My most disappointing conclusion from running this eight month-old experiment in blogging? It’s that we human beings appear to find fighting more enjoyable than sparkling debate and friendly disagreement.
Never mind that in answering a question about what he or she would do as a live, fully clothed substitute for a statue in the One & Other project now playing in Trafalgar Square – and proving hour after hour that Everywo/man has no imagination — one onlooker supposed doing ‘something to represent the need for world peace’. That this aspiration is usually honoured in the breach and not the observance is more drearily unsurprising than the wish itself.
The click count for acciaccature always soars when visitors notice a quarrel getting underway in the comments section. That is true even when the disagreements are only short and sharp like last week’s flare-up between an always-interesting contributor, @anytimefrances, and a tremendously welcome new drop-in commenter, @Anil Eklavya.
The least cheering job for anyone running a blog is defusing banal disputes with incomprehensible ‘bad chemistry’ behind them. These gain force and momentum from a tendency I find even more dismaying: bloggers forming themselves into packs and tribes in a medium that easily supports individuals expressing individual opinions — and proceeding, like pathetic George W. Bush clones, to act on the depressing, simple-minded principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’
The extraordinary persistence of such enmity struck me last week as a miniature version of the ultimate mystery of why countries still go to war. I was reading a gigantic obituary of Robert McNamara — the mastermind and manager-in-chief of the Vietnam war, which ends with his reflection that
War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend […] Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.
He concluded that the US could not possibly win the Vietnam war near its end – and long before many of his fellow war-mongers did. The obituary contained a remarkable record of his abject mea culpa — which shows that he believed that cross-cultural incomprehension and intolerance, of which we’ve witnessed more than one instance in microcosm on this very blog, were ultimately responsible for the deaths of millions of Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands of Americans:
At a going-away luncheon given by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Mr. McNamara wept as he spoke of the futility of the air war in Vietnam. Many of his colleagues were appalled as he condemned the bombing, aghast at the weight of his guilt.
He had thought for a long time that the United States could not win the war. In retirement, he listed reasons: a failure to understand the enemy, a failure to see the limits of high-tech weapons, a failure to tell the truth to the American people and a failure to grasp the nature of the threat of communism.
“What went wrong was a basic misunderstanding or misevaluation of the threat to our security represented by the North Vietnamese,” he said in his Berkeley oral history. “It led President Eisenhower in 1954 to say that if Vietnam were lost, or if Laos and Vietnam were lost, the dominoes would fall.”
He continued, “I am certain we exaggerated the threat.”
“We didn’t know our opposition,” he said. “We didn’t understand the Chinese; we didn’t understand the Vietnamese, particularly the North Vietnamese. So the first lesson is know your opponents. I want to suggest to you that we don’t know our potential opponents today.”
Getting to know actual or potential opponents is surely much easier now that we routinely have access to some of the most intimate thoughts, dreams and fears of foreigners – whether we read their blogs in English or rendered clumsily, but more-or-less comprehensibly, through automatic translators.
I’d have thought that our whizzy new digital tools would at least be discouraging disagreements about facts like the squabble between @anytimefrances and @Anil Eklavya – whom I’m guessing is a graduate student with a first degree from one of the famously dazzling Indian Institutes of Technology.
When we didn’t hear from @Anil after his last post here, I found the answer to the question I’d asked him about how he had word-processed documents in a mixture of English characters and Devanagari, the script used to write Hindustani. It’s a software product called ‘KickKeys’ that certainly made my eyes pop, even though I’ve worked with foreign keyboards in France and Spain:
KickKeys offers a complete language solution through Transliteration (type-as-you-pronounce). With it you can write a foreign language using the regular computer keyboard without memorizing difficult key sequences.
The optimist in me suggests that we have no way of knowing or measuring how much potential conflict our flexible futuristic tools have headed off — which, conceivably, could far exceed their promotion of hatred. Like good news, mutual understanding and harmony don’t have anything like the capacity of bad news and crises to attract attention.
I came across unexpected confirmation for this rosier view when I wandered over to another site after I’d pasted in the paragraph before last. There I found @anytimefrances – whose interest in Indian literature had seemed unserious and patronising to @Anil – saying,
i finally got something written after reading Nissam Ezekiel – i’m becoming very fond of the modern Indian poets writing in English. hope this doesn’t impugn his reputation too much but i just love his almost matter-of-fact deliveries.
She’d just announced the sudden death of her brother to other bloggers on the thread, and was explaining how a particular Indian poet had helped her find her way to writing a poem about her loss. So as hostile as her reaction to @Anil’s criticism had been, and much as I’d despaired over her failure to answer his generous concession with one of her own — if not an apology — she proved him mistaken, and in the most moving way imaginable.
@Atf, if you’re reading here, I was deeply sorry to read your announcement – since I can’t think of many shocks greater than the unexpected death of a sibling. And I’m surprised by meaning every word of that last sentence, even though I haven’t the faintest idea of who you really are or what you look like; not even after two years of blogging with you on various sites.
The succession of texting, telephoning, Twittering and key-tapping ‘plinthers’ might not, in the end, be meaninglessly engaged in their seemingly endless streams of yakyakyak after the JCB crane plants them on their Trafalgar Square perch to horrify pigeons fascinated by their dogged attempts to eat unappetising bits of buzzing plastic embedded with mysterious winking lights.