On Bullshit, the Social Media Revolution, and the Greater Need (and Newfound Place) for General Semantics


On set today, I learned that one of my co-workers had been attacked on his way to work.  Apparently an “emotionally disturbed person,” naked, was walking the bridge as my co-worker biked along it.  My co-worker was attacked–hit by a bat or punched, I’m not sure–left with knocked-out teeth and a broken jaw.  The assailant fortunately was caught.

I hit Google News for the facts on the story.  I had missed the announcements on set about his injury and was only hearing bits and pieces and wanted to get up to speed.  I found one article and read it.  I also read about 8 comments that were posted on it.  The first one read quite despicably: The commenter essentially said that it was bizarre stories like these that motivate him or her to get up in the morning.  I passed my smartphone onto another co-worker for her to read the story.  She too read the comments and she too took offense to their despicable nature.

There were but a few of us sitting around and a conversation began about the nature of the internet and how it leads to such removal from stories.  Obviously, we were quite affected by the story of this person in this strange story because he was someone we knew.  The commenters, mostly likely, had no idea who this person was.  Their dissociation from our feelings and his feelings left them disaffected–or at least disaffected relative to our feelings and his feelings.  We agreed that something about the internet brings out this disaffect; likely, the relative anonymity provided by the internet encourages the utterance of less polite, more thoughtless, and more impolite communications.  Had these commenters had identifiable personas we could address directly, likely many of these sorts of comments they would not make.

But it wasn’t just that the internet is a land of anonymity that was the problem.  I argued that we currently generally have a value system that encourages instantaneous and immediate reaction.  We have Facebook which encourages continual status updates.  We have Twitter which encourages the same, albeit a bit more immediately.  Social networking seems to be mostly about connecting now with people it would take years to track down, and commuicating with them now rather than via letter, or phone call.  Texting also pressures immediacy; a text that goes unreplied can set up in the current culture greater demand for response and a compulsion for immediate reaction, more so than a phonecall or voicemail would demand.

The combination of an anonymous internet and a value in immediacy breeds what those of us in this conversation agreed wasn’t what we wanted: Bullshit.

We didn’t say it, but that’s what we were talking about.  There was bullshit being hocked online in the comments about my co-worker.  There was a lack of filter.  There was reactivity and perhaps hyper-reactivity exhibited in the commenters’ behavior.  We weren’t talking about bullshit as much as we were talking about immediacy of reaction, the lack of consideration for the consequences of immediate reactions, and (this is where general semantics comes right in) the lack of the ability to delay one’s reactions.

Signal reactions–that is, immediate reactions–contribute to a whole lotta bullshit.  Symbol reactions–that is, delayed reactions–may be the most effective combatant toward reducing a whole lotta bullshit.  Bullshit will still reside and slip through, but it won’t pollute the internet as much as it does now and is on course to do.

Are we talking about social maintenance?  Yes, I suppose we are.  But we had here a collection of people who all pretty much exhibited agreement that there was something wrong in the despicable behavior.  Perhaps this value judgment is similar to the judgment passed against murder, that there’s something wrong in that behavior, too.  Or rape.  Or fraud.  There are particular behaviors as a culture we promote, and there are particular behaviors as a culture we demote, even ban, and it is the promotion of immediate reaction that is going to dirty up, clog, etc., our virtual world as the promotion of fossil fuels for transport and heat might dirty up our actual world.

I didn’t get to make the point because then we started rolling on set and had to be quiet.  But the point I was about to make was in answer to the question, How do we get our kids away from this kind of behavior?  My thought was this: Get them to become scientists.  Get them to become journalists.  In both professions, the value is on delayed reaction.  Perhaps delayed reactions are more valued in science than in journalism.  Whatever the profession, both teach that instantaneous judgment often does not tell the story.  More information is needed.  More data must be collected.  Even then, the story is not done.  While an experiment may be finished or a news story published, there is still more of the story to tell, information left out, data to collect, and so on.

I wonder how many readers of online tabloids believe without question the captions put around the photographs of their beloved-to-gawk-at stars.  You get the sense based on commenters’ posts underneath those photos that many of them eat up every word.

I remember working on a film with an A-List star, and tabloid information that was blatantly false would come out in articles.  Tabloids would feast off of other tabloid stories, creating more bullshit.  As a result, there’s a whole bullshit story built online about the A-Lister.  Then, a day or so later, tabloids in other countries would pass on the bullshit to their readers.  By week’s end, people in Mumbai were reading bullshit about the A-List star.  Did the Mumbai newspaper check the facts, delay its reactions?  And furthermore, did their readers in reading the story?  You get the sense, Probably not …

A child who becomes a scientist will likely be a scientist at his or her work, but will not necessarily be a scientist about his or her personal life.  A scientist may exercise a cautious uncertainty when making a determination after performing an experiment, but that same scientist may exhibit a reckless certainty when making a determination about whether his wife has been faithful.  That’s the facts, and my hope is that the scientist can take his work home with him, so to speak.

And that was the interest of one Alfred Korzybski.  Alfred Korzbyski hoped the same for scientists.  Furthermore, he hoped that we, too, would apply scientific practices in our own lives.  He hoped we’d observe.  He hoped we’d delay our reactions.  He hoped we’d take in data.  He hoped we would reject the desire to express certainty and tend toward a more uncertain perspective.  He wanted us to bring scientific practice into our everyday behavior: our thinking, our language, our transactions and interactions with others and with reality, and so on.  Why?  To reduce delusion.  I’ll put it differently: To reduce bullshit.  It was bullshit that was clouding our perceptions of reality, making more problematic our problems.  Clearing the bullshit allowed us to see our problems more clearly, and to advance finally toward their solutions.

Alfred Korzybski’s teachings were largely teachings in becoming scientific in our orientation.  He was teaching us to move our mindsets out of the classical, “aristotelian” mindsets developed in the past.  He encouraged us to take on more modern, “non-aristotelian” mindsets, developed and honed as scientific understandings of the material world developed and honed.   His teachings were called “general semantics.”  They might as well have been called “new sense.”

The social media revolution begets a value system of immediacy, and with that value system comes pollution of social media with bullshit.  An education in scientific practice–an education in Alfred Korzybski’s teachings–an education in general semantics–an education in new sense–runs contrary to the value system of immediacy.  With an education in general semantics comes a value of delayed reaction, which affords time to consider the consequences of one’s behavior, whether in writing a despicable comment or judging a story as true.  In that delay howsoever short, the desire to contribute to the heaps of present bullshit may be diminished.  With repeated delays by populations of social media users, social media may start to contribute less noise and more music.

General semantics had a heyday in the 1940s, when propagandistic bullshit abounded.  It helped people to screen out bullshit in a period of warfare and insanity.  General semantics has a new opportunity in targeting the insanity brought out by the social media revolution and its value of immediacy.  It too can help people screen out bullshit’s resurgence.

In short, teach general semantics.

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