‘Hell is other people” said the typically misanthropic Frenchman. But if there’s one thing we’re learning during our sustained lockdown, it’s that Hell is also, very concretely, the lack of people.
Of course, many of us are not completely devoid of other people. There might be family or housemates (whose presence, two months on, may be proving Jean-Paul Sartre’s point only too well), and there is, of course, Zoom — and all the other forms of social interaction online, not least social media. But these oases notwithstanding, our sustained fast from real physical contact raises all sorts of questions about how we interact as human beings.
Our behaviour online is instructive and, if the last two months are anything to go by, depressing. It was inevitable, I suppose, that Twitter in general, and Anglican Twitter in particular, would descend into snarling and personal abuse. As the fourth-century pagan, Ammianus Marcellinus observed, “No wild beasts are so deadly to humans as most Christians are to each other.”
But the sight of the followers of the Prince of Peace knocking seven levels of hell out of each other online has not been edifying. I shall refrain from relitigating the debates on these pages: if you’re a member of Anglican Twitter you’ll probably have your scars and if you’re not, you probably aren’t interested.
Why is Zoom coffee or cocktail hour so thoroughly less engaging than the real thing?
What I am interested in exploring, however, is what this says about how we are going to have to live in the short to medium term. We are already being told not to expect to be “back to normal” for at least another two years. Social distancing will continue to be the norm. Most of our interactions are going to be online.
Why are we so inclined to be unpleasant to one another when interacting online? Why is a Welsh minister more likely to swear about, and in front of, a colleague on Zoom than in the chamber? Why is a person less human, their feelings less real, if they are not physically in front of us?
The loss of our social cues (the thousand little things that tell us how we’re being interpreted) allows us to indulge our worse instincts without the normal circuit-breaks provided by instinctive empathy.
Why is Zoom coffee or cocktail hour so thoroughly less engaging than the real thing? For one thing we’re not actually having the same experience. I might be distracted by the presence of a cat while you’re keeping an eye on two children off screen. Our experiences of the exact same meeting are radically different.
This matters. We are simply not in the same place, physically or mentally. This is why the promise of online interaction does not compensate for the loss of real human contact.
This is draining. This is isolating. This is life in lockdown.
But maybe there are the seeds of hope in all this. Although so much seems familiar, what we’re really doing right now is negotiating a whole new social code in an incredibly short space of time. That we recognise our online discourse to be toxic is the best sign that we are moving towards the next stage: working out how to live our lives, well, online.
This means working out what the nuances of online living actually mean. Take an online church service: I’d like to think I put on a good show, but I know that there are various points when, during the service, people hit their phones. Suddenly the online chats start to fire up. You see tweets from members of your congregation. You then realise that if you’ve seen them, you’re on your phone yourself. There’s such a difference between being in a sacred place, with its smells and sounds and social norms, and being in your living room.
At the moment, services basically replicate what you’d get in church. But that will have to change. You are not in church. You will respond differently. New ways of encountering the Divine will start being discerned and new social norms will start developing.
We are already seeing that with Zoom (not encountering the Divine, not yet at any rate). We’re learning to mute ourselves immediately, because that’s the socially appropriate thing to do. Maybe soon we’ll engage our social brain and learn how to treat each other properly on new media like Twitter, and people will find new organic ways to signal that others have caused hurt or gone too far.
But until then, as a way of reminding ourselves that public performative cruelty is nothing new, maybe we need to heed those words from the firmly pre-digital eighth century BC: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Or we might find we’ve made a hell of other people, without even seeing those other people.
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