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Yesterday we went to shirt sleeve order at the Senior School, signalling the fact that the great British summer was upon us. OK a tad later than we might have cared for but it is here and to stay, well I say that, here for now at least.

The move to shirt sleeve order brings with it the promise of nearing the end of term and the holidays beckon. Wimbledon is about to start and it’s not long now until the Tour de France. Speaking of Wimbledon, I noted the other day that Martina Navratilova was in the news, I am sure reader that you recall her glory days and her dominance of the courts. This time she was championing two causes, one overtly the other I venture to say more covertly. Martina was overtly drawing attention to the competition rules that apply to transgender athletes. Her position seemed to question the fairness of the current state of affairs and how the landscape of competition might be altered. I suspect the television cause she was engaged with came more from the covert cause. It seems that having posted some comments on Twitter, she became the recipient of quite a bit of messaging and not all of it diplomatic, balanced nor reasoned. I’m not sure why this is the case.

The intricacy of human communication is endlessly fascinating. One might spend years in understanding the nature and purpose of language, how words function, what is the connotative and denotative relationship of words to things in the world. In face-to-face conversation, there also seems to be a layering of civility that we employ quite naturally, or it may be the product of conditioning in a social context. However, unless emotions are running very high indeed, one is usually guaranteed reasoned and thoughtful polite discourse. Much in the same way that in bumping into a stranger in the street, we are likely to apologise but a stranger jumping into a space in a traffic queue issues forth a more primitive response. Odd isn’t it?

I wonder if the virtual world has the same effect as the so-called security of the car? It seems that online folk are more liberal in their reluctance to engage reasoned thought and more open to invective. Words lose their meaning and become supercharged with an emotion one would never display in a face-to-face. I think that words also go through some sort of quantum change, perhaps even out of the control of the sender in communicating their intent to the receiver. In face-to-face conversation clarification is sought, tone and modulations add layers of meaning and develop understanding. This is not possible online. I think it is even diminished in video calls. A bit like washing your feet with your socks on: it does the job but not in quite the same way as it could be achieved and with less satisfaction. 

Of course, the wider issue is with the transference of language use from the machine to the world of immediate human interaction. The non-virtual emoji-less desert that is everyday life, where meaning is constructed without graphics and animation has less to do with gifs and more to do with your facial expression and demeanour. We cannot but be aware of the level of discussion going on in the world, but in every sphere the capacity for thoughtful exchange is the essence of what we are as humans. The facility to engage and to understand is all conditioned by the language we use. Families of meaning are constructed and over time, and within social groups, the words take on a richness that allows authenticity. Agree or disagree, I know where you stand, Wittgenstein might argue the toss but to all intent and purposes, it is the case.

But in this world of discussion I think we can also be deceived into thinking we are making progress by just talking. I might have a variety of opinions about the English cricket team and their performance, but what do I do with them? Talking about how performance might improve with my friends is a bit like driving around the M25; long periods of going nowhere, getting frustrated coupled with sudden movement, the illusion of progress. I say illusion because if you never get off the M25 you will arrive where you began, with all of the benefit of long waits, queues, sudden bursts of open road and the crushing disappointment that the break in traffic was the prelude to the next jam.

The side-bar conversations of the Twiteratii, the WhatsApperii generation and the rest of them allows us the illusion that we are doing something when in fact we are just talking. Round and round the metaphoric M25 we go with ever decreasing effect because in the act of talking we build the illusion of progress. We discuss the strengths and weaknesses of English cricket. We all know – or think we do – the secret of improvement. Frustration levels rise as we collectively debate the merits of tactics and performances (among ourselves). I don’t know why the cricket board are not making changes, I don’t know why they are not getting better but then again if I don’t tell them directly, how will they? Should I rely on the ‘Force’?

Language and how we use it affects the change we want to have in the world, but only if it is directed not just shared. Non-directed conversation is chatting to the wind. It may make one feel good, but it makes no difference. To affect change in the world we need to talk to each other directly, openly and with honesty. I suggest we need to do it without invective and the ad-hominem that loses discussion in argument, that replaces reason with self-aggrandising rhetoric, where to have my say is more important than to understand what is being said. Set aside the circularity of WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook and the comfort of virtual conversations that delude. It’s time to affect change through face-to-face conversation. Troubles shared are not always halved if they are shared redundantly with those who have no capacity to make a difference. I think it’s time to get off the M25.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)

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