Yesterday I read a startling article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker about “weak” and “strong” connections (Oct. 4, “Small Change”). According to Gladwell, the young African American students who started the wave of lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 knew each other personally, face-to-face. The first four from North Carolina A.&T., in Greensboro had stayed up late in the dorms of their all-black colleges, arguing the tormented questions of segregation and racism. Young, radicalized by the pressure and degradation of racism, they eventually “dared” each other to take seats at an all-white drugstore lunch counter and attempt to order coffee. What began in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, spread to other North Carolina and S. Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee communities, and within a month sit-ins were occurring across the south, where thousands of young black people challenged the status quo.
It was dangerous business, and the young protesters dressed up as if they were going to church–suits and ties for the young men; nice dresses, hats and heels for the young women. They were harrassed by police, by teams of thugs (sometimes football teams from neighboring white high schools or colleges). But the movement spread because, Gladwell argues, face-to-face personal relationships sustained these daring young people.
The Civil Rights Movement was tightly organized around black churches. For example, the MOntgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 sustained a year-long alternate transportation system for black people in Montgomery because black churches from ministers down to “captains” to “troops” kept private cars running to transport black workers throughout the city, day after day, week after week. Such an effort demanded frequent, personal accountability which centered around the huge black churches in the city. The drivers, their organizers and their passengers knew each other; if they let each other down, they would suffer the personal disgrace and humiliation of witnessing their failure before God and their entire congregations.
Facebook, Twitter and other so-called “loose” connections, argues Gladwell, cannot sustain such dangerous, personal, daily commitment to change. He cites the studies of social scientists to back him up. Imagine, for a moment, putting yourself among the traffic on highway 94 to leaflet, pester, try and convince. These are the long lines of cars I see daily stalled, going east day after the working day. There are simply too many cars for the highway capacity, for this ironically termed “rush hour.” Because there is no rush possible. Too many vehicles, driven by single people, clog the roads for any single car to rush anywhere.
I don’t know how long it takes for each car and driver to reach its destination, but I can tell you, I wouldn’t want to sit in that traffic after working all day. I’d do quite a bit to avoid it. But obviously many many people either cannot or will not make necessary changes to prevent this. Necessary changes such as mass transit, including buses that carry perhaps 50 people per vehicle; or trains, light rail, for instance, where hundreds are transported by one carbon-spewing engine. Or better yet, light rail and buses fueled by electricity created by wind or solar.
What would it take to educate these drivers, to bring them to the point of making or at least accepting change? One person couldn’t do it. I couldn’t, by myself, go car to car, trying to convince the drivers stalled there, that this mode of exiting the city for the eastern suburbs is harmful to themselves and to all of us because it contributes to huge carbon emissions, which up the carbon in our atmosphere and contribute to global warming (euphemistically called “climate change”).
Facebook, Twitter, and this very medium I’m using now, Blogging, can present ideas, notions, tidbits; they might gather poets at a reading, they might encourage readers at “the click of a button” to protest this, that, or the other, but they will not rouse groups of people to risky, face-to-face encounters necessary for change. Neighborhoods, perhaps, can organize, especially if they have an already existing structure of organization like a church or community center with a leader, a site and a cadre of lieutenants. I know, the war metaphor isn’t the greatest, but it does convey the need for discipline, commitment of time, energy and risk, plus something the military also creates sort of by default: a personal attachment to one’s buddies, to saving lives if they are hurt in the contest. To being in this together for the long haul, my arm linked in yours, my ideas and hopes and fears and body beside yours. Despite its attraction, Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. do not provide this lively contact.
One last, humorous example. One of my favorite graduate students was writing her final master’s paper on internet dating agencies like Match.Com. One day as we worked together, she blurted out in frustration: “But we had such good chemistry!” She meant that the emails she’d exchanged with this failed guy had been witty and lively and enticing. As the flurry of on-line messages flew back and forth, her heart beat faster. She liked the guy’s picture on the internet. She became very eager to meet him. This was the “chemistry” she was talking about.
“Darling,” I said, “there can be no chemistry over the internet. Chemistry is about real, flesh-and-blood encounters. The scent of hair, flash of eyes, the swagger or slump–it’s almost indescribable until you’ve experienced it face-to-face.” It was no surprise to me that her on-line build-up didn’t necessarily translate into whole body affection. Internet dating and whole body dating aren’t the same thing at all. What anyone puts out in the privacy of their home on the internet doesn’t have much to do with the way they behave when confronted by a real person, who will want real things that begin with coffee or a glass of wine but can go much further to commitment. Or to flight or embarrassed stammering, which is what she got across the coffee from her internet beau. No real chemistry face-to-face, was what she experienced. Real failed chemistry.