Month: July 2022

The Art of Understanding

We cannot understand without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said… Understanding does not occur when we try to intercept what someone wants to say to us by claiming we already know it.

Hans-Georg Gadamer


Users of social media are attracted to platforms supporting free speech and open communication. The business motivations of social media are too, but for a different reason. A social media company’s valuation is largely driven by user activity metrics, from which advertising and media value are derived. The free speech that users value often turns out to be provoked, induced through controversy or cult phenomenon. Platform disruptors help drive up user activity by provoking speech, which benefits the value of the platform. The more disruptors a platform has (and the more freedom they’re given), the more controversy and virality will exist to improve those metrics that drive valuation. Provoked speech isn’t really free. The consequences of a platform engendering controversy and virality can be seen in the obvious de-evolution of social norms online: civility is rare, cruelty is ever increasing, and understanding no longer has the currency it once had. Outrage pays.

Understanding is key to any civil society. In America, we usually don’t take the time to understand one another anymore, particularly online. Without fully appreciating someone’s perspective, we usually end up seeing others through our own universe of norms; through our “own lens” as one might say. But it is that person’s own culture, knowledge and norms that influence their prejudices, their beliefs, and their treatment of a subject. Their experiences – not ours – formed their views. The only correct way to understand someone then is through their lens, treating our own as an impairment begging for a corrective prescription.

One of the great modern philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer saw the study of hermeneutics as a means of gaining understanding of “the other” through an effort to transpose a person’s experiences, prejudices, and culture in a way that it could be uniquely appreciated despite the narrowness of our own. Think of it as a translation problem. When the effort is successful, there is a broadening of horizons to better understand how “the other” formed their network of beliefs, free from our own prejudices and norms. The rather sterile and parochial word hermeneutics might remind you more of Sunday School than social media, or more the type of legal research often used to interpret historical law than explain the psychology of a news cycle. If you were to consult college texts, you’d walk away quite certain that hermeneutics has nothing to do with everyday life and is the thing of dry people doing even drier historical things. Yet the doldrum historical sciences that employ hermeneutics have been grasping at the same basic goal to understand, which we often lack in social media.

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