rich Roll’s interview with Max Fisher.
I ordered Max Fisher’s book, The Chaos Machine, and immediately knew that the problem is not conversation. It is the deeper issue of what happens to us as human beings when we find that social media becomes our primary connection point with people.
To place this in context, here’s a piece from Max Fisher’s book, The Chaos Machine.
Facebook’s strategy, as he described it, was not so different from Napster’s. But rather than exploiting weaknesses in the music industry, it would do so for the human mind. “The thought process that went into building these applications,“ Parker told the media conference, “was all about, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” To do that, he said, “We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments.“ He termed this the “social-validation feedback loop, “ calling it “exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” He and Zuckerberg “understood this” from the beginning, he said, and “we did it anyway.”
I realized that social media represents a transition for us. It isn’t just from an online social community to an online auditorium for watching videos. More importantly, it is a change in how we function as human beings. This is what I want to begin to look into. This is just a starting point. Just a place to begin to talk about our future as persons and the human community globally.
Also, since I believe social media is here to stay, I don’t think simply cutting yourself off from it is a sustainable answer for the future. Said differently, we need to be smarter about our social media experience by asking questions about what is happening. I believe that today nothing is hidden. Everything is in view for the person who is willing to take the time to discover just what is going on. I’m in the middle of this process just as most of you are. And, as Max Fisher tells this story,
“… no one quite knows how the algorithms that govern social media actually work. The systems operate semi-autonomously, their methods beyond human grasp.”
Don’t Write a Book! Just Write.
The problem that I see is that we are losing facets of our humanity that are fundamental to our functioning as people. Let me describe this in terms of people that I met during my Circle of Impact book tour in 2019.
At every event, someone would come up to me and want to know about my experience in writing a book. To them, that was more interesting that the book itself.
Someone would normally say, “Oh, I could never write a book.”
I’d bluntly say to them, “With that attitude you are probably right. The purpose isn’t to write a book. It is to discover what is inside of you, and find some way to articulate it for your own benefit.”
They would then just stare at me in disbelief.
Now I say, “You need to spend some time every day writing down your thoughts. Don’t write a book. Just write for yourself. If there is a book in there, it will show itself.”
This is how to start the recovery of one’s humanity lost through social media.
Humanity Recovery Step #1:
Find Balance between your online connections and your focus on discovering the humanity that is within you.
My guess is that the books that you love are by writers who are skilled wordsmiths. They did not develop that skill by spending hours a day on social media. The writers that I know limit their amount of time online. They focus on the craft of writing.
There needs to be a balance. And that balance has a purpose. Write to discover yourself. Go online to discover what other people are like. Do not go there to measure yourself. Go there to better understand that audience for your creative endeavors
Humanity Recovery Step #2:
Start writing now. Don’t stop writing. Ever
If you do have something to say, and yet, you aren’t writing, then my advice is to open up a Substack account and start writing there. It is the best online place for writers and readers to find one another. Will you embarrass yourself? Yes, of course. We all do. It is part of the learning process. There is no contribution to other people’s lives through writing without participating in the writing process.
May you find that writing is nourishment for your soul and your conversation with people.
Humanity Recovery Step # 3:
Start keeping a journal.
Keep it with you at all times. Write down what crosses your mind. Jot down words, phrases, and at times paragraphs. Watch, listen, observe, and ask questions. Engage in conversation. Not to express your opinion, but to discover the rich beauty of the world we live in.
The more you do this the more in touch you will be with your mind and emotions. You will that not only are you happier, but also more disturbed, and uneasy about what you see. Don’t be an Ostrich or a Peacock. Be the Sheepdog.
Humanity Recovery Step #4
Let people read your writing even if it is not perfect.
There was another type of person who would come up to my table at these book events. They are the ones who are writing, and may even be writing a book. I ask them about it. Many of them are writing memoirs. Some are creating poetry, some are fan-fiction, and a few were trying their hand at mystery writing. For every one of these people, I offered to read their writing and give them my thoughts. Only one or two people have ever done this.
As I was writing my Circle of Impact book, my first draft was sent to an editor. As an editor, she was a real ninja. The result was that I cut eight chapters out. Then I gave draft #2 to a few people to read.
While visiting my friend Marcos in Slovenia, I gave him the draft to read. The next morning he said, “You assume people already know about the Circle of Impact.” I had left out a description of my leadership model. How embarrassing. His advice led to the inclusion of four new chapters and the reorganization of the book.
While I was on that month-long trip in Europe, I had my assistant Natalie read it. Upon my return, I asked her what she thought. She said, “You are not going to like this.” Uh oh! What else did I leave out, I thought. “It showed that I’m not supposed to be working for you. I need to leave to go follow my passion of working with women.” Even an incomplete work of writing can have an impact.
I am not dividing the world into writers and non-writers. Instead, I see people who are writers and people who need to start writing. Each of us needs to learn how to better articulate what is going on in our heads and hearts so that we can better communicate with people. This is the heart of conversation. We are communicating with people about the things that matter to us.
Humanity Recovery Step #5:
Join a writer’s group.
If you are writing, it is great to have people close to you, who are willing, to be honest with you, to read your work. It is even better to have people who don’t know you read it. They will see what your family and friends cannot see. They are much more objective. Somewhere in your community, maybe at your local bookstore or public library, there are groups of writers who meet to read their writing to one another. Join them even if all you can produce is one paragraph a week.
Why are Writing and Conversation So Closely Tied Together?
Our ability to think rationally, make choices, and articulate our reasons for those choices is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Social media culture diminishes those skills and inclinations.
There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens. This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones.
The first-order desire is the basic, “I am hungry. I going to eat something.” The second-order of desire is one that we human beings have just to ourselves. We have the capacity to evaluate our choices. “I am hungry. Do I desire to eat chicken or fish?” With both orders of human agency, we normally are free to decide what we want. Harry Frankfurt in his essay The Freedom of the Will and The Concept of a Person describes this in the context of understanding for our freedom of the will is.
It seems to me both natural and useful to construe the question of whether a person’s will is free in close analogy to the question of whether an agent enjoys freedom of action. Now freedom of action is (roughly, at least) the freedom to do what one wants to do. Analogously, then, the statement that a person enjoys freedom of the will means (also, roughly) that he is free to want what he wants to want. More precisely, it means that he is free to will what he wants to will, or have the will he wants. Just as the question about the freedom of an agent’s action has to do with whether it is the action he wants to perform, so the question about the freedom his will has to do with whether it is the will he wants to have. (emphasis mine)
Ask yourself this question. “Does my social media engagement point to the kind of freedom that Frankfort describes?” As human beings, I believe that we want the kind of freedom he describes. We want to be free to want what we want and free to do what we want to do. In other words, our freedom leads to our second-order desire becoming more highly developed. We not only know what we want but what we don’t want. This is a deeper want than wanting a new car. This is the kind of want where the values that are truly meaningful to us are realized in our freedom to act to do that which we want to do.
Humanity Recovery Step #6:
Begin your writing project by stating what your goal for writing is.
Is it self-expression? Is it to gain skills in thinking and articulation? Is it to become a better conversationalist?
For your first writing project, state what you want and what you don’t want in your life. Do not analyze it. Don’t think too much. Just write down what you want. Later, you can ask why you wrote that down.
Humanity Recovery Step #7:
Identify those social and organizational settings where you feel free to want what you want and can do what you want to do.
Think about all the social and organizational situations that you find yourself in. Grade them on a scale of 1-5. One is no freedom to be yourself and five is the best of possible worlds of freedom for me.
When your second-order skills are functioning at a high level. You will know how to say No because you are actually saying Yes to something that really matters to you.
Develop those discernment skills by asking,
Am I free to be myself in that situation with those people?
Is this a context that provides me a more ideal setting for my freedom to will what I want and do what I want to do? If not, then where can I find a setting where I can?
Making Qualitative Evaluations
I am pointing toward the reality that our capacity to make choices based on value distinctions through the interplay of heart and mind is a major part of what makes us human. Charles Taylor describes it this way.
But what is missing … is a qualitative evaluation of my desires; the kind of thing we have, for instance, when we refrain from acting on a given motive – say, spite, or envy – because I consider it base or unworthy. In this kind of case our desires are classified in such categories as higher and lower, virtuous and vicious, more and less fulfilling, more and less refined, profound, and superficial, noble and base. They are judged as belonging to qualitatively different modes of life: fragmented or integrated, alienated or free, saintly, or merely human, courageous or pusillanimous and so on.
What we have here is a picture of how we create a life that is meaningful and impactful. This is why I see leadership not as a role we perform, but rather as how we live.
This is the extension of the freedom that we have. It is how writing, conversing, acting, and wanting can all be melded together to create an authentic human life. Who would have thought a post about conversations in the context of social media would end up an excursion into understanding our humanity? Oh, if it was just this simple.
The Truth We All Know Is True
If this idea of freedom that Frankfurt and Taylor describe was so simple, then life would be easy. But we know that it is not. In fact, we are constantly at war with ourselves and others because everyone wants what they want in the way they want it. And they want it with little regard for other people. It is one of the reasons that conversation is so difficult in many social settings.
There is a problem we must face. First outlined by French scholar René Girard as mimetic desire, this idea is that human beings learn through imitation. We learn a language this way. We learn that some desires and actions are healthy and others not by watching and learning from people. We also learn to lie, cheat, steal, and destroy people and systems.
Mimetic desire, because it is social, spreads from person to person and through a culture. It results in two different movements – two cycles – of desire. The first cycle leads to tension, conflict, and volatility, breaking down relationships and causing instability and confusion as competing desires interact in volatile ways. This is the default cycle that has been most prevalent in human history. It is accelerating today.
It is possible to transcend that default cycle, though. It’s possible to initiate a different cycle that channels energy into creative and productive pursuits that serve the common good. … They’re fundamental to human behavior. Because they are so close to us – because they operate within us – we tend to look past them. Yet these cycles are at work constantly.
We can see how the former movement, through the inherent exploitation of human weakness by social media platforms, has created a global environment of conflict and violence. Social media is a rich reservoir of mimetic discord. Even if you do not participate in social media, you experience its conflict because of the people that you know.
These two cycles find their way into our lives as two models. These models show themselves in engagement with social media. Burgis writes:
Nobody likes to think of themselves as imitative. We value originality and innovation. We are attracted to renegades. But everybody has hidden models … two kinds of model affect us in different ways: those who are outside our immediate world and those who are inside of it. Mimesis has different consequences in each case.
So the truth we all know is that I sometimes desire what my friend desires and we both cannot have it. As a result, we find conflict. Max Fisher shows how social media platforms are addictive. At a surface level, it neutralizes, pacifies, and paralyzes us from being a person whose freedom of the will is alive and well.
Human Recovery Step #8:
The choice is yours.
You decide what you value. You decide that you want more conversation. You decide where you give your time. You choose to participate or now. If you do participate, you decide how you will contribute. The ironic reality is that no one is obligating you to do anything. It is all up to you.
Whether you participate in social media or not is not really my concern. I am more interested in your finding a way to fulfill all those stirrings within you that suggest, maybe, that you write a book. That movement within your soul is your humanity speaking to you about who you truly are. However, in order to find your way, you must claim the freedom that is yours that we all have, to want what we want, to do what we want to do, and be the person we want to be.
Humanity Recovery Step #9:
Write Your Mimetic Biography
As I began to read Luke Burgis’ book, I saw my life flow past. I realized that I need to write my mimetic biography. I need to acknowledge the people who I looked up to and wanted to be like. I also need to see how my desire to be like other people creates jealousy in my heart.
Our freedom to move forward is the freedom that no one person should have an absolute claim on our lives. This is true for people who are close to us as well as for people who have power over us. This is why how we distinguish between our social connections and our personal relationships matters so significantly. For the measure of our relationships should be respect, trust, and mutual accountability. For those to take root in our relationships, we must be free to respect, trust, and be held accountable. We must be willing to give, sacrifice, and believe in one another.
Soon, I’ll post selections from the reading material that I turned to help me think more clearly about this subject. When I read, I am in conversation with the author. And sometimes I actually get to talk with them.