“The Habit of Face to Face Encounters”

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I love Roger Scruton. He always puts his finger precisely on the problems with social media.

In human relations, risk avoidance means the avoidance of account­ability, the refusal to stand judged in another’s eyes, the refusal to come face to face with another person, to give oneself in whatever measure to him or her, and so to run the risk of rejection. Accountability is not something we should avoid; it is something we need to learn. Without it we can never acquire either the capacity to love or the virtue of justice. Other people will remain for us merely complex devices, to be negotiated in the way that animals are negotiated, for our own advantage and without opening the possibility of mutual judgment. Justice is the ability to see the other as having a claim on you, as being a free subject just as you are, and as demanding your accountability. To acquire this virtue you must learn the habit of face-to-face encounters, in which you solicit the other’s consent and cooperation rather than imposing your will. The retreat behind the screen is a way of retaining control over the encounter, while minimizing the need to acknowledge the other’s point of view. It involves setting your will outside yourself, as a feature of virtual reality, while not risking it as it must be risked, if others are truly to be encountered. To encounter another person in his freedom is to acknowledge his sovereignty and his right: it is to recognize that the developing situation is no longer within your exclusive control, but that you are caught up by it, made real and accountable in the other’s eyes by the same considerations that make him real and accountable in yours.

Now, I love this quote precisely because it serves to explain the dynamics of real relationships and not necessarily explanatory of the social media we hide behind through our computers. But since Scruton brings it up, there is a sense where we can say safe in our homes and “engage” virtually and remain safe. I think it’s a result of over-information in every area of our lives. We suffer from a decided lack of innocence and faith in our fellow beings because we are now completely aware of what people can do to each other, all in vivid colorful and gory detail. I think it’s even more prominent after events like 9/11.

We don’t like the vulnerability of face to face encounters because it can always go quickly very wrong. People can very easily hide themselves in virtual space, quite unlike meeting someone at the corner pub. Remember meeting someone in person for the first time and the sense you just get if this person is trustworthy or not or suspicious or not? That can’t happen in the virtual world because we only have what words are emotionless as they are typed from the other end of cyberspace. I find that it is very much easier for me to communicate with someone through a computer screen or through an email than it is in person. And perhaps half of it is the visual prejudices we have for people. On the internet you cannot be seen and judged immediately as stupid because your fat, or ugly because you aren’t symmetrically beautiful according to movie standards. For once, we can be taken on our ideas alone and it’s revolutionary, but like anything, we can take it too far and use it exclusively to withdraw from society. Not a good idea. What think you?

5 thoughts on ““The Habit of Face to Face Encounters”

  1. Sometimes it hits me wrongly, this virtual life. So I try to unplug and return to “real life.” Eventually I get drawn back in, until the next electric existential crisis, when the urge to unplug hits me again.

    Note to self – do not run away. Do not change blogs. Do not delete your Twitter account. Heh. 🙂

    I met my husband online. I have a love/hate/love relationship with social networking and the interwebs.

    • K.
      I also have a love/hate relationship with it. I met my future husband online as well and we took a lot of flak for it. People said it was unreal and that it did not foster communication, although we talk now ten times more than I did in my other marriage. So I’m torn. I understand what Scruton is saying, but as with everything… moderation?

      • Yeah, I think moderation is key.

        I know I can get carried away, sitting here all day, looking to make friends and hoping to get blog comments.

        I need to get off my tushy and do stuff (though I’m not sure what that stuff is). 🙂

  2. I still haven’t got round to reading Roger Scruton’s article, but the quote concentrates the mind wonderfully. As you say MOI, it makes us think about all kinds of interaction.

    Based on the quote, I think Scruton fails to make a distinction between living a virtual life, and simply communicating with someone else via electronic media – email, blogs, VOIP, ETC.

    I have occasionally written under a different identity if I didn’t want a particular aspect of myself to be common knowledge; but I don’t think I’ve ever actively masqueraded as someone else. That, to me, is a different impulse. I suppose I can understand the urge to live a whole other life, but grappling with this one seems to take up my available time quite effectively.

    I think any activity can engage our addictive tendency; a tendency which most people have. When it’s switched on, it makes the difference between the social drinker and the alcoholic, or someone who can smoke the occasional cigarette or snort the occasional recreational line at the weekend, without their life being destroyed by doing that.

    From an outsider’s perspective, our instinct is that anything which triggers an addictive response is best avoided, because addicts eventually lose control of their own lives. #and, of course, what we observe in others as an outsider is true for us.

    As I said, I have neither the time nor the inclination towards pretending to be someone else. I’m still some way from establishing who I really am. I’ve found it possible to exchange real thoughts, and express real feelings via the Net, when there was no other way of doing it.

    I think we must look elsewhere for forces that have fractured families and communities. The communication channels available to us merely give us the tools with which to express our predicament.

    • Yes, any activity can trigger our addictive tendency which is why blaming the medium is so silly. It’s we who have the tendency, not the medium. It’s like blaming children’s violence on video games rather than put the blame squarely on the child, who was likely to be violent to begin with. Objects and medium are only that; something we use for good or ill.

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