Alternative facts, social media bubbles, assortative mating/friendships and diversity

We all like to think we have a handle on what’s real — it’s natural.

However, with the pervasive nature of opinion media broadcasting 24/7 on television and now on the internet, it can sometimes be hard to get a handle on the situation. This is compounded by the echo chambers of our social media bubbles and our assortative friendships as well as assortative mating.

What this all means is that we are getting a lot of positive reinforcement from people who agree with us. So it all feels right — our opinions, our choices, our behaviours are all reinforced by friends and family and followers who tell us, very earnestly that you should “be yourself” because “you can’t be anyone else”.

It’s too bad that what this really means is: “Be like us, conform to our little bubble’s social, moral and ethical norms. We’re with you, let those who challenge you — the unenlightened or the profane — be silent.”

After all, you can unfriend those nagging voices who question your beliefs, challenge your morality and your ethics or criticize your choices. You can cut them out because they make you feel something psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — the fact that we can’t hold two opposing propositions in our minds at once. It’s actually painful — if you believe someone is a good person and then you get evidence that they are a liar or a cheater, it is easier to dismiss the new facts because they make you feel uncomfortable.

Before social media, assortative mating and friendships, safe spaces in universities, etc. we were often confronted with opposing views and had to argue them out before arriving at a decision.

Now, the process has changed… when we feel an impulse to do something: take a political position, make a life choice, buy something, etc. we tend to go our affirming group to have our decision positively reinforced. If people disagree, then our affirming group labels them as outsiders and often as questionable morally or ethically. So we dismiss them.

Our new internet bubble and assortative mating/friendship trend have meant that many of us live in a state that used to be reserved for people who join cults or espouse strongly ideological politics. It isn’t good because there are few dissenting voices and more social pressure to conform.

All of this while we all sing the praises of diversity and difference. Too bad we rarely experience it.

Diversity and difference means actually countenancing an opposing view and then using reason to debate, discuss and then either dismiss it or change your own views.

But this implies that there is a discussion happening. I fear that our social media bubbles and assortative mating/friendships have made having that discussion inconvenient or even uncomfortable.

Time to open the debate and burst the bubbles.

Otherwise, alternative facts (from every perspective) will be a fixture in our lives, society and politics going forward.

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Glamour oh glamour

Whilst I have spent much of my career as a professional communicator building shimmering images of glamour and desire I have to say that the idea of glamour actually repels me as an idea.

I love the chase of an idea or image, a concept distilled down to its simplest form and then adorned is to me the most powerful way to build a narrative either visual, auditory or in language.

To me that’s the antiglamour really.

Glamour is the narrative turn fed by jealousy and a desire to withhold or hide beauty. It is created through a tantalizing feeling of access to privilege that is really rooted in a lack of access – glamour is dress up, a taunt or the reminder of an absence in your life, be it excitement or power or wealth or control of others. That’s what drives the desire to consume: either to project the taunt “look at me, you can’t have this” or to struggle to own it.

The problem is that while this works, it also makes people unhappy with their lives.

To me the mysteries that work best in communication and fashion aren’t those heavy handed storylines of glamour but rather the suggestive breezes of momentary uplift when we are reminded of the beauty and joy of a simple moment… a deep breath upon stepping outside for the first time after a day in a building, a perfect coffee as the sun kisses your face even on a crisp winter day. The fleeting electric tingle of a brush of your hand by someone you like.

To me the sun and the breeze and the tingle of the cold in my cheek or the split second thrill of light touch are sensations that remind me that I am alive and that life holds so much promise.

That’s real glamour. The rest is vanity, isn’t it?

Language and dimensionality: The movie “Arrival”

I watched the film Arrival last night. It was an interesting exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has two versions:

  • Linguistic Relativity — claims that language shapes and colours our worldview (i.e. if you don’t have a nuanced set of words for different types of snow, you are less likely to see the different varieties unless you focus on noticing).
  • Linguistic Determinism — claims that language determines how we view the world (i.e. if you don’t have a word for green, you can’t see the colour)

Arrival takes the linguistic determinism interpretation with the main character, a linguistics professor named Louise (Amy Adams), actually having a piece of her mind unlocked which allows her to perceive time differently, based on learning the script language of the Heptapods.

Generally, linguists reject the linguistic determinism hypothesis because it seems to contradict the laws of physics — as Steven Pinker put it in his book, The Blank Slate, learning a new language doesn’t rewire the cone cells in your eyes.

However, on a deeper level, I think there may be something to linguistic determinism — call it a mindful or meditative, perhaps even a spiritual level. For example, Buddhist koans and Christian plainsong have been said to induce ecstatic transport, increase focus and alter consciousness. I recognize that this isn’t linguistic determinism proper, but there is a linguistic behaviour here (chanting) at play that seems to have the potential to alter one’s perception of reality.

The fact is that we don’t  understand the brain well enough yet to be able to know how different stimuli and practices come together in the network or palimpsest or whatever configuration of mental representations through which our minds are organized .

Now, these altered states may not be determined through language strictly but through a combination of language, memory, shape, colour, sound and attention… who knows.

The idea of the link between symbols, representation and our consciousness is pretty fascinating and I am happy that Arrival was abe to produced such a nuanced and engrossing experience based on it.

The pain then is part of the goodness now

So sometimes we are confronted with the pain of others and its raw and its hard and it hurts, both them and us. You know, we make choices in our lives and sometimes, I think about those choices and it’s hard to see the path linking them through time… that golden filament weaving through the events and moments of our lives, driven forward fast and inexorably by time’s arrow darting forward ever forward and our decisions behind us and our minds somewhere in between trying to grasp and compute what happened, what’s going on and where the arrow might be going to land.

The train just passed over a bridge that forded a river of black glittering water, like polished obsidian in the night. There was a light from a factory on the riverside, lights making a flickering pattern like gold brocade on black velvet fabric, stretching out like a ribbon across the land, leading away from the train and city and into the darkness of the faraway night full of mystery and dreams and the future and the past.

I noticed an armada of geese or ducks — I couldn’t tell ’cause I was far away looking down at them from the window of the train, like polished black figurines again the altnerating gold and oily black of the water below.

I’ve been thinking of how a friend had a moment where she was weak and succumbed to that pinprick sliver of time and now regrets and doubts and hunches her shoulders when she walks, worrying that carefree days may never again be hers.

Her mind is trapped in the dark lake of memory and reminding and the half-remembered thoughts of that black ribbon tracing back into her past and through a Moebius strip into her future, making her worry and doubt. I was thinking as I look out and feel the cadence and shake of the train that whatever bad she had in the past led her to something really good now and that something to celebrate and be joyful about. I told her that being around folks who care now is a blessing not to be taken lightly and if it took a dark passing to get into the light, then that’s a good thing and focusing on the old grumpy dark of the past only casts shade on a sunlit present.

Her eyes teared up and she said that it was a kind thing to say but I just said that it was the truth, simple and obvious. It was a moment of mutual understanding and it was pretty good.

I wonder though if words and pictures don’t objectify our feelings and the misty tangle of our memories which are complicated but sublime and so reduced when we we fit them to a word or a drawing or even a photo.

Trains and travel

I am on the train from Ottawa to Toronto when I will take a bus back to my city, Hamilton. Whether it is silent and sleepy lights of the train at night with the murmuring voices of folks on their cell phones talking to people that it sounds like care about them or whether it is the rumble, rumble of the wagon and the feeling of being in pulled through the countryside…  I feel the jerky calm of transition as I move over the kilometres.

I have learned to find a separate peace on the move, particularly on the train because of its rhythmic cadence and the diffuse focus of the other passengers: some on their laptops absorbed by the blinking rectangle, others by their conversations longstanding or newfound, and yet others on their cellphones with family and friends or lovers lost or losing like the man sitting across from me who is making a last desperate attempt to convince someone hat he will be more available…

The train is a microcosm of life and I think about it while I sit here comfy and a little groggy after a long week in Parliament and some train wine behind me. I’m tired in that delicious way that makes you think about the next step.. a cold walk across union station to the bus and then a dark and cold walk from the bus to my car in Hamilton. And the cold stark light of the LEDs in the car and the trip home after midnight. In the cold and black of the night illuminated by the car beams and lit by my flickering memories of the week.

 

Thank you snowy morning

I woke up today to fluffy snowflakes floating down, softly and silently, on a slant because of the wind. I had woken up with a beating heart and some fear because I guess I had gone to bed worried about things.

I felt a little out of sort, nervy and out of sync. I almost knocked over my coffee cup when I reached out to grab the jar in which I keep my coffee beans. I didn’t feel good about that, it made me feel like I wasn’t up to the day.

And then the snow.

Large flakes, floating sideways in the grey morning light, a screen that brought mystery to my backyard, making the trees seem faraway as if in a dream. As I looked at the trees though the snowy mist I felt my heart rate slow, warmth come back to my limbs. Slowly I felt control return.

Slowly I felt control return. I noticed my breath again and felt the warmth of the coffee cup in my hand. Breath after breath, my muscles unclenched and I regained the smoothness of my movements.

I don’t know how long I gazed out the window, watching the snow slant silently – couldn’t have been longer than a minute or two – but it felt like time stopped. My day’s course was reset. It went from being a troubled day to smooth, calm one.

That snow helped me find my flow. I am grateful.

It has been a good day.

Lemon tree

Yesterday I picked a lemon from my lemon tree. It’s a Meyer lemon tree, and it stands quietly in the corner of my study by the window and the heating vent, looking outside and thinking of how much it misses summertime when it was on the porch bathing everyday in warm summerlight and the sounds of birds and chipmunks and squirrels and their friends.

I had spent time pollinating the tree, using a q-tip, stealing some particles of pollen from one flower and sprinkling them onto another. The effort yielded three four little lemonlings, which have since grown into lemons waiting to be plucked.

 

Lemon tree yielded her first fruit!

A photo posted by Alex Sévigny (@alexsevignyphd) on

So there it was, my first lemon like a little sun at the end of a green stem. I plucked it from the tree and grated its rind making for a wonderful, lemon-tangerine smelling zest characteristic of Meyer lemons. Scraped and cut and squeezed, my little lemon contributed to a lovely lemon pasta, the recipe for which you can find here.

 

Lemon pasta. With freshly picked lemon from lemon tree. Delish!

A photo posted by Alex Sévigny (@alexsevignyphd) on

The last half of the lemon’s juice gave up a beautful red kale caesar salad with vegenaise. Bitter and juicy and creamy and sweet, the salad was a wonderful end to a lovely meal. I was glad to have turned my first harvested lemon into a scrumptious, simple meal. I was thankful.