Every New Year, I nosedive into memory, hoping to find lessons for the future. As a compulsive archivist, my stash of junk from past lives is salted away in albums and inboxes, dusty with memory that has survived aborted spring-cleaning endeavours. Everything from ancient birthday cards to last-call subscription reminders for now-extinct websites, chatty email exchanges, syrupy love letters and unsent rants — phantoms from a pre-WhatsApp era, peppered with the authors’ personalities, their bloopers and typos unsullied by AutoCorrect. I studied the addresses: many were of people I’d lost in the past two decades: some to death, but most to silence.
The silence is more troubling.
I was struck by the strident, argumentative and risk-averse voices of correspondence in those emails. That was us a decade ago. What changed? What caused the fractures, and what fed the looming silences that had since papered over the cracks?
It wasn’t just life and domesticity that had come in the way of conversation. Emojis replaced words and phrases. Memes displaced sentences. We outsourced our thinking and expression, even our memory, to bots, supplanting our own, original thoughts and feelings with prefabricated units borrowed languidly from libraries of packaged content. Tailor-made generic, like the impersonal homogeneity of a readymade fast-fashion garment.
Something else, dim and shadowy, populated the vacuum left by our evaporated words — an incremental attrition of trust, and an inability to see others for who they are, to know them for what they have lived, to appreciate difference, and to empathise with their reality. Our words and thoughts are infected with premeditated bias, and festering with the gangrene of off-the-shelf, polarised politics. Yet, we are afraid to confront this inner rot; we are scared of who we have become. Anger, clotted into tongue-tied silence, has brewed otherness. Steeping, it has fermented into hate.
We can no longer be on speaking terms with those we disagree with. Worse, we read deeply between the lines, imagining patterns and motives and threats where there are none. We cannot express disagreement without the mercury leaping swiftly towards boiling point and frothing over into a tsunami of consequences. Because we cannot sustain debate by talking to each other, we can only talk at and about each other, declaiming pontifically in our social media pulpits, listening only for applause. The deafness only gets louder.
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Plot it on a graph and it’s easy to see that the interval between thought and action has shrunk dramatically, activating an atavistic reptilian auto-response to perceived threat. The measured reserve and restraint of the handwritten letter has been usurped by the raging, unfiltered hot flash of the unguarded tweet. We have forgotten how to lock the gate between mind and deed.
We see too much of each other on social media, and too little of each other in person. The exclusion zones that the pandemic created in the past two years have only made this worse; we think Zoom meetings and online classes are substitutes for a back-slap and a hug. But they aren’t.
We have opinions about people we have never met. Every so often, in real life, the social media pottymouth turns out to be a soft-spoken wallflower, painfully shy and affectedly courteous.
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A couple of years ago, in unmasked times, I ran into an elderly gent at a book reading. We clinked glasses and argued passionately about politics, taking stridently opposite stands as we downed round after round of scotch. Not for a moment did our conversation get loud or ugly. When we parted, clasping each others’ hands warmly and exchanging cards, the biggest impression we had made on each other was that of an old-world decency, our hearts filled with affection and mutual respect.
I wondered if we might have sustained such a conversation had it been conducted on social media. Even a one-to-one exchange over WhatsApp would have quickly heated up. Twitter turns each of us into a public speaker, and not all of us have the nerves for the podium. Stage-fright raises our hackles, and makes us behave like hunted beasts. We yield, without introspection, to the hysteria of public opinion. Either that, or we submit to confused silence.
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Deep within the ocean lives an unfortunate fish, its tongue parasitised and substituted by a tiny invertebrate. Every time the fish opens its mouth to feed, it nourishes the parasite. Drugged on a diet of pre-manufactured thoughts, we are dazed, polarised and confused. When we speak, the words that emerge are of the parasite that has taken hold of our tongues. The cognitive dissonance between the opinions we are compelled to espouse and our own lived experiences has compromised our identities, and paralysed us into silence and inertia. No more do we have the guts to walk into an inferno with a bucket of water. We just watch it burn.
As I read those emails from the past, I peered into the depths of a mirror. Like the queen in Snow White, all I could see was an illusion of myself against my perceived reality. Was I being nostalgic, or naïve, or judgemental? What could I salvage from that past life, and what should I jettison, to break the silence?