Pause and shift (if you can)
Ending a year of "difficult" to begin a year of "dread"? How we might enter this new year in a way that might could lead to rebuilding some of what feels lost.
2023 was difficult — I also use the word “heavy” often to describe last year. Words mean things. Strung together in the right order and in the right context, they can create magic. In any context, they can wound or heal. They, perhaps most importantly, help us create shared meaning and understanding — until they don’t. When words don’t work, the world gets “difficult” for someone who writes not only as a way of making sense of the world, but also as a way of trying to be useful in the world.
This difficulty using language to make sense and locate ourselves in the world leads to a sense of contextlessness that is deeply disorienting. The shared stories that should help us understand our day-to-day lives and live in community stop working, and we end up feeling separated from each other, lonely, unsure, and more scared, more often. Danah Boyd first used the phrase “context collapse” to refer to the identity consequences of the modern media systems in which we live more than 15 years ago (based on her work on “collapsing contexts” that went back to her 2002 thesis and the work of Joshua Meyrowitz’s No Sense of Place, a book on electronic media and identity from all the way back in 1985). Yuval Harari often describes our capacity for fiction as humans’ primary superpower. It is our shared stories that let our communities grow beyond what we can see and experience directly. These shared stories are also how we define and consistently express the expectations and assumptions of what T.M. Scanlon refers to as “what we owe each other.”
Stories are the foundation for modern life. And our civic life is built around the stories of “nation” and “country” and “citizen”. But when we don't agree on the stories — or we take them for granted and they lose resonance — or we stack too many stories one on top of the other and create something precarious and fragile by mistake — or our shared understandings of these stories are incomplete or outright divergent, then what? If stories are collaborative concepts where meaning is created by interaction between author/creator, performer/deliverer, and reader/watcher/listener, then they change as each participant evolves and as the mechanisms of consumption evolve. What happens when stories shift or are shifted beneath our feet? What happens when people who do live and see and experience each other rely on entirely different stories or entirely different mechanisms to make sense of the world? If stories are the binding agents in complex societies and between communities, what happens to those complex societies when the stories don’t stick or share?
Whose line is it anyway?
I was at a Rally for Democracy on the 3rd anniversary of the January 6th Capitol riots couple weekends back. It was full of stories and the language of patriotism and democracy. Signs printed with dramatic, declarative calls to action like “Protect Democracy” and “Stop the Lies”. All of it sharp and evocative. But in 2024 America, if I hadn't known the organizers of the event, I would not have been sure whether it was an event in support of The Insurrection and Insurrectionists or against them. This collision of language is why responding in your opponents frames and arguing in their language is a mistake. As you constantly try to refute them, you end up adopting their language and living in their stories instead of asserting your language and living in yours.
This kind of collision without actual competition is also a dramatic example of the collaborative relationship between stories, storyteller, and the incredible context-sensitivity of language. If we don’t share the basic understandings that define context then we don’t share reality when we share stories. Language alone, symbol alone, is not enough. Symbols don’t work independent of context. Signs and signifiers are context-specific, story specific, community specific. Much of our dysfunction in modern society comes from this lack of shared context, which leads to our inability to understand each others' language and stories.
If a country is both a place and the stories that define that place and its citizens, then multiple countries can (and do) share geography. Levels of coexistence have been the reality to a greater or lesser degree in every part of the world and every era since the rise of the modern nationstate after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Holy Roman Church Wars. Divergent (or just different) stories among groups and between communities emerge for all kinds of reasons — some coincidental, co-evolutionary, some competitive. Historical, spiritual, colonial, emergent, divergent stories of self in shared spaces have actually been the rule not the exception since humans started crowding each other a few hundred generations ago.
In America, we have had a durable dominant primary story since our founding that has subsumed, co-opted, or destroyed all the other coexistent ones with remarkable and terrifying efficiency. It is replete with a robust collection of some of humanity’s best and most ambitious liberal values combined with rousing founding myths and characters. Combined with the cultural steamroller of modern capitalism, “America” and “American” have become stories that mean very different things in very different communities. But as our divergence expands beyond the communities being subsumed, co-opted, or destroyed to divergence within dominant communities, that divergence starts to have very different consequences.
As stories diverge more and more, America feels more and more like multiple dominant countries increasingly at odds with each other that happen to share a common geography — historically similar peoples trying to assert their divergent stories and boundaries over each other. I have often described 2012 as the last competitive Presidential campaign, when two campaigns competed with each other over the fundamental questions that would define the country and over the same people. As our defining stories have diverged and been diverged by people in power more interested in power than service, our campaigns do not really compete. They operate independently of each other in different communities, based on different stories, in different languages, about different topics that then converge on election day to see which community and which stories produce the most votes. What I think we have either failed to embrace fully (or failed to realize at all) is that context collapse is not only disorienting, it leads to increasingly divergent lived experiences among neighbors much less fellow citizens. And that disorientation and divergence ultimately leads to meaning collapse. Decades on now, that loss of meaning is leading to the broader collapse of the moral and ethical underpinnings of our collective systems of community and governance.
If the liberation ethicists from various communities of the last several decades teach us anything, it is that context matters. The appeal of context-free moral clarity is fleeting at best and profoundly misleading and ultimately dangerous at worst. The pain and uncertainty of our context collapse, of the consequences of our low-context culture slouching toward a zero-context culture is making our collective response to the dysfunction and violence in our world from intensely vitriolic domestic politics to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the current Israel-Hamas conflict strained, painful, and torturous.
In all of this search for meaning and understanding, and a coherent response in the midst of collapsing contexts, the distinctions between groups, between ideas, and between possible futures are less nuanced and less open to real discussion, challenge, and debate. In a zero-context culture, every conversation is the first one and the whole story of a question. There is no history, no context, no experience, and no wisdom, which all leads to reducing even the possibility of sustaining relationships through conflict or disagreement. Everything is up for grabs every time we engage, and so every interaction takes on an existential intensity that makes real, creative, and open engagement, as well as real curiosity and openness to novelty and diversity almost impossible. And it forces us to oversimplify and extrem-ify our positions (and consequently our politics) precisely because we can’t rely on others to assume best intentions or remember previous conversations or lean on shared history or even consider the possibility of slow-building an argument or credibility or relationship much less community, meaning, or shared context over time. Politics and conflict and debate that is more extreme makes our communities less coherent, less productive, and less safe — which exacerbates the sense of divergence and existential threat in a dysfunction spiral.
Regardless of context or desire for explanation or justification or historical context or the meaning of particular language or desperate grasps for long-term answers amid short-term crisis, suffering should not be a strategy. Suffering — chronic or acute — should not be compared or invalidated and is not justification for or a path to clear moral action. And leveraging broken contexts to build power and to separate people further is cruel and traumatic and counterproductive. Policies based on those feelings are unlikely to produce moral decisions or good strategies.
Building new contexts
If our trauma, fear, and context collapse are making it harder for us to find meaning and embracing consistent moral responses, can we start by rebuilding context? Yes — but only if we make shared, high-context culture an intentional goal of how we engage with others. When we meet others, do we hope to make others like us or do we expect to be changed? Interaction is a mechanism of constant transformation — similar to how error is the engine of evolution. Forcing interactions to confirm expectations is to reduce creativity to zero, to remove all diversity, to make change improbable if not impossible, and to lock us into our current conflicts and sclerosis. If our entry point to interaction is the justification of inhumanity based on trauma and fear and our modus operandi is persuasion by force or dominion, we cannot grow. We are trapped by our own desperate need to engineer morally absolutist postures that make us feel safe and feed a desperate need to win exacerbated by all the systems of competition and existential dread that drive our most counterproductive survival instincts. We cannot be more just, and we are not going to be safe.
I refuse to begin 2024 with an outlook defined by dread — no matter what is happening or what challenges and opportunities we believe this year is bringing. We can rebuild context. And rebuilding context can help us rebuild meaning. And rebuilding meaning can help us reclaim moral standing. And in the same way we build self-esteem by doing esteem-able things, we can begin to rebuild our moral standing through actions we know are good for humanity: dramatically widen our circle of concern, care for others, protect the vulnerable, kill less. Context and justification get simpler when our actions are more transparent and our motivations simpler. But the contextlessness we are all wrestling with is making making sense of everything we are confronting more difficult for everyone. But if we can slow down our own desperate need for certainty and shift our expectations of dread, we can, in fact, start rebuilding shared context. That pause and shift might be a privilege, but if those who can embrace them do (while those who can’t prioritize their survival), pausing and shifting can be a source of care and empathy that starts the rebuilding of shared context around and between and for everyone. In 2024, building new contexts where we can and how we can might be the most important act of rebellion against the tides of dysfunction we can engage in.
Please consider becoming a paid subscriber to support this work. Subscribing to 7 Bridges is the best way to keep it free and open to all.