Do I Know My Neighbor?

Do I Know My Neighbor?

I saw a tweet the other day from an account that always makes me smile when I read what they write. The account is VeryBritishProblems. The tweet read: "Introducing yourself to a new neighbor before avoiding them forever." I laughed when I saw it, but then quickly realized that I have only talked to our neighbor once since moving into our apartment. We have polite smiles or "hellos" in the hall as we pass by each other, but we don't know each other.

Thinking about this has lead me to wonder if this is a uniquely British thing or if it is becoming a bigger part of Western culture. As I consider my life in Tennessee, it is striking that we lived in our house for quite some time and really met one or two of our neighbors. We even had a Christmas party at our house. We invited the whole neighborhood. Three people showed up. Perhaps the phenomenon of "introducing yourself to your neighbor only to avoid them later on" is more than just a British problem.

However, if this is the case, one has to wonder where we are finding community. Where do I go to interact with people? The case could be made that in our current context the place where community is built is no longer in our physical neighborhoods but in online communities. This makes for a particularly interesting experience of community. More often than not, on the internet the communities that are built are based on similar affinities. Our likes and dislikes are the same, so we are connect with each other. Someone says something I disagree with; I block that person, unfriend him, or unfollow her.

In all of this our friendships become disembodied. Facebook tells me I have almost 800 friends. How many of these people do I know in person? I am not sure. Yet, I interact with a lot of them online. It is harder for me to maintain a true friendship with a disembodied person than for me to make new friends with the people I see every day in person. My online "friends" become more ideas than friends. The communities we are a part of online have more to do with natural affinities than actually walking through life together.

In all of this, it has caused me to start wondering. Perhaps the reason we see such deep divides emerging in Western culture has to do with knowing our neighbors. There was a time in life when we had to meet and live with the person down the street. Often Hank or Sally down the street held beliefs that were diametrically opposed to ours, yet we had to learn to live with them. This was the case because our kids played sports together or Hank made the best burgers on the grill. We learned to talk civilly, to reason through issues together, to disagree and yet live peaceably with one another. We could understand their position because we understood them and their context. We may still disagree, but we could do that with grace and understanding.

Now, however, the views that we oppose are disembodied. We aren't talking about Hank and Sally. We call our opposition "evangelicals" or "liberals" or "alt-right" or "social progressives." I can attack with vitriolic language these ideas because they aren't people. The argument is no longer tied to people but to ideas and therefore, I can be ideological in my own beliefs.

What is even more interesting, in the age of the internet, is how quickly we can turn on people. People are no longer people on the internet. They are just a pile of ideas. I can pick and choose what ideas I am going to take into account when I am considering a moniker to place on a person. Thus, I can ignore the larger context of a person's life. If I find one or two things I have chosen to highlight, I can now decide what label to give a person ("racist," "socialist," "hate monger"). A person is easy to attack if I no longer look at them as a person, but a set of ideas with which I disagree. It is much harder for me to verbally attack Hank or Sally down the street if I know I am going to have to see Hank or Sally for as long as I live in my house. Knowing Hank and Sally also gives me the context of their entire lives. Though I can disagree with them, I can often understand their position better.

In all of this, don't get me wrong. I love the internet. I think it is a great place for the exchange of ideas. My worry is this: are we using it to replace real interactions with the people closest (in actual proximity) to us? Getting to know our neighbors will probably show that we know people who hold views with which we vehemently disagree. It will show us that ideas are always embodied in people who have histories that have brought them to where they are. It will teach us how to interact with these people in love. It may even teach us how better to persuade people to our side or expose our own blindspots.

We should have opinions and beliefs that we hold dearly and strongly. We should be willing to dialogue with those with whom we disagree. However, I wonder if we should be looking to do that more in our immediate context rather than on the internet. I have more to lose in a conversation with my neighbor than I do on the internet. Perhaps that reality will require me to be more thoughtful, more gracious, and more careful in that interaction. 

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