The Tower of Conceptual Babel
February 7, 2008

Back in 1993, I was finishing up my bachelor's degree in English in a state school. Not the fancy-pants University of Texas at Austin - known as UT. But the school we perceived of as the poor cousin, University of Texas at Arlington - known as UTA. It wasn't that the school wasn't as good, but we simply didn't get the press that UT did. We didn't have a football team. We were a commuter school. We weren't in a cool town like Austin, but out in the 'burbs between Dallas and Fort Worth. Our concept of ourselves was based on what others thought of UT ... we were obviously a poor outlying satellite.

Despite our concept of ourselves, we had some cool stuff going for us. One of the other tutors at our writing center told me about this nifty thing she'd discovered. It was called a MUDdog ... you got on one of the dumb terminals over in the computer science lab, logged in, entered a few commands and you were suddenly immersed in this text world. I was unimpressed. I had Zork on the Commodore-64 at home, thank you very much.

This was different, she insisted. Through the campus connection, this text world was populated with real people from around the globe. You could talk with them and interact with them in real time!

I tried it for a lark one Saturday when I didn't have anything else planned. Walked up to campus ... logged in ... and eight hours later I finally looked at my watch.

I've been hooked on various types of online communities ever since.

As someone who is always fascinated by human interactions, as someone who can't help but be an observer as well as a participator ... as a writer ... I am utterly enthralled by the microcosms of society that we set up online.

MUDS, chatrooms, IRC channels, "Web 2.0 sites," blogs, shoutboxes, forums (technically that's fora, but I try to go with the flow).

General public, special interests, moms, dads, writers, non-writers, artists, dog-lovers, cat-lovers, extroverts, introverts, introverts who become extroverts online.

Invariably it happens.

Invariably someone trots out their fervent belief in X. And X might be a product, a method of doing something, a religion, a favourite actor or politician or writer ... or whatever.

And just as invariably, someone else takes a polar opposite view.

Now, things can go a couple of ways at this point. It might be we have a nice, logical, rational discussion about the pros and cons of X. Of course, this is the least likely scenario, but it does happen.

Another option: things get heated. X is vilified. X is extolled. Vilified. Extolled. On and on and on. Neither side listens to the other and you literally get an extremist jihad, crusade, holy war of whatever flavour you wish to call it. Sides are drawn up. The inevitable rhetoric gets trotted out: "you're either for us or against us" ... "there is no middle ground" ... "well you know what I mean."

The option that goes one step beyond that is this: X is vilified and so is "that damn dipshit who said X was good." "You're delusional and anyone who thinks like you is delusional."

It seems that even when we speak the same language, we still live in a tower of babel. We still struggle to make our words understood ... to feel that we are being respected and heard and believed. And often, despite what we are sure is plain language and crystalline logic ... other people fail to get our point ... fail to agree. And obviously, the failure is almost inevitably theirs, as we have been perfectly clear and rational.

Over the last two weeks I have watched as two of the three online communities I participate in had serious melt-downs. Honestly, it's nothing I haven't seen before. Ideas being denigrated, people being denigrated, people feeling sure they were denigrated when they were not ... all because emotions were running high.

Often, it's like watching a bunch of junior high age kids (13-15 or so). Kids that age are still learning the finer social mores and how to converse without pissing people off. They speak plainly and say exactly what they mean ... but often their vocabulary does not include any grey area at all. The idea that words have connotations generally escapes them. The concept that words, despite our best efforts to deny this, words do hurt us. Or at least they frustrate us. (And please note that there are plenty of teens who do get this concept ... and there are plenty who don't learn this concept ever. This is merely a developmental stage and a generalization.)

Online, we add to this type of social group the fact that there is no good way to discern body language and vocal tone ... and often we misinterpret words that were not meant in the ways we see on the screen. And, sometimes, no matter how hard we try to craft those words to elicit in every person who reads them exactly and precisely what we mean ... all that work is simply lost in the babel of pixels and previous experience and the mind of the individual reader.

It is in watching these explosions happen online, where you can see each piece of the misunderstanding beginning to unfold and then to blossom and the fruit to explode, spreading its pollen of dissent over the entire participatory community ... it is watching this microcosm mushroom online that we truly see the babel of concept and idea which in the so-called "real world" leads to fighting and war. It's an amazing and, when put in this light, terrifying event to watch.

It starts so very simply.

And it is played out over and over and over again. As soon as one segment of a community finally "gets" how these things get started ... when a few people suddenly realize that they ways in which they phrase things matter AND that they become more capable of trying to take the other side's ideas as something to respect despite disagreeing (and perhaps disagreeing vehemently) ... as soon as this happens, another group comes along who has not yet learned these concepts ... and the battles begin anew.

It is the curse of our relatively short life spans and our frequent procreation and our different rates of learning and comprehending - as a race we seem compelled to play this scenario out over and over and over again.

Whether it's the mud-slinging of an American presidential "season" ... whether it's "your tree's leaves are falling in MY yard" ... or "your people are creating problems" ... or "your actions are eroding the atmosphere" ... "we don't want your sort here" ... "you don't believe as we do."

We bag and tag and categorize each other out of existence so that we don't have to listen to the conceptual babel and weigh all sides.

And even when we have learned the lessons and we try to stay calm and rational ... there is always human frailty, exhaustion ... and a point when someone else's rhetoric finally crosses a line beyond which we feel a moral imperative to call them on it because to not call them on that particular phrasing or concept is to allow an intolerable situation to thrive.

It doesn't ever end. And it feels like "we" never learn.

But whether the babel is language based or conceptually based, it is a constant of human existence. We are locked into our own skulls with wiring and operating systems only somewhat compatible with the others around us.

Our lives are never-ending attempts to connect and to forever try to understand and be understood in the face of failures and partial compatibilities.

Our strength lies in our stubborn certainty that we can finally find the right cord for connection and the right version of the operating system to achieve a true and deep melding.

I'm reminded of a book I never really liked, but I adored one single line. (Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero)

"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles." Though that sentence shouldn't bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter.

We are individuals afraid to merge ... and yet seeking to be understood so fully that we do merge ... which frightens us more and makes the need to be understood more fervent and powerful.

People are afraid to merge. To lose some aspect of their true selves? Fear that to understand all is to dislike? To find out some idea we might have about that person is false?

People are afraid to merge so we build these towers and walls to protect our thoughts and minds and feelings ... our individuality.

And then we wonder why others do not see things our way, not realizing that the bricks and stones and concrete of our towers and bunkers are simply not transparent. They don't just protect us and shield us, but they blind us to where others are.

Even our most fervently held beliefs are simply stones in the wall, often preventing us from understanding someone else. And when someone doesn't understand us when we think they should ... so often we begin casting our stones at them, trying to bury them in our beliefs - sometimes without even realizing we're doing it. Of course, this only makes us build our own walls thicker and higher ...

... and people are afraid to merge.

Posted by Red Monkey at February 7, 2008 5:51 AM | Blog | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Elle said:

I often marvel at the incredible shortcomings of language as a communication tool, and here it is, all we have to rely on. Food for thought this morning; I get my blogs before my coffee. BTW, thanks for stopping by my place, hope to see you again soon!

February 7, 2008 7:43 AM

Yup, I think I once read you state in a forum that being a part of discussion boards gives unique insights into sociology. I'd say that's precisely right, and add psychology to that. What's particularly interesting is that the players in these boards don't necessarily understand that-- while each person is unique, their ACTIONS and REACTIONS are actually fairly common for us as humans. So the play is played over and over again-- maybe with different players, and maybe with those same folks who never quite manage to see the play from the seats in the audience, instead of on the stage.

February 7, 2008 7:54 AM


Tami said:

Me thinks that you hit the bulls-eye. I keep saying that if we focus on the similarities that we share as human beings, we may find it easier to listen to each other. A little thing called empathy would have greater room in which to operate. No one seems to want to hear that (ref. your post) personal opinion is that many of our differences are only self-created illusions. Great post!

February 7, 2008 8:33 AM


jafabrit said:

I often wonder why people feel that if they agree to disagree somehow they lose.

Great post.

February 7, 2008 8:47 AM


Kevin Goodman said:

Ender – I want you to check out this link – d-mn it.

Just teasing - You know I like you – right! Let’s not forget calamity and conflict is healthy to some extent. That difference compels achievements and innovations. That territorial aggression is natural, as it is with any territorial animal – and that idea’s are part of our concept of territory and resource. That war is arguably good for humanity in the long term and is certainly natural – so long as you don’t destroy the planet. I have read several studies on population that treat war and disease as ‘natural’ controls.

On a little more practical level we can see these debates that spark flames over the internet have a positive aspect – even in irrationality. Providing a mental exercise that in a particular debate might not serve anyone in the moment but provides a lesson. People learn to become more effective persuaders, diplomacy, or rationality. It is inevitable that we make mistakes - we all are subject to growth.

Let’s not forget the communist, fascist, cults, and dictorial leaderships were having a difference with the convention will get you tortured, alienated, psychologically – indoctrinated - educated, or murdered. Difference is freedom – despite the calamity it causes and why I believe peace often equals oppression.

I think you made some fine points so I am not simply polarizing you’re view but offering the opposite in balance. Ha – I have written almost as much as you!It is good to stand towards resolution I just have to point out the balance– perhaps what would make this more effective is the advocation of a civil code of honor – bloggers code – etc.

Red Monkey says: I don't disagree that we need to disagree at times - you miss my point completely. We simply need to do so with respect and while thinking about the other person's viewpoint ... as you have done here. It's the extremes of polarization that creates issues from which we have so much trouble recovering.
February 7, 2008 9:51 AM


Kevin Goodman said:

Hi ender

I’m not saying you’re wrong – far from it. I’m saying what happens is natural as you yourself give it the microcosm of sociology analysis. That we manage our selves within the confounds of civility is what your preaching – right? I was just saying it is an idea to strive for but we must recognize that we are not going to eliminate calamity – nor should we. And in recognizing that fact I suggest striving towards an ideological meme – reflecting some sort of civility code. Perhaps such a movement already exists and can be reinforced or else created and driven from scratch. For instance BC is striving to enforce some rules - it would be so much more effective if such civility was ideological.

February 7, 2008 11:43 AM


JD said:

I'm not one to recommend drug use to others but there are times when I remember my psychedelic days as a young person and remember how easy it was to connect with other people and how little dogmatic views mattered compared to everything else.

Humans are so diverse and that diversity extends to our varying abilities to absorb tone and nuance in the written word. I suspect this is why there is an amazingly large number of people who do not get anxious if they are without books to read.

I think one-way mediums like TV have dulled our ability to display the give and take needed for real communication. When you read a book by nature your mind is engaged on many levels while you decipher meaning from the text. Television and movies eliminate many of those levels by supplying the parts that normally would come from inside the reader/consumer.

That lack of imagination and empathy with ideas and concepts handed to you by someone else leads to people seeing those ideas as permanent and immobile. That leads to the interaction being driven by hammers where one person tries to chip away or even destroy someone else's ideas and positions.

If people in fora would, as a rule, avoid reading other people's statements as FINAL statements and instead treat them as a starting point a lot of that escalating sniping that goes on would disappear.

BTW, used to run a DitkuMUD. I miss it.

February 7, 2008 11:58 AM


Chelle B. said:

Ender, you have written the best post of the year, IMO. I can't express how much I agree with you and we can only hope to learn to recognize this within ourselves when communicating online and in real life.

Chelle B.

February 7, 2008 1:10 PM


Alan said:

I miss my MUD days too. (feeling an odd overwhelming urge to load a telnet program and type in ;)

I particularly identified with the bit about feeling a moral imperative Not to let a comment stand, as I personally went through that one a few days ago. And, yes, those of us who have been doing online communities for a long time have seen all of these things. For me, the question here and now is if we can do enough things differently to keep _this_ community going. Tiffany did an excellent post that explains well why she feel so alientated from her friends at this point. And for me, for any outcome to be correctly called a solution, it will have to create a way for all the people I care about in this fight to continue to function as a community, despite our many differences and disagreements.

Thank you so much, ender, for this contribution to making that happen.


February 7, 2008 4:38 PM


clairec23 said:

I think we've all seen it happen so many times that we can agree with you - yet still struggle to take that step back when we feel...offended by the belief system of another.

It takes very little to kick things off between adults who know better in online mediums. I sometimes wonder why but I suppose many people act differently online - as you said the introvert can become the extrovert online.

I don't agree with the people in my life on anything. Yet we never have blazing rows over it. In fact, I enjoy having people around me who don't agree with every little thing I say. In a forum on the other hand, I often find myself getting annoyed by what I think is an insulting or thoughtless remark. I think when one person gets defensive it just provokes more argument. It seems like some people NEED to have the last word. It tends to become a situation where it's necessary to win points rather than debate points. Again, I can't explain myself properly but you probably get my drift :)

February 7, 2008 4:43 PM


cyndy said:

I remember very well the first time I explored online communities and forums. It was so bizarre and I was utterly fascinated. They are like nothing else in life.

February 11, 2008 12:11 AM


Mark Stoneman said:

Been a good week for this topic over on BlogCatalog. First there was the Flowers group blog airing their dirty laundry over on BC in a rather counterproductive way. Then there was another slew of those intolerant threads, this time with a nastier undertone than before. Many people saying, sometimes I just want to leave . . . Not a good day, and all of it captured in this post.

February 26, 2008 12:54 PM
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