[S]poken language is privileged over textual language. This privileging of one sense over another is not natural, as Rousseau argued, but arbitrary. — Lennard Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, page 67
I’ve recently been reading Lennard Davis’ Enforcing Normalcy, and I’ve been thinking a great deal about what he has to say about the privileging of speech in our culture. The bias toward speech is nowhere more apparent than in the doomsday predictions that people engage in regarding the impact of text-based social media. It seems that you can’t pick up a newspaper or, ironically enough, read articles on the Internet, without hearing someone bemoaning the rise of social media and its allegedly destructive impact on human interaction, conversation, and civilization itself.
Sherry Turkle’s New York Times piece, The Flight from Conversation, is representative. Ms. Turkle writes that we have substituted “connection” for “conversation,” and that our online communication is a mere shadow of real human interaction:
FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters…
And we use conversation with others to learn to converse with ourselves. So our flight from conversation can mean diminished chances to learn skills of self-reflection. These days, social media continually asks us what’s “on our mind,” but we have little motivation to say something truly self-reflective. Self-reflection in conversation requires trust. It’s hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect.
As we get used to being shortchanged on conversation and to getting by with less, we seem almost willing to dispense with people altogether. (Turkle 2012)
I find these paragraphs absolutely fascinating in their alarmism. False assumptions abound: that one cannot have a text-based conversation that “unfolds slowly;” that text-based media causes us to “dumb down our communications”; that text-based media makes us less self-reflective; that one cannot build trust with people unless one speaks to them face to face; and that social media causes its users to become narcissists who wish to “dispense with people altogether.”
I will certainly grant that there are people who use social media in lightning-fast ways that don’t allow for nuanced conversation, that run rampant over self-reflection, and that erode trust. All one has to do is glance at the comment thread of any major news story and it becomes quite apparent that the Internet gives anyone the ability to say just about anything in as offensive a way as possible. But to say that textual media itself creates this kind of dumbed-down, offensive speech is to get the causation wrong. People have always said highly offensive things to and about one another, but now that anyone with an Internet connection can make it public (and create a permanent record of it), we think it’s a new phenomenon. I’ve been absolutely shocked by the level of racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism I’ve seen on the comment threads of major news sites, but I shouldn’t be. They have always been present in our society. Before the advent of the Internet, I just couldn’t hear someone in another state say something abhorrent because I wasn’t face-to-face with him.
It’s not the medium that creates the shallowness, the bigotry, and the ignorance. The medium just makes them more apparent. And yes, that’s depressing, but it’s not a sign that the world is in more of a mess today than it was yesterday.
Of course, if one looks past the cesspool of the comment threads of major news sites, one can find a plethora of very nuanced, very sensitive, and very supportive conversations that happen online. In fact, a number of people find substantive conversations through email and social media welcome and meaningful because these kinds of conversations simply aren’t available to them in their everyday lives. Many people find themselves isolated in their local communities: LGBT people, genderqueer people, disabled people, parents of disabled kids. In many places, there simply isn’t much support on the local level for people in minority communities, particularly if you live outside the major cities.
Social media serves to erode this isolation. In fact, it can have an empowering impact on people’s lives. I live in a small town in rural Vermont. I don’t know many disabled people locally, because the place I live is so sparsely populated. For disabled people, finding disabled peers is crucial, just as for people in any other minority, because we share common experiences, common perspectives, and common concerns. We see similar injustices and we experience similar levels of outrage about them. We get sensitivity and understanding from one another regarding verbal and physical pacing, the content and amount of speech to use, the kinds of barriers we find in public spaces — sensitivity and understanding that are often absent in our experiences of our nondisabled peers.
In my small town, I know half a dozen disabled people, and I value their friendship immensely. But if I weren’t connected with the larger disability community online, I would not feel the sense of belonging in the world that I do. I would not have learned so much about the political and social nature of disability, and I would not have gained so much insight about how to adapt to disability, about how to be proud, about how to advocate for myself, and about how much support I can give and receive. When I’m struggling with an issue, I can post a Facebook status and have a thorough-going, nuanced, supportive conversation. I can email an online friend and gain perspective that might elude me with an able-bodied person who does not share my experience. I can have conversations that go on for days, in which each party takes plenty of time to reflect in silence and to craft a response that speaks to the heart of what is going on.
One of the most painful things to me about the privileging of verbal communication is that verbal speech is not my native language. Because I come across as being an articulate person, most people do not realize how much of an effort it is for me to speak. I have to gather almost all of my energies to do it, and I need a great deal of time to recharge afterward. Speech is my second language; I will never feel completely at ease in it.
My first language is text. At three years of age, I had only been speaking for six months, but I could read anything. I don’t remember ever learning to read. My mother told me that I saw her reading one day and asked her what she was doing; she explained to me that each letter had a sound and that the sounds made words. From that point on, I learned to read like other children learn to speak — not with rote lessons and phonics exercises and vocabulary lists, but intuitively. I knew what the words meant; I knew their relationship to the words I could hear; I knew how to put them together and roll them around in my head and see the sentences take shape in my mind’s eye.
Words flow from my fingers the way that speech flows from the lips of speaking people, the way that words flow from the hands of Deaf people, the way that rhythm flows from the hands of a drummer.
And yet, the mode of communication in which I am most effective is seen as a threat to human interaction and mutual care. Such concerns are not new. As Lennard Davis points out, the eighteenth century saw the rise of solitary reading as a leisure time activity and the diminution of public performance as a communal past-time. Davis writes about the rise of textual media in a way that resonates into the electronic age:
Writing and reading became the dominant forms of using sign language, the language of printed signs, and thus hearing readers and deaf readers could merge as those who see the voice of the words….The very nature of political assent, through the silent decoding of reading, became a newly ‘deafened’ process that did not require adherents to gather in a public place, that did not rely on a vocal response to a rallying cry. (Davis 1995, 62)
Much like today’s social media platforms, which allow people separated geographically to unite in political causes and find like-minded souls, reading in the eighteenth century enabled people to gather together with fellow feeling in the privacy of their own living rooms. Over two hundred years ago, the response to this shift was a “fascination with conversation” that was, in fact, “a kind of cultural nostalgia for a form that was in the process of becoming anachronistic” (Davis 1995, 63). The parallels with Sherry Turkle’s encomium on verbal conversation could not be clearer.
Those who privilege spoken language do not recognize its limits, nor do they see the potential for human belonging that social media provides. Last year, I found the following moving words in a comment on my Journeys with Autism blog from someone who called himself invisible:
I can’t believe the tears I’ve shed today….
I recently lost my dearest and best friend. Each of us found a connection that we had never had with another person. We instinctively understood and accepted each other. I’m in my late forties. I never felt like I was a part of the rest of the world, I thought that’s how everyone felt. I just accepted that nobody would understand me, that nobody would ever see the real me. That is, until he came along…
I read a few things that you wrote, and it was like I was reading my own thoughts… I just keep crying. Are there really other people like me? Is this possible? (Journeys with Autism, February 2, 2011)
This man had felt so alone in his life that he believed that only one other person could see him and understand him, and he was in despair because he had lost that person. And then he read the words on my blog, and he wept for joy that there were others who felt as he did — not just me, but so many of my readers.
For many, many people in this world, being seen and being understood is a rare occurrence in their local communities. The Internet and the social media it makes possible bring people together, from all over the world, who have felt isolated in the places they live. The friendships that I have made online are just as real, just as loyal, and just as profound as those I have made face to face. And when I do meet up with my online friends face to face, we talk as though we’ve known one another for years.
Because, in fact, we have.
Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London, England: Verso, 1995.
Journeys with Autism. “On My Solitary Way.” http://www.journeyswithautism.com/2011/02/02/on-my-solitary-way/. February 2, 2011. Accessed December 9, 2012.
Turkle, Sherry. “The Flight From Conversation.” The New York Times, April 21, 2012. Accessed December 9, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg