Circles of Relation

1. Imagine if you will a series of concentric circles. At the center there is a small circle, which represents you. The circle just outside of this small circle represents people who are very much like you and with whom you agree on most things. Beyond this circle there is another circle representing those with whom you agree on most things and rather like, all things considered. Outside of this circle there is one which represents those who are not very much like you and with whom you tend to disagree on a number of things, although you still judge them to be reasonable and decent human beings. This circle is encompassed by another, smaller perhaps, representing those who are quite different from you and with whom you may find yourself in passionate disagreement. But these people you respect because they make their case honestly and they are decent, principled people. As we approach the outer edge of the concentric circles there is yet another that represents those with whom you disagree strongly, find rather unreasonable, and yet manage to tolerate. These several circles encompass most people we might encounter. Beyond this, as we approach the periphery, there is a thinner circle representing those with whom you vehemently disagree, find utterly unreasonable, and morally objectionable; these, you suspect, are best ignored. Beyond this are those that you can only judge to be morally reprehensible and intellectually bankrupt, to these you do not give your time except to oppose them when necessary. Finally, at the farthest edge, a circle represents those for whom there is no recourse but to vigilantly oppose and silence.

2. Now imagine another set of concentric circles. This time there are but three. The smallest circle in the center once again represents you. The circle beyond it, not much larger, represents those who are very much like you and with whom you agree on almost everything. The outer circle, quite large and encompassing everyone else, represents those whom you find to be stupid, wicked, and utterly undeserving of even the barest measure of respect that one might accord another human being.

The first set of circles is what we might hope for in a well-functioning society.

The second set of circles is the world we appear to be stuck with.

(a) Is this the world that digital tools of communication created? Or, (b) is this the world digital media revealed?

If (a), how do social media’s (often perverse) psychological incentive structures contribute to this phenomenon?

Or, more hopefully, (c) is this the world only as it appears to those who engage it primarily through digital media?

If (c), is this because we forget that whatever particular, platform-specific filters we choose for our online signals, whatever efforts we make to avoid “filter bubbles,” social media itself is a powerful filter acting on the totality of reality.

And/or because

(i) the virtues conducive to living well in a pluralistic and democratic society are not default settings and must be learned through practice, and

(ii) social media does not encourage such practices, indeed actively cultivates practices that are antithetical to these virtues.

(iii) While the more finely our experience is tuned to our affinities, the less likely we will encounter those whose views differ markedly from ours except as subjects to be rhetorically DESTROYED! by our favorite celebrity defenders of the obvious and plain truths we and all sane people hold? Which is to say, as caricatures of persons.


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9 thoughts on “Circles of Relation

  1. I must say, the concept of concentric circles is a fantastic representation of our perception of the society. In my opinion, these concentric circles have always been prevalent. They have only become more pronounced due to the internet. I will also go ahead and say, that because of social media, the outermost circle, the one that comprises of unreasonable people has come nearer than ever. This has made two things happen – 1. It has enlarged the scope of our vision to spot such anti-social / vulgar activities. 2. While initially it helped us become more aware and alert, we have now transcended into a desensitized state of mind about our surroundings.

    1. “because of social media, the outermost circle, the one that comprises of unreasonable people has come nearer than ever.”

      That’s an important point that I didn’t take into consideration, and I think you’re right about the two effects. Thanks for this.

  2. As usually, you present a large, profound, somewhat complicated idea to which many responses are possible. I will merely responds to a part of it.

    “Digital media”–which presumably referring to distance communication conveyed through written words—strips away interpersonal nuance. The result is, as you say, “caricatures of persons” rather than actual people. That is, we delude ourselves into thinking those “others” to (or at) whom we text or chat are actual human beings. The delusion does not only apply to those with whom we do not agree. That “friend” you have just texted is unknown to you if that is your primary means of communicating. Similarly, that railing, shouting denigration of someone with whom you do not agree is merely your expounding on your own displeasure largely to yourself about a strawman constructed, in your mind, for the explicit purpose is execution. Having vanquished the illusory scapegoat, you are now free to carry on the equally illusory comradery with someone you pretend to know. (Obviously, I am not referring to “you” personally”.)

    The true tragedy, of course, is not the loss of the “enemy” nor of the presumed friend. The true tragedy is the loss of ourselves—the delusion that some small bit if text can convey who we are and, too often, that it is enough. Such is the nature of these words I write to you now.

    People are easy to get along with or to hate if we never really have to deal with the messiness of humanity—theirs and our own. Digital media facilitates this ease.

    Let’s say you read a disturbing comment posted by someone you have never met. You fire back, only to be insulted in return. An artificial bifurcation occurs. Disagreement turns to disdain. Consequently, you never get to share in the potential jubilation of your shared athletic team’s victory. The loss is because you do not know the enemy as yourself—just another human being just like you. Words conveyed digitally as a primary means of communication have denied you both that opportunity.

    We have created a lose-lose situation. We all know this. Our preoccupations with our “side” is merely an attempt to convince ourselves we can win an unwinnable farce.

    (Wow, that was a real downer, wasn’t it?) Oh well, thanks for your post. (And that “downer” comment was a bit of me becoming me, beyond the rhetoric, beyond mere words).

    1. Downer or not, lot’s to consider here. This is especially is important to remember: “People are easy to get along with or to hate if we never really have to deal with the messiness of humanity—theirs and our own. Digital media facilitates this ease.” Thank you.

  3. One thought that occurs to me is that early attempts at digitizing some previously analogue process initially occur with rather low resolution. Like digital images increased in resolution until they were indistinguishable from analogue images, maybe the same thing could occur with digital implementations of civic discourse?

    Perhaps your scenario (1) represents analogue discourse and (2) the first approximation to it with digital methods? There does seem to be some causal relation between the way we experience civic society on social media and the actual make-up of civic society. So, perhaps we can hope that communication platforms are improved to allow a more graded range of affinities and representations of our fellow humanity? I imagine this will require something like your condition (i) “the virtues conducive to living well in a pluralistic and democratic society” to be built more fundamentally into structures of communication media.

    1. That’s an interesting observation, the comparison to improvements in digital imaging. Hard, for me, to envision how takes shape. But, of course, that only shows I have a limited imagination. The absence of the body seems to me like a big deal, but then again, the body was absent in other media as well. I think the problem at present is the absence of the body combined with the sort of immediacy we might expect if we were bodily present. In any case, thanks for injecting some hope into the discussion!

      1. Well, from an algorithmic, or technological perspective, maybe we could say that the first problem that was solved was to find people who are very similar to each other. One gets the feeling from using social media, (mainly I have Facebook in mind here) that it is trying to find out who our group of affinity is, and actively encourage us to stick together within this group. This is somehow the easiest initial thing to do to try to create groups where people feel comfortable.

        The next step would be both to improve the algorithms so that a broader and more graded model of affinity is there, but secondly just to stop trying so hard to keep some tight affinity groups together. One question is whether this development can happen due to market forces. If the main goal of a communication platform is to keep people on the site as long as possible, maybe tight affinity groups is the best model. The looser structured federated social networks (Diaspora, Mastadon…) may be driven by a more diverse and civil minded picture than the centralized commercial approach of Facebook.

        Yes, perhaps part of the key to a more civil approach to communication would be to back away from the attempt to have the immediacy of physical gatherings, but without the concomitant sense of mutual belonging and larger sense of understanding we get when we meet together. If we treated our platform media responses more like written statements that have been edited and considered, rather than unedited in person communication, we could have slower more reasoned discussions.

  4. In my experience on social media, thoughts and ideas that may have been kept inside during an in-person conversation, are given full display. It thus gives users a “window” to see people stripped bare, unfiltered, in such a way that they probably would not have seen otherwise.

    My question now is did the social media change them? Did it’s presence influence their behavior and their language? Or was I really this wrong about people after all? Did social media simply reveal and uncover things that were there all along, just hiding behind the veil of keyboards and false friendships?

    I would rather believe it is the former than the latter.

    In answering these questions about myself, I would say that social media has made me more cynical, less trustworthy, and more cautious in friendships.

    For example, if a friend continually posts pictures and status updates that are dehumanizing to women, they are in essence, dehumanizing me. Their postings indicate how they inherently view me as a human being. This is extremely difficult. If my ‘friend’ doesn’t see me as a fellow person with dignity and value, that they post dehumanizing things for the world to see, are they actually my “friend”? Were they ever a “friend” to me after all?

    1. In some cases, I suspect it is true that social media reveals a dimension of someone’s identity that they may have kept veiled. But it may also be the case that social media itself has a corrupting tendency. In other words, it brings out the worst in us, aspects of ourselves that we ourselves regret. Maybe it’s helpful to think of our “true” self as a perpetually contested reality, and, for some people, social media abets the more unfortunate tendencies. Although I suspect all of us feel that at some point.

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