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Part II: Obama is Hitler? WTF?

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This incendiary title, no doubt, is what brought you here, out of the hundreds of articles competing for your attention on OEN. Also, this title – an example of the manipulative and fear-mongering language which is unfortunately common – no doubt sparked the high volume of comments on Part I. And rather than discourage this low-brow name-calling, my article seemed to invite it: more than one commenter agreed that Obama is similar to Hitler.  Another commenter, seeking a more poetic flair, dubbed Obama “Stalin on Steroids.”

Did they read the article before commenting? Did they understand what I wrote? Did they care? Why did my message fall so short with these readers?

And beyond my article, I wonder about communication in cyberspace.  While the internet has opened the information floodgates, has it made it easier to really communicate? Do we actually read on the internet? Do we actually listen to each other, or are we simply waiting for an opportunity to post ourselves? Are we actually exchanging knowledge with each other, or just words?  

Go skip to the comments now, if you like.  You get my point – I give you permission. 

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 In fact, if you’ve read this far in, you may be uncommon, as an author of a print-news website (ironic, huh) notes: “pressed for time [readers] scan the headlines and maybe a paragraph or two to get an idea of what’s happening in the world.”  And certainly, a number of readers saw the provocative title, I bored them, and they skipped to one of the literally hundreds of other articles on this site alone, on far more titillating topics, such as Obama’s dog’s hair-stylist. And if they didn’t find what they needed on OEN, there are hundreds of other news and opinion websites – not to mention tens of million blogs – to read.  And given these choices, who has time to actually read what any one person has to say?

 “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” writes Nicholas Carr, in his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid.”  “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

And all of us – with hyperlinks, as I’ve given you above and below – jump around from one article to the next, “zipping along the surface,” rather than swimming deeply in ideas. Or, as reporter Motoko Rich writes in her excellent New York Times article,    “readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.” And I wonder how many of those who commented on my article were reading in this way – catching a couple lines, responding, and then moving onto the next article.

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The internet, arguably, has transformed us into shallow readers – wide readers, but not deep, a sentiment Carr further clarifies: “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy….Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.”

He concludes that “the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”(Read a thoughtful counter-argument to Carr here).

 Neurological evidence suggests Carr’s impression might be right.  Some neuroscientists claim that internet-use actually rewires the brain – though whether this is for the better or the worse is debatable. Carr cites one such neuroscientist, Marryanne Wolf, who argues the net favors “efficiency” and “immediacy” over deep thought. In contrast, another recent UCLA study showed that internet use “stimulates the brain” more than simple reading, encouraging “complex reasoning and decision making.” 

 In other words, our brains are rewiring to become more adept at filtering through information – but does this come at the expense of deep-reading? Are we just professional skimmers, free-associating from one byte of information to the next, never really meditating on any one item, never really listening to it the cacophony of competing voices?

It’s easy to pin blame for social ills on the newest technology, as has been a habit throughout history. In Phaedrus, Plato explored how the new technology of “writing” would transform humans:  The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it.” And perhaps Plato is right here, that writing itself did make us more forgetful; and perhaps Carr is right, that the internet will encourage us to be less “thoughtful.”  But beyond technology, the central problem I have addressed in each of my articles on politics and language is communication: of not just sharing bytes of information, of not just being able to read, but being able to actually understand one another.

Still reading? I’m sure I lost at least 50 readers to "Obama Body Surfing" just with the mention of Plato.

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Even if you are still reading, even if you are slowing down and really paying attention to my words, no doubt you may still misunderstand my meaning. To a degree, our brains seem to be programmed for misunderstanding, for misinterpreting.

We see the world through frames, or “mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality,” according to UC Berkeley Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff’s now defunct Progressive Think Tank The RockRidge Institute.    More simply, our experience in the world shapes how we see that world.  We read – and listen – through these frames, which explain why each of us can have a different impression of the same article.  And these frames tend to show us what we want to see, rather than what is true: “If the truth doesn't fit the existing frame, the frame will stay in place and the truth will dissipate.”  Thus, we can read an article carefully, and never really see the truth in what that person is saying, because it doesn’t conform to our perception of the world. We leave that article with a different impression, even a misinterpretation of what is said.

And in a way, this is the beauty of language – that each of us can take something different away from what we read.

 Yet, as we enter troubling times, we need to not just speak, but listen: what’s the value of free speech if no one listens to each other?  How do we begin to fix the problems we face – which require us working together – without communicating with each other?


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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)
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