The Costume Party © JT Winik, 1998
“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” – Desmond Tutu
“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something” ~ Plato
Walk down the street, randomly choose a few people and sit a dozen of anyone down at a dinner table. Conversations arise, peppered only lightly with humble opinions, swallowed with a liberal dressing of good will and humour. That’s how strangers embark together … with a measure of reticence.
Interactions most often begin (if you’re Canadian) with the weather – not a terribly fruitful subject, but if you’re not living in a hurricane zone, it’s a comfortable place to start. Then, with dinner served, words dribble from our tongues and with the primal oohs and ahhs of a well savoured meal, conversation shifts toward cooking, perhaps, or restaurants – we recall a cozy nook somewhere in France or Italy, maybe, just a simple hole in the wall, where we relished the most exquisite this or that we’ve ever tasted. Tales of travels unwind, and the “best and the worst” of adventures spark laughter as we compare other cultures with our own, and then, what began as a conversation on food has morphed into a debate on genetic modification, corporate irresponsibility, and the blind eye of governments. This is the way conversation works, weaving and winding into an intricate pattern of shared perspectives and knowledge. At this point, voices may rise a little – because we’re passionate in our beliefs, and we each know a thing or two. I love this about dinner table conversations with like-minded friends – at the end of the evening we feel both verified and expanded, having both shared and learned. … Table talk with complete strangers, however, is a different sort of feast. At worst, you may gnaw at bones of contention until your teeth fall out – but at best, strangers, stirring the unfamiliar and introducing new flavours, may rouse ideas not formerly considered.
This brings me to the virtual dinner table of online discussions.
Recently, I’ve become involved with a few artists’ sites, online venues within which artists connect, exchanging ideas, information and opinions. To start with, there’s no need to talk about the weather and certainly no need for humility. You can jump right in and speak however you wish, about whatever you wish. This is not a bad thing, overall – however, as a Canadian, I do miss the protocol (:)) – and much as I hate to admit it, perhaps LOLs and emoticons do serve a purpose in online/email exchanges, if just to set the tone of all that we are blind to when faced with only the written word.
The thing is, face to face, with real people at a real table (be they friends or strangers), beyond the words shared, we’ve numerous and diverse cues to inform us of another’s perspective; gestures and body posture, eye contact, facial expression, voice quality (including volume, pitch, intonation, etc.) all build a picture of that person seated next to us and intuitively we surmise whether we feel a connection to that person or not. For instance, one might say something quite over-the-top and drastic but, with a self-deprecating smile or gesture, render it a joke.
Each of us, (whether our encounters be virtual or real) is a bundle of opinions and, often, a contradictory bundle at that. We all have our perspectives on food, art, architecture, music, film, literature, science, religion, sex, history, politics and everything else. Regardless of where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, what we’ve read or what we do, these topics are so historically and emotionally intertwined that when words spill in one area, they spread like an upturned glass over the tablecloth, potentially permeating the whole. Whatever the beverage, be it just the seemingly innocuous faint stain of virtual water, when we speak of art, for instance, we’ve seeped into the more volatile topics of politics, sex and religion. In the real world, by the time we raise glasses to the first toast in thanking our host for a beautiful meal, we know, by then, with whom we feel affinities (those who share our palate – and palette) and those we’d rather keep at arm’s length – because, although, sometimes compelled to tangle with another, one must also weigh the prospect of getting into a knot not worth undoing.
That said, on my first visits to these artists’ sites, I was surprised, astonished, really, at how visceral was the experience – how, without the myriad cues of communication afforded in real life contact, we surmise rather quickly with whom we’re dealing with. The credibility of our conjectures, naturally, is always in question as we’ve, in fact, but a partial picture – only words – on which to base our views. Yet, it seems a primal condition to humans, as with all animals, to determine with zip-zap speed, one’s “friends and enemies.” The terms friends and enemies is used figuratively, of course, but for the sake of illustration, we might think of it as line which defines “our side” versus “that side.”
Unlike face to face interactions, however, online exchanges permit us time to sit back and wonder: What is that person really saying? Is it worth responding to? Personally, vehement, blind splatters of words strike me as arm’s length. There may be something of value at the core of such expulsions but I’ve little inclination to wade through the mud. The glass spills on the virtual table, permeating all areas and, as one traces a line around the perimeters of that stain, if it’s shape replicates another Rorschach-like disgorgement, then, to my mind, it is best left as is.
So, inherently, human nature dictates that we define others on either side of a line – “our side meaning seamless acceptance and “that side” equating with disagreement. This is the way much of the world operates, after all. We see this simplistic rule of thumb employed on grand scales – in politics, in religious feuds, in the disparity between the haves and the have nots. Yet, we all know it’s all more complex than that. Different opinions when articulated and structured to enlighten, rather than to blind, can be of enormous value. A good adversary can do more than a good friend in enriching us with a new perspective. Yet, that rarely happens. Like kids in a sandbox, we seem most often to be knocking each other over the head with our plastic shovels. No big deal on an Artists’ site, maybe, but terrifying, given the state of the world.
All this said, visits into these online exchanges between artists have been, at the very least, an education. As with any group, it is a microcosm, reflecting the ways of the world in general, complete with its fragilities, and its strengths. At its best, though, it provides a venue in which many, if not most, are there to expand, share, and think together. Exciting things happen when barriers relax – and the doors to communication open to understanding, expansion and growth.