Monday, June 1, 2009
I was scrolling through the blogs on my list the other day, and stopped at one of them to see a new posting. As I read, I was surprised to find that the usually very thoughtful and articulate blogger had said some things about another blogger that I perceived as just plain personal attacks. Now, there's no lack of nastiness and petty behavior on the internet, but my surprise was that this was coming from someone who seems to have a pretty strong Buddhist practice going, and definitely pays attention to the subtleties of Buddhist teachings.
So, I did something I have only done a few other times online: I sent the blogger a comment questioning the use of disparaging language towards another.
The result was a very fruitful and respectful dialogue that brought up all sorts of questions for both of us.
Right now, I'm interested in how internet use, and specifically blogging and other sorts of online spiritual dialogues can be done in such a was as remain to true to our deepest values and intentions. In other words, in my case, how does one blog and dialogue online in a dharmic way? And even more to the point, how can we disagree, question, or even show compassion in this format?
In some ways, I think this is another example of the technology developing at a much more rapid pace than the human mind's ability to work with it. We can do all sorts of things with the internet, and have made connections that were unimaginable even twenty years ago, and yet at the same time, people routinely say things about others online that they would never say to someone in person. Check out any chat site dealing with politics: discussions often quickly turn into pathological shouting matches where the "other" is turned into the most awful devil imaginable, or said to be the most stupid person or people on the planet. Go to the sports discussion pages, and you'll find people threatening to kill each other because they disagree about the talent of Tom Brady or the greatness of the New York Yankees. Slip into the romance and sex chat rooms and you'll find all sorts of destructive fantasies being played out, and all sorts of degrading talk occurring. And even here in the land of spiritual people - the oh, that kind of stuff doesn't happen here land, right? - yeah, even here, you'll find people battling it our over who is more "pure," or who is "better" because they are "more traditional" or "more non-traditional." It's all pretty crazy if you ask me.
There are numerous examples of the content of people's online writing having very direct consequences in the "real world." People have been not hired or fired based on comments made on their Facebook or Myspace pages. It's clear that some politicians, including current U.S. President Obama, have gained office partly out of the efforts they and their supporters put into online writings. There have numerous cases of teenage girls being seduced online by adult sexual predators, and then those same writings have been used to prosecute the adults in question. There have been other teens who have committed suicide as a direct result of comments made to them or about them online. The list goes on and on.
But these kinds of things are pretty easy to see. They are the high impact cases, the ones where it's easy to see that someone's words have done something - have changed things in some way.
What about the "little stuff" though? What about the "fuck you" to some other blogger? Or the anonymous personal slam of someone commenting on a blog piece? Or those pissing matches you got into with someone online that you have justified as "just blowing off steam"?
If you wonder about any of these questions above, try this: take a look at the comments section of Zen Teacher Brad Warner's site - http://hardcorezen.blogspot.com/. Spend 15-20 minutes just reading the comments section and then notice how you feel. Then think of the blogger himself, and how he might be experiencing all this. (I get the sense that he doesn't read the comments all that often anymore, but at some point, I can imagine he did.)
I guess my question is this: Are we dropping the dharma - our spiritual teachings about interacting with each other - off at the door when we come online? And if so, what does that say about our practice, and our experiences online as spiritual practitioners?
There a few things that I think are important to remember in all of this. First, there are some serious limitations to human interaction on the internet. We don't get to observe body language, or speech tone, for the most part - so major parts of communication are cut off right there. Second, we're all struggling to express ourselves in words - and when it comes to talking about the big, deep questions of life, words struggle to express it, and are at best, pointers towards that which we are trying to actually speak of. Finally, like anywhere else, the internet is a location of samsaric activity - in other words, suffering is unfolding on here just as it does in the rest of the world, no matter what.
These are my initial thoughts about this. Maybe some of you have more. I welcome comments, but mostly I hope to spark some questions for us here in cyberspace to contemplate.
Posted by Nathan at 6:44 PM