In the Flesh

What’s been lost in the internet wars is kindness, flexibility, empathy, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and the desirability of that; the finding of common ground: valuing others. 

Admittedly, these qualities have always been in short supply, but in the real, corporeal world, you have to compromise, occasionally, or hold your tongue while casting your eyes to heaven, because you have to live with these people. Often the biggest arsehole, spewing the most awful Nazi shit, is your own dad, who loves you. To destroy him would be intolerable: not just horribly ungrateful and disloyal, but also just embarrassing, embarrassingly raw and personal – humiliating for both of you.

Or it’s your boss or your tutor. In the flesh, you are at other people’s mercy. They can harm you physically, emotionally, professionally, socially. They know who you are. They know where you live, what you look like.

Being in someone’s actual, physical presence, in the flesh, involves much more than registering their words, the bald, factual meaning of them. There’s inflection, of course, tone of voice, rapidity of speech, but there’s also timbre, pitch and quality of sound, facial expression, eye contact or lack of it, gesture and body language, how a person is dressed and groomed, the rate, depth and sound of their breathing, its smell. Then there are other smells – fart, deodorant, sweat, washing powder, shampoo. There’s skin tone, flushes, rashes, sweatiness, subconsciously registered pheromones (probably), body warmth…all the meanings and messages of their physicality. 

This is self, made manifest, this is force of person-ality. We don’t absorb all this data passively, either. We process it and analyse it; we align it with previous knowledge and expectations to plan and predict, to understand and empathise. 

We spend a lot of our time acknowledging that we’ve upset someone and making amends: giving them a hug and reminding them that we still like them. We say these conciliatory and consoling things because we have to, and not just because no-one wants a punch on the nose. (Or to be sacked, or to fail, or to be hated). They are part of a framework of shared humanity, which is the reason and purpose of communicating at all. 

And saying it reminds us that we mean it, and in between the spats there is usually time for the odd gesture of affection, a kind word, a shared moment.

Not so, online. Here, we enter each other’s lives as just a few lines of text on a screen, and for the sole purpose of being a prick. (Or, of course, to offer some platitudinous, disingenuous support, that nobody values.) So, there’s no need for reconciliation or relenting. We don’t know these people; we don’t need them; we owe them nothing. Far from being an act of communication, speech becomes merely an assertion of self, because you are typing into a void. You are talking to blankness[1]

[1] You could be responding to a bot…

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