In 17th century Paris, the Salon phenomenon brought curiosity, enlightened thought and informed conversation to life. It is the stuff of fantasy. Leading thinkers, gathering together in the public sphere, to talk with one another, sharing ideas, listening, learning and arguing about how society might better function. Print media did not yet exist, and so people had to gather, leaning in to one another to learn. There were participants and there were spectators, but ideas were the champions of the day. Ideas soared or were slayed based on the informed, rational, and civil public discourse that swirled around them.
I have long dreamed of creating a similar arena in today’s world, expanded to include every gender, race and class. I am a scholar with a PhD. So yeah, I guess I know things. But there are many, many gaps in my knowledge, and I would love nothing more than to sit with people on my porch, in a coffeehouse, or at a bar, and learn from others. To think with people about things that matter. To be so curious about what I don’t know that I listen to learn, not just to respond. To discuss ideas that could bring more flourishing to people or the planet. To talk about the many ways trauma, hate or fear destroy lives. To bring our thoughts out into the open in an attempt to spur just action.
While I have romanticized this idea for over a decade, I have simultaneously shunned social media as distraction propping up vanity. I have had no interest at all in redefining the words “friend”, “like”, “follow” or “tweet.” People chasing the ridiculous approval of others become more performative, less authentic, right?
Enter the hypocrisy of my dreams.
While I was busy shunning all the shallow people, most of you were experiencing small and large doses of the amazing salons of Paris without me! While I was too arrogant to feel left out, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps platforms like facebook, reddit, twitter—and even instagram and snapchat to lesser extents—had become the new public sphere. These arenas can beautifully create space for the exchanging of ideas, the fostering of curiosity, and the engaging of thoughtful discussion. The salon lives! Could it be? On social media, of all things?
When my teenage son earned a phone and begged for an instagram account, I reluctantly created an account as well (in the name of good parenting). Within a year, the slippery slope of engagement led me to create a twitter account as well (in the name of launching ExpandYourUs.com). Here is what I’ve learned.
Social medias are public spheres. Conversations are happening 24/7, and people from every walk of life engage each other in this magical space. Yes, there is a shit ton of noise. Yes, there are many more uninformed people with intense opinions than should be legal. Yes, I wish they would all stop talking. But I have learned that there are also interchanges full of wonder and curiosity. There are people teaching others everywhere. Lonely and oppressed people have been uplifted; silenced voices have been given a megaphone. Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered. Long Live the Salon!
Words and images speak to the soul. Words are now amplified to destroy lives more than ever. Images undermine and ruin careers and futures. But words and images also offer us powerful ways to engage our deadened and distracted souls. They give birth to empathy and compassion hard to find in our own routines. They create space for curiosity and wonder. Social media, with its manic merging of words and images, provides all of us with the ability to share goodness and beauty on a large scale. It is easy to bemoan the destructive influence of social media as it spews hate and dehumanizes people who think differently; nevertheless, I offer an apologetic for the redemption of these platforms upon which we might remember how to engage civilly.
I am instinctively a binary thinker, but I am learning, partially through my disgust at social media, that binaries destroy nuance, and a lack of nuance prevents empathy. In an ode to nuance, I would like to suggest that perhaps we might recognize the possibilities for an enlightening, empathy-building, public discourse provided by social media platforms. If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face. Rather than placing all our despair or all our hope in “the media,” or in “social media,” could each of us do our part to keep conversations going? Instead of trying to win an argument, could we try to listen to a perspective wildly different than our own? Could we privilege understanding over correcting? Rather than creating profiles and a way of being in the world that encourages others to either passively observe us or to defensively react to us, could we actively attempt to interact? To share ideas, to engage in conversations, to create a public sphere where perspectives are discussed, where the experience or thoughts of others are considered and honored? As long as we pretend like the problem is “out there” or “with them,” refusing to acknowledge the ways in which we ARE the problem, social media will devolve in the same ways everyday conversations have: into defensive anger and the stubborn denial of other perspectives.
Because I believe civil discourse helps us all become better humans, creating more connected communities, and because social media is a ubiquitous public sphere, I am committing to do my part to make it feel more like a French salon, and less like a Spanish bull ring. Join me?