In case the conversation seems to be unfolding a bit more slowly than usual, let me explain that our seminar has experienced some delays in posting due to an as yet unexplained glitch in the moderation system. We hope for a solution soon; meanwhile, we carry on.
Many thanks to those who have contributed thus far. Here I shall respond to the posts from Michael, Liz, and Judith.
Michael, I appreciate your observations that we are “overreachers”, engaged in a titanic enterprise, the internet being our Promethean fire, a force which is “reshaping every aspect of group making,” and that (among other things) “the maintenance and renewal of democracy is at stake.” As the myths tell us, such overreaching is part of our nature; humanity must continue to break the old vessels and dare to go beyond what has been tamed, digested, and systematized. One reason I turn to these myths is that they show the peculiar qualities of the suffering that attends radical change (even needed change which we may consider to be overall positive and progressive). The lack of embodiment I mentioned in my paper can help us to break out of our confinement in a particular geographic and cultural space, but it can also be alienating and addictive, as Liz notes. Sometimes when I have been working hard at internet communication I begin to feel stretched thin — as though my molecules are getting too far apart from each other.
Judith seems to want a more conclusive assessment of the positive and negative aspects of living in an internet culture. However, as Liz notes, “we now exist in cyberspace as well as in our physical environments”; we are swimming in this medium and cannot just give it a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down response. My interest is in elaborating and reflecting upon the experience so that we become more aware of both its benefits and its dangers.
Here is an example of the upside and the downside. Liz mentioned online bullying as a common problem, especially among adolescents. This brought to mind a case of using the internet to combat bullying. Several years ago, a large organization to which I belong, which has branches around the United States and overseas, had one branch that was being driven into the ground by a bully who was the top executive officer in that region. Ideological and policy issues were being used as a pretext and screen for the bullying behavior, and the organization’s ideals and rules were being systematically subverted (used to defeat their own purposes) in order to break down opposition to the bully. People’s careers and lives, not to mention that branch of the organization itself, were being ruined. I was following the situation on several blogs and at a critical point was able to write and post a paper on how bullying works, how it was operative in the present situation, and how to combat it and recover from it. This became a resource for the people who were in the thick of that struggle — just one way in which a lively assortment of bloggers and blog-readers rallied round and helped to save the day.
Liz mentions (based on the JAP papers) the possibility that cyberspace involvement, despite its potential pitfalls, can actually serve developmental needs; for example: Rytovaara “argues that social networking offers forms of vitality, a love of life and action which can in the right dosage transform feelings of deadness and disconnectedness”; while “Tyminski is open to the possibility that internet interaction may serve to rewire and repair deeply damaged relationship patterns whereby we are able to develop new psychological ‘skins'”. I agree with Liz that not only adolescents but adults of various ages can find such transformation through online contacts.
With particular relevance to our theme of individuation, groups, and cyberspace, I have observed that online communication that works to effect transformation or healing in the group (as in the bullying crisis mentioned above) is empowering and at times therapeutic for individual members. This effect can be seen not only in cases where the individual has a personal stake in the transformation of the group — for example, when a lesbian or gay person works to bring about legal or religious recognition of same-sex marriage or other rights — but across the board. Individuals are nourished, empowered, and healed by being effective as citizens, family members, and group participants.
Over the past few weeks in the city of Baltimore this reality has been very much on display. A 25-year-old man named Freddie Gray was arrested without cause on the streets of his own neighborhood, handcuffed and shackled and thrown into the metal compartment in the back of a police van without being secured by a seatbelt, given a rough ride through the city, and repeatedly ignored when he asked for medical assistance. When he finally arrived at the police station he was found to be unresponsive. He died a week later in the hospital. Today, after nearly two further weeks of police investigation, his death was declared a homicide and indictments were handed down against the six officers who handled him during that arrest process.
In the meantime the city has undergone great anguish and turmoil. Mostly peaceful demonstrations dominated the picture, but after Mr. Gray’s funeral on Monday rioting and arson broke out. Stores were looted and police cars and buildings were burned. When the trouble erupted that night, a group of about 70 African-American clergymen, together with Congressman Elijah Cummings and other community leaders, walked out into the streets of the city arm-in-arm, stopping to talk with distraught and angry young people, including gang members, and pausing to kneel down in the broken glass on the pavement to pray with whoever would join them. Moving through the troubled neighborhoods, they gathered young men who wanted to talk and brought them back to New Shiloh Baptist Church, where the funeral had taken place earlier. Among these were members of three local gangs, all African-Americans, who said they were trying to stop the violence, calm the young ones, and protect their communities. They made a commitment to work with the clergy and their fellow citizens to help restore order. What they wanted in turn was to be heard and respected as men and as community members. After the meeting a local news reporter, a white woman, approached them with respect and got an amazing on-camera interview with them.
A state of emergency had been declared, National Guard troops were patrolling the streets, schools were closed Tuesday, and a 10 p.m. curfew was imposed. From Tuesday morning on, people came out of their homes and got to work being citizens. They showed up by the dozens to help sweep the streets and clean up damaged or looted stores. On Wednesday, when schools had reopened, a supermarket chain came into the hardest-hit area (where there were no food stores open) with truckloads of groceries; the Baltimore Ravens football team came in force (some 50 men) to unload and distribute the food and supplies to whoever needed them, and also visit kids in the nearby schools to reassure and encourage them. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played a free outdoor concert at lunchtime. Churches were not only open for prayer but hosting meetings to plan actions for justice, relief, and reform. Teenaged dance troupes, drummers, and marching bands came out to perform on the roughest corner where violence had prevailed on previous nights. Students from all the local colleges marched together to City Hall.
While there is still much pain in our city, the joy in the faces of all these people has been remarkable. They are standing up, not just against one case of police brutality ending in murder, not just against an outbreak of looting and burning, but against long-standing injustices that destroy the lives of the poor and separate us from one another. We are all sick and tired of de facto racial segregation, mass incarceration, economic injustice, inadequate education, militarization of the police, and the misplaced priorities of our society. Taking action in support of change, and of each other, makes each one of us feel more whole and powerful.
In my paper for this seminar I wrote about the difficulty of creating community via our discussion list when we can’t see each other’s faces or body language or be in the same locality and time zone. Here in Baltimore, though, we are experiencing the capacity of the internet and related technologies to create intimacy and coordinate action. Freddie Gray’s wrongful and violent arrest might have gone uninvestigated had it not been for personal cellphone video and store surveillance cameras. E-mail, Twitter and other social media enabled people to circulate information about protest rallies, prayer services, meetings, and needs for food, medicine, and help with cleanup. The funeral was webcast, as were speeches and discussions at local universities. Local television coverage (leaning on internet resources as well as conventional broadcast approaches) has been extremely effective, enabling many different segments of the community to see and connect with each other in a timely way.
As Michael wrote, “the maintenance and renewal of democracy is at stake.” The totality of this coverage and connectivity enabled us all to participate in the funeral, grieve a needless death, and be stirred to the core by the magnificent oratory; to walk the streets virtually in the middle of the night, weep at the smashed storefronts and burning buildings; and to witness that amazing meeting of the black clergy and community leaders with the gang members — a vitally important bit of shadow work for our city. Each of us, seeing what others are doing (playing music, sweeping streets) is encouraged to do his or her own part. We are both humbled and enlarged by each other. We individuate together as we build our city together.
More tomorrow. Mats, I shall write to you about “Being Different”.
Best to all,