Why We Can’t All Get Along

by on October 5, 2021 · 25 comments

in Media, Ocean Beach

By Joni Halpern

Marshall McLuhan was right.  “The medium is the message.”  That was the popularized theme of McLuhan’s book Understanding Media – the most incomprehensible book I have ever read –and it is quite possible that what I think I understood is worlds away from what he meant.

If I am right, however, that thematic summary helps explain why so many of us Americans cannot find common ground.  It’s not our fault we don’t get along.  We’re not even the same human beings anymore.

It is ironic that today, we live in the most interconnected world we have ever known.  A virus-laden bat comes in contact with one human being, and all over the world, people’s lives are changed forever.  A law enforcement officer on horseback chases and whips a hungry, desperate man trying to cross an invisible line on the earth, and a nation once revered slides down another notch in the eyes of people all over the world.

A person writes a single sentence on a computerized device and makes someone a continent away afraid for her life.  A young woman who has barely had time to dip her toes into adulthood dies from a stray bullet, and her family is able to pay for the funeral with the largesse of strangers and friends from all over the country who visit an internet funding page.

Yet, in this interconnected world, we are not each other’s neighbors.  We are certainly not each other’s friends, no matter what we are called on social media.  If McLuhan is right, we are all in the process of being transformed into human beings who mimic the characteristics of the media with which they engage.

In days of old, people talked to real people who had to be present to listen, unless they were in the tiny percentage of persons who wrote for publication.  Even if you were spreading gossip or criticizing a person who was not present, you still had to speak face-to-face with someone to accomplish this.  You could be reckless, unkind, hostile or uncivil in your remarks, but you still were restrained in some measure by the reactions of the person/s to whom you were speaking.

There was a measure of risk in speaking face-to-face, so people tended to seek conversation with like-minded persons and safe listeners as much as they could.  Still, it was impossible to escape differing opinions and negative reactions altogether, since no two human beings are ever in complete accord on everything.

So the back-and-forth of personal reactions, whether spoken or silent, sculpted the conversation and the unwritten rules of the personal exchange.  Bellicose bullies might be tolerated, but they needn’t be listened to.  People with new ideas might have been greeted with scorn, but by and by, if they kept at it, they might change people’s minds, especially if aided by new experiential knowledge of the community.

There was also the fact of physical presence as some proof of a speaker’s veracity.  There might be notable irony in the man who held forth in the tavern about the indolence of the poor and yet could be seen returning to his well-appointed residence.  His ample girth and fine clothes might call into question his dismissal of the need for charity toward the hungry.  The woman who scolded others for their spendthrift ways could be seen leaving the silversmith’s shop with a prized piece she had ordered.  Consequently, the ironies and counterpoints of a speaker became more apparent.

Not so anymore.  Today, there are millions of human beings who communicate only electronically.  They needn’t really know their listeners or readers.  They themselves can remain anonymous as speakers or writers.  Their life circumstances are cut, pasted, curated, and reassembled for publication in the hope or plan of going viral.  Bloggers, posters, and podcasters may have their critics, but these detractors can be sliced away like the brown spots on an otherwise perfect peach.

Our media are dependent on visual displays today.  Words are fine, but they shouldn’t be too numerous, too deep, too contemplative.  After all, it only takes a flick of a finger to slide away to less taxing attractions – the food we ate for lunch, the antics of a friend, the beetle we found in our bedroom.  We race from thing to thing, until we find some incredibly funny antic of a baby laughing hysterically.  Or we find a dark, but exciting event, like the body cam footage of a mentally ill man being shot to death, and we view it again and again.

We don’t need to see others in person anymore.  They are an interruption.  Even when we are with them, we must stop them from interrupting our ongoing discourse with people who are not physically present in our temporal reality, but who urgently send us messages and pictures to which we must respond in tiny bursts of emergency.

Marshall McLuhan said the media we use change us forever.  We are humans; we adapt to whatever tools we use.  If we use a hammer or an axe, we develop the arm muscles necessary to swing those tools.  If we drive a car, the range of options about the use of our time expands.  If we have money to spare, we think completely differently from those who are destitute.  A person who has a home becomes visibly different in appearance and demeanor from someone who is homeless.

In McLuhan’s view, the “medium” is whatever tool a human being uses. It shapes us. It rewires us. It calls forth in us a portion of our being that fits the tool.  In a sense, the human being becomes the tool, the medium.

Today we have people who still read newspapers, still gather at the local coffee shop to talk, still have their neighbors over for a soda or a beer to talk about different things, argue some, exchange ideas and experiences, and leave for home with a fuller heart and mind.  We still have people who are quite different from each other but converse while they are working out on the stationary bike at the gym or taking a walk without answering their phones.

A policeman talks to a retired lawyer.  They disagree about how wrongdoers should be treated.  But they learn from one anothers experiences, and little by little, their respect and admiration for each other grow.  Underneath their opposing viewpoints are facts worth exploring, facts that should be addressed in possible solutions.  The medium is their person-to-person exchange.  The message is engagement — repeated, civil, respectful, ongoing, open to inquiry.  The human being who uses this tool, this medium of exchange, becomes more open, more engaged, more willing to listen.

Contrast that with what may be happening to us if we limit ourselves to social media.  The medium is fractured, it must be immediately gratifying in some way, it is exclusionary, often uncivil and even deliberately hateful, inviting a short attention span, avoiding depth or tests of veracity.

The message is expression without development of the subject matter, without civility, without deeper inquiry.  The human being who relies on this tool, this medium of exchange, becomes more insular, more opinionated.  This human being cannot afford to be open; they have to be right.

In which of these two worlds can we become better neighbors?  Better listeners?  Better learners?  Better friends?  In which of these two worlds can we become better human beings?


{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeanne Brown October 5, 2021 at 9:25 pm

Wonderful perspective and analysis of our mixed-up world. I want to share this with everyone. It makes me think of couples out to dinner who are each on their smart phones; mothers pushing their children on a swing while checking their texts. We all need to be reminded to live in the present whenever we can. And take the time to just visit with our friends, neighbors and family as much as possible. Thanks, Joni!


Joni Halpern October 5, 2021 at 11:13 pm

Jeanne, thanks for taking the time to read this and for your kind comments. And thanks for catching the typo in the sentence that should read “A person who has a home…” I appreciate it.


Frank Gormlie October 6, 2021 at 11:27 am

I wish I could write like this, geez!


Joni Halpern October 6, 2021 at 6:15 pm

Frank, your role in keeping the OB Rag afloat is more important. Thank you for all you do to give us a place to write.


Geoff Page October 6, 2021 at 2:58 pm

Beautifully written, Joni. Sadly, it won’t reach those who need it most because it contains too many “words.” But, for those of us who still appreciate words, it was a joy to read.


Joni Halpern October 6, 2021 at 6:16 pm

Geoff, I am heartened by the fact that people like you are out there spreading the message of decency and civility in your own ways. I am privileged to be one of the writers you read.


Ruth Sandven October 6, 2021 at 4:57 pm

You obviously looked deeply inward to write this Joni. There are so many unintended consequences of progress. You have identified a huge one in social media which is designed to connect us and allow us to reach the world with a message, but can actually keep us further apart by imparting fear and shielding us from taking responsibility for our words and actions. Words matter.


Joni Halpern October 6, 2021 at 6:22 pm

You’re funny, Ruthie. People like me learn from people like you. I have had the privilege of watching you express yourself in groups of people with very divergent opinions. You are honest without being strident, firm without being intractable, humble without conceding your values or your right to make your point. That’s a lesson in communication for all who have seen you in action.


Hector Green October 7, 2021 at 12:29 am

Online communication and online chats have long replaced real communication. And for people who are too closed in the real world, who are forced to stay at home all the time for certain reasons, who have no friends, this is a real opportunity to live a social life.


Joni Halpern October 7, 2021 at 4:00 pm

Your point is well-taken and quite true, Hector. But it is worth noting that it is a peculiar feature of American life (I cannot comment on that of any other country) that when we are forced out of face-to-face interactions by infirmity, economic problems, retirement, losses of all kinds — in short, if we fall off the merry-go-round of American life, we are not missed. And social media has given us a place to be present among others. I think you are right that this is good. But for me, it does not change the fact that: (1) it is a loss to all of us when we accept a pace of life in which people who are isolated physically are barred from the personal presence and interaction with a larger society, and (2) that Marshall McLuhan still is right: social media changes us, and some of the changes that occur do not further the depth of our understanding of each other. But your comment surely did remind me that just because I raise a point, it doesn’t mean I have understood all aspects thoroughly. Thank you for your comment.


Geoff Page October 7, 2021 at 4:12 pm

I don’t think the writer was saying that it is all 100% awful, although most of it is. I look at it like the cell phone. For many reasons it is a a wonderful technology but for many others it is not, as was very well stated in this piece. Everything comes with a price and this price is a heavy one, a very heavy one. The loss of interpersonal communication is a real tragedy. It has gone so far that the smart phones are used to communicate but rarely is the actual phone feature used.


Riley Davenport October 7, 2021 at 5:45 pm

I love what you have to say here. And it resonates with my experiences. More and more I feel that social media is NOT a tool for connection. People post what is desirable, not what is really going on. Good to see you out there still making a difference!


Joni halpern October 8, 2021 at 9:41 pm

Riley!!!!! What a surprise and what a joy to hear your voice! I am struck by your statement that “social media is NOT a tool for connection,” because it brings to mind that we may now have a real world and a cyber world definition of “connection.” A few weeks ago, I was sitting by the bedside of my aunt, a woman of 94 who had helped me greatly in my life. She couldn’t talk on the phone anymore. She couldn’t read email. She struggled for every word. But I held her hand and shared some memories I knew she liked. I think there was love and gratitude in her eyes. She hugged me with her fragile arms, and it touched me in my heart. That’s what a real-world connection is to me, in its best form. But I have not seen a parallel in the cyber world. What do you think?


Riley Davenport October 9, 2021 at 3:30 pm

Hey darling! So glad to hear from you.

Your time with your aunt really touches me. Yes! That is a real, meaningful connection. I fear that many people are losing the ability to put themselves in those situations. Social media doesn’t really get us through those times of discomfort, aching heart, or the kind of being-with that requires listening, touch, and empathy. It’s too easy to dash off a comment or a like and you’re done. Many of my friends rely on social media to have a voice out there in cyberland. It does not feel genuine to me. I’m not going to post about my best friend of almost 50 years dying suddenly as a way for followers to know what is going on with me. People I actually talk to know. Meaningful human connection needs eyes, voice inflection, back and forth communication, and skin. I don’t want to cherry pick my news either—just give me NPR.

Speaking of connection, how about getting together and renewing ours? I’d love to see you, have a glass of wine or lunch.

John and I are going on a road trip tomorrow—we need to shake out the blues and change the scenery a bit. We’ll be back on Oct. 26. Let me know. XOXO


Peter from South O October 8, 2021 at 4:01 am

For those who want an graphical insight into Marshall McLuhan’s afterthoughts on his seminal work, might I recommend “The Medium is the Massage” (a typo, but not mine).
I think that this work is more appropriate to our present culture of short attention spans.


Frank Gormlie October 8, 2021 at 8:55 am

Okay, thanks, I’ll check it out. Oh, what did you say?


Peter from South O October 8, 2021 at 5:22 pm

The title was supposed to be the same as his book’s, but the publisher made an error on the cover of the proof. McLuhan was delighted with the meaning of the modified phrase and insisted that it go to press that way.


Joni Halpern October 8, 2021 at 9:51 pm

Peter, thanks for the recommendation. It almost killed me to read “Understanding Media,” so I’ll take a look at the book you recommend with no promise that I’ll be able to get through it. I couldn’t figure out if McLuhan was just a terrible communicator or I was too dense to figure out what he said on the first couple of tries. If you have an opinion on that, please be charitable and do not share it with me.


sealintheSelkirks October 8, 2021 at 10:36 am

Joni, I just received an email from my old friend Utah Karin with one single sentence in it; “I sent you a real letter yesterday.” With the deliberate slow-down and dismantling of the US Post Office I probably won’t get it until the 18th as 1st class mail is now up to ten days to get anywhere rather than the 3 or so it always has been. Thanks DeJoy you wealthy POS.

But the concept of a ‘real’ letter, one written in cursive or even printed like elementary school kids do but needing an envelope and stamp and the time to travel across the country? I had to think about when was the last time that happened. It certainly has been a while…and it was Blaise my young (mid-30s) Oregon snowboarder friend last year. Nearly all the people I know don’t write anymore! They all have cell phones and endlessly text and text and text with little time for much real thought behind what they are saying. It’s pretty sad.

One of the vexing behaviors I find annoying as hell with people and their cell phones is that when having a face to face conversation and the stupid thing rings, people seem to be completely unable to ignore it in favor of the real person standing right in front of them. I find that extremely rude. Like having people over for a ‘movie night,’ (mostly the latest snowboarding flick) that, like in movie theaters, suddenly you get two or three people who are answering and talking in the middle of the movie that theater-goers just hate and theater owners put up large messages on the screen not to do.

Bobcat Goldthwaite’s ‘God Bless America’ movie theater scene comes to mind!

What’s worse is that the call is usually just trivial gossip that could easily have waited until after the movie…or ignored entirely.

So I solved that problem a few years ago with a basket by the door that people would put their turned-off cellphones in until the movie was over. And I had friends that showed signs of panic at the thought of that. Really. The addiction was that strong.

Oh boy are we shaped by media, eh?

So I have never owned a cell phone. Email is bad enough for me!



Geoff Page October 8, 2021 at 3:17 pm

I don’t get it, seal, a tool is only as good as the user. Why no cell phone? The main reason I like them is because my family can get ahold of me whenever they need me. I think cell phones are great but they do have a bad side. That I see when having breakfast with my grown kids, 32 and 28, who simply cannot resist checking their phones over and over. Still, I can’t see why not to have one.


sealintheSelkirks October 8, 2021 at 6:59 pm

Well, why should I? I have a landline that works perfectly well with an answering machine. I have email. I have two physical mailing addresses, a po box for the shop that I get to once a week and then the physical address that I had to apply to the postmaster for permission to put in a post for. Which has been run over three times since I moved here. There’s also a local tradition of baseball bat drive-bys…but it’s about 70 yards away behind the west treeline so I can’t exactly monitor it. Anyway, if someone needs to get hold of me they can rather easily and it will be during the same day that I respond.

I don’t have a phone extension in the bedroom so I can’t hear it ring when I’m asleep but my north-facing window is almost always open summer or winter to the woods and wind and coyote pack sounds except wildfire smoke and radical heat like this year or subzero winter temps. I like hearing the rain hitting the dojo metal roof below that window rather than the phone ringing, too.

And every day a google bot woman voice calls to tell me not to hang up because I haven’t ‘updated’ my shop webpage that I’ve never done as I use DuckDuckGo search engine. Go figure.

And now that I’ve finally switched from dial-up since the late 90s to DSL a month ago my phone rings even when I’m online reading. I’ve joined the 21st Century, right? I’m really available now!

It’s like not needing to ever be on FaceBlech and taking away time in my life from what I’d rather be doing.

I’ve found out after disconnecting the TV in 1993 that I didn’t need one of those in my life, either. I do have somewhere beyond 5,000 movies on one wall of the music room that is full of instruments ready for a jam session including a piano along with another wall stuffed full of record albums, cassettes, and cds plus books filling the top two sagging shelves of that bookcase. About 700+ records now I guess as at last count it was over 500. Hundreds of tapes and hundreds of cds. And I’m always snagging new movies that catch my interest to bring home from the 2nd hand along with finding gems out of the boxes of donated books (she ceased selling used books, took up too much space but she takes ’em and trades for credit at Value Village in Spokane for other items she does sell. Today I put in an order from Powell’s Books in Portland for nine books, three are new the rest used but I do need to read books that are fun not heavies.

My oldest step-kid is 41 and her sis & brother twins are 39 now. They know how to contact me. The kids got over the ‘need’ for a TV to be on by about 1996. Took three years but they got used to it as a matter of fact. But they all are cell phone addicted like yours are. Read a study that the young, especially elementary ages and under, shouldn’t have access to cell phones until at least 16 years of age. Something about the developing brain that with that much screen time is affecting…you’ll love this…the ability to concentrate while lessening attention spans because they’re always (and you proved this point) looking at the damn things!

Imagine walking with the dogs up the ridgeline through the trees with the only sounds being your feet and the panting mutts and wind rustling the conifer needles and never ever the ring of a cell phone of someone calling to ‘see what you’re doing!’ HA! Freaking annoying and deliberately designed and then tested by psychologists to find the most addictive way to be marketed by the telecommunications industry. That industry spent a lot of money on testing…as your kids have shown you they found and built the most addicting! Just like what Big Tobacco did as a matter of fact. Joe Camel sold a lot of cigs…



Joni Halpern October 8, 2021 at 9:48 pm

sealintheSelkirks: You and I both are watching the purposeful demise of the post office, which historically has been responsible for the vast expansion of commerce in this country, perhaps even more than the highway system of the Eisenhower era. And I too believe that DeJoy is dismantling it, piece by piece, turning it into an ineffective system that politicians can then vote to defund or skeletalize using the justification that the system does not work and is not worth taxpayer funding. But that is only one of many agency systems that was funded to advance the interests of everyday Americans and now is being cut to pieces by the inattention or negative attention of officials and political leaders. The American people deserve better than this, but they won’t get it until start talking to each other about real things happening in real people’s lives — rather than by accepting the explanation of blame that supplies traction to the campaign of everyone from dogcatcher to President. But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.


sealintheSelkirks October 9, 2021 at 10:19 am

Yes Joni, we most certainly are! And I hate it because the United States Postal Service is a SERVICE not a freaking business and it was designed to work that way. And before the Rethuglicans mandated a $5 billion dollar ‘retirement fund’ for postal workers who weren’t even born yet, it just couldn’t catch up, and then the vicious pigs started selling off the most valuable parts of it to…their corporate buddies. Putting a cut-throat corporate ‘businessman’ into political office isn’t all that intelligent when one wants good public service, ya know?

So why do we see UPS trucks in the back of the post office dropping off? Why does the tons of garbage junk mail that goes directly into the trash get much cheaper rates than 1st class mail like paying your bills on time?? Why does DeJoy’s company have a $200+ million contract with the post office?

The wealthy ‘business’ vultures are going to kill it so they can privatize it. How did this country get so fixated on the lie that for-profit companies can ‘do better’ than government services when the documentation shows it to be exactly the opposite? Why is the US the absolutely bottom of the barrel out of the top 16 industrialized countries for health care but pay enormously more for the privilege?

Two links:

Why Biden Can’t Fire Postmaster General Louis DeJoy

Jim Hightower’s latest piece on the Post Office:

The Postal Service is a Service…Not a Business
by Jim Hightower

Corporate ideologues never cease blathering that government programs should be run like a business.

Really? What businesses would they choose? Pharmaceutical profiteers? Big Oil? Wall Street money manipulators? High tech billionaires? Airline price gougers?




Mark Powell October 26, 2021 at 1:12 am

In social networks, many allow themselves to speak uncivilized and not really thinking about the meaning. In real life, communication is based on mutual respect.


sealintheSelkirks October 26, 2021 at 12:17 pm

Yep, maybe in real life communication should be based on mutual respect. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to happen all that often.

Just ask the people overrun by Jan. 6th coup rioters. Or listen to recordings of Trump’s political rallies. Or hang out at a school board meeting full of unmasked angry parents who are utterly science ignorant making judgements they are incompetent to make that literally attack you when you are thanking the board members at the microphone for mandating masking in schools. Quite uncivilized wouldn’t you agree?

Can you imagine what would have happened if the coup rioters HAD gotten their hands on AOC or VP ‘the Traitor’ Pence? Hanging from a lamp post as promised on national TV would have been more than a bit disturbing don’t you think? In some respects it might have been a wake-up call to what is really going on; a serious visual of who and what these people are.

And no I don’t advocate lynching to make my point.

Hard to have respect for people who think of you as a snowflake, a cockroach, one who ‘hates’ America by refusing to fly the Confederate flag. Can’t argue with that kind of twisted logic! But trying to come to some kind of understanding with people who loudly proclaim they want you dead is rather awkward to do when it’s so one-sided.

Fascism is like that, though. The so-called Proud Boys aren’t really interested in what you have to say. As they have proved repeatedly, they’d much rather smash you with their fists and clubs or stab you with a knife than have a conversation. They’re funny like that…as were Mussolini’s Black Shirts a hundred years ago.

Or only as a source of profits. You know, a ‘consumer’ instead of ‘citizen’ like the wealthy corporate owners of so-called social media seem to think.

So much for real life, eh? The question becomes more about whether corporate-owned/controlled and manipulated social media is nothing more than a mirror for a huge proportion of people in this country’s true thoughts and behavior let out of the cage of social restraints imposed by society, or is all this purposeful and deliberate? I’m leaning more towards deliberate. With so much historical precedent it seems likely.



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