Be Quiet and Listen

We are currently living through a particularly tumultuous season of history. Decades from now, our children will read in textbooks about 2016’s unprecedented election dynamics, about racial tensions in the U.S. and the Black Lives Matter movement, about mass shootings and debates on gun laws, and about ISIS and global terrorism. Since I study and write about culture and media, I have been acutely aware that these are all topics that I should not only be thinking about but also potentially discussing in this blog. However, I also feel entirely ill-equipped to say anything new or anything meaningful and insightful about any of these topics. I, like the rest of the U.S. and the world, am constantly wrestling with what each of these events or movements mean for the lives of individuals and communities. 

I found these sentiments echoed during the latest episode of Reply All, which is a Gimlet podcast about the internet. While the first half of the episode was about Stolen Valor viral videos (an interesting topic in and of itself), in the second half, PJ Vogt, one of the hosts, made a very intentional shift. He wrote:

It felt really weird making a show about the internet this week. The whole world watched videos of two black men being killed by police, and then a sniper killing five police officers in Dallas. Over here, we all feel overwhelmed. We don’t feel like we have anything smart or insightful to say about this, it also felt really dishonest to just do a show and pretend like this big, horrible thing isn’t there.PJ Vogt, Reply All

In this space of not being sure how to respond, he stumbled across the work of NPR journalist Sam Sanders on Twitter. Sanders went down to Dallas and found the reality of the situation to be quite different to that which most people, outside the city, have experienced when engaging or discussing the Dallas shootings online. This seems quite obvious, but in our era of ever-present cameras and smart phones offering a “front row” seat to global current affairs, it’s easy to think that we actually know and can comprehend the dynamics of what is happening around the world and within our own nation.

Sam also realized something else while he was reporting on Dallas. I will quote his and PJ’s conclusions below, but I urge you to actually go listen to the full episode to hear it in context. The segment in question begins about 2/3 of the way through.

SAM: Th- that’s the thing. The internet is not the larger conversation, the internet is the smaller conversation. I, like, had this realization. I was checking into a hotel room Sunday night in Dallas, and this woman asked me what I’m doing, what I’m in town for, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m a journalist,” and she’s like, “Oh, what are you doing?” And I – I said, “I work for NPR, I’m covering this shooting.” And she’s like, “Oh, my god.” So we start talking about the shooting and her interactions with police and–we have a long conversation–and finally she says to me, “You know, I see both sides. I see Black Lives Matter point, I see the police officer’s point. I see both sides, but whenever you say that you see one side, everyone thinks that you hate the other side, so I just stay quiet.”

PJ: That’s it. That’s what he saw. And I know how small that is. I know how … meagre it is to find hope in the fact that people are quietly thinking about something. But I think Sam’s right. Like, even though we know that we’re ruder and louder and more argumentative on the internet, I think that we forget that the other thing the internet doesn’t show us is quiet. The moments that we’re all having where we’re sitting there turning this stuff over, trying to make sense of it. It can feel like nobody else is doing that.

In response to those really important acknowledgements, I encourage you, if you are not already, join us in sitting quietly while “turning this stuff over and trying to make sense of it.” 

If you are already doing that, take heart that you are not alone and that you don’t have to participate in the loud Internet conversations for your thoughts to be validated.

Thank you to PJ, Alex, and Sam for this thoughtful reflection. I highly recommend their show Reply All for a quirky, curious exploration of the unseen nooks and crannies of the Internet.

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