VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – In TheRepublic, Plato recounts a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon, that has become known as the Allegory of the Cave. The allegory is crucial to Plato’s philosophy as it outlines the basic metaphor from which the seminal theory of the Platonic forms is drawn. It is also critical because it explains the underpinnings of Socrates’ understanding of the baffling (to Socrates, at any rate) statement of the Oracle of Delphi that the wisest of mortals was, in fact, Socrates. Socrates spent the better part of his career as a philosopher trying to disprove the Oracle’s declaration because, in his own judgment, he was utterly ignorant; he knew that he knew nothing.
Briefly, the story that forms the allegory goes like this: Imagine prisoners who have been kept chained in a cave their entire lives. They face the wall of the cave and all they can see are the shadows cast on the cave’s wall by objects that pass behind them and in front of a fire. They come to believe that the shadows they see are, in fact, the whole of reality. Socrates then compares a philosopher to a prisoner who breaks out of his confinement and sees the world beyond the cave, and experiences the wonder and vastness of the world.
This, Socrates eventually concludes in Apology when he explains his life to the people of Athens before he is put to death, is what the oracle meant when she said that he was the wisest mortal; that he, unlike the prisoners, was aware that he knew nothing.
This came to mind recently when I was asked to chair and moderate a discussion on Canada’s military’s role nationally and internationally. The subject of the discussion is irrelevant, but what is relevant is that I when did this little gig, it was an increasingly rare venture outside of the cave.
For months now, I have been living inside that cave Plato described. My work consists of caring for a small boy who spends three mornings a week at preschool and the rest of the time under my direct observation. During that time, I write and read and research as much as I can, and other than the occasional speaking engagement, a brief conversation with a neighbour or delivery person forms my entire interaction with society; genuine conversation begins and ends with my wife…and Internet forums. Yolanda is at work (she is employed by a charitable organisation) for the bulk of the day, so I have recently spent more time than is entirely healthy exchanging thoughts and ideas with other denizens of the ‘Net. This, I felt, was useful because it would keep me in touch with the world, help me stay abreast of social trends, and maintain a finger on the pulse of the world of which I still assumed I was a part.
My assumption was wrong. I was not staying in touch; I was retreating into the cave and chaining myself up with the other prisoners. I was not seeing the world anymore; I was watching the flickering shadows on the cave’s wall and mistaking them for reality. I was actually losing touch with what defines us as a civilised society. Stepping back, I start to get a glimmer of how people in constant communication with thousands of people all over the world and with total access to news, as it happens anywhere on the planet, can be utterly alienated. I even start to get a sense of how that isolation and alienation can breed and nurture damaged people like Adam Lanza. I get that sense because so many of the keyboard warriors that spend their days lurking behind fictional registered personas are clearly disturbed and, being utterly unfettered by society’s direct disapprobation of truly offensive behaviour, feel free to express ideas and thoughts that ought to have them committed to at least thirty days of court ordered psychiatric observation.
When I was a university teacher; when I worked in newspaper, magazine, or even business offices; when I hung out in hotel bars with colleagues; when I routinely attended conferences and conventions; I had ample…perhaps even too ample….opportunity to exchange views, to explore ideas, to determine how others saw things. There was open, social, and informed discussion of news, of politics, religion, education, business, society in general; I was outside of the cave and I was seeing and participating in the wonder and vastness of the world.
But inside the cave, seeing nothing but the flickering shadows on the computer screen, we can become deluded into believing that we are experiencing, even participating, in the real world; we’re not. We can participate fully and robustly in news discussion forums and we can contribute to dedicated chat rooms, even serious minded ones, but if we think that is anything more than a pale analogue of full, genuine human interaction we are as deluded as the chained prisoners who believe that shadows are the whole of reality.
I suspect that is largely because of the anonymity that the Internet can offer. In the real world; in the cocktail bar and the coffee room and the faculty lounge, society imposes a degree of accountability on people for what they say, how they say it, and to whom they say it. That is entirely missing on the Web. Certainly the virtual world is developing its own protocols and rules of acceptable social behaviour; nevertheless, the Internet, compared to human society as an historical reality, is very young. It has the social strictures of a daycare centre without any supervision.
The result of this is a kind of Lord of the Flies existence in the cyberworld. It has broken up into factions and there are pockets of refinement, decency, and intelligent discussion. These are hard to find, however, and they are generally either moderated, which slows down and inhibits the free flow conversation or they require one to jump through hoops to register and this tends to encourage groupthink and its resulting reinforcement of preconceptions. By and large, the easy-to-use news forums are inhabited by the scrapings of the barrel`s bottom. There are thoughtful, intelligent users, but they tend to get shouted down, ganged up on, bullied, and derided by the keyboard warriors for whom calling people names passes for an exchange of ideas. If the people who dominate these forums had – in the real world – the courage and bellicosity they affect online, the outside world would be reminiscent of Manhattan in John Carpenter`s Escape from New York.
These general consumption forums (Yahoo News forums are perhaps the most obvious example) are trolled by ignorant, illiterate buffoons who love to trash any post that doesn`t express a political viewpoint to the right of Genghis Khan. The most prolific posters are passionate subscribers to every crackpot conspiracy theory; they are racist; they are astonishingly ignorant of history, science, and current events that aren`t reported by Fox “News”; the height of their wit is to refer to the US president as “O`Bammy”; they take it as an established fact that he is a Muslim communist Kenyan who conned all the “liberidiots”, as they refer to anyone who sees things differently from, say, Adolph Hitler.
Because I, and anyone for whom I hold any real respect, don’t take cheap shots and hide behind anonymity, I make it possible, even fairly easy for people on forums I frequent to identify me. It helps me avoid the temptation to sink to the level of the common denominator and it maintains a faint shadow of the kind of constraint imposed by normal societal interaction. But given the level of ignorance and pugnacity of those posters, combined with my inclination toward hardcore liberalism, perhaps that is a mistake.
I have had a thoughtful interlocutor call my four-year-old son JJ a “nigger”; I have had the same lowlife refer to my wife Yolanda as a “nigger whore”. This for no other reason than that he disagreed with my views on gun control and took the time to look me up online, research me and discover that my wife and child are insufficiently white to suit him.
It shames me to say that this scum is a Canadian. I have been similarly disparaged by people from other countries, but this one affected me because since we have been in Canada, my family has never, not once, been subjected to overt racism. But without societal constraint, this filth gets an airing and, worse, gets equal or greater play than those who abhor bigotry. It becomes seen by the dwellers of the Internet cave as a legitimate and widespread viewpoint.
So, when I recently stepped into the real world for a gig that involved listening to average people’s views and guiding a discussion of them, I dreaded the prospect and was concerned that they couldn’t pay me enough to have to listen to the garbage to which I would undoubtedly be subjected. And that was my surprise. The average people at the discussion were reasonably well informed; they were respectful; they listened and disagreed without derision. Some were smarter than others, and some had views that I couldn’t possibly share, but they were expressed rationally, if passionately. I was outside of the Cave.
The real world is a better place in some ways than the virtual world, because people have to live together. As long as it means only that one doesn’t gratuitously ridicule others or deliberately hurt people, political correctness apparently has its place. Society imposes a requirement that we don’t callously and deliberately abuse one another, because we can’t simply step away from our keyboard to avoid the repercussions.
People aren’t as stupid and venal as one would believe if one were to make an analysis based solely on what one could glean from the Internet. Outside of the cave there is a world of people of all sorts, there is wisdom, there is kindness, there is courtesy. The bad things are certainly there as well, but unlike inside the cave, or Carpenter’s New York, they don’t predominate.