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The Messy Ministrations of Hospitality

At Hutchmoot this year, Russ Ramsey and I spoke about being a hospitable critic. How do we bring a critic’s voice to the public square in a hospitable way? I am particularly interested to explore how we can do this with our technologies. Hospitality is hard enough in person. It feels like moving mountains online. Below are some thoughts on hospitality in our technologically-mediated times. I am going to start with some definitions.

When I am hospitable I welcome others into my experiences as they are.

My job as a critic is to raise questions, not seek compliance.

Therefore, if I am to be a hospitable critic, I must welcome others into my experiences as they are and raise questions about their experiences without seeking their compliance to my own experiences.

How does this work in practice? Let me give an easy to understand example and then a more difficult one.

This past summer our family hosted an exchange student from Spain. We welcomed her into our experiences as she was. That is, when we drove her home from the airport and invited her into our home and settled her into the room she would have for the summer, we made no demands for her be American.

We did not say as we pulled into the driveway, “Welcome to our house. Now, as soon as you walk through the door, no more accent. And you will have to start eating huge portions of food like Americans. And none of that napping in the afternoon and then staying up late nonsense.”

We did not do that to her. Instead, we welcomed her into our experiences. All of us kept our accents. We gorged like Americans and she picked at food. Throughout the summer, the light in her room remained on after we were all in bed. She was welcomed into our experiences but as she was. That is the way hospitality works.

Describing hospitality this way is intuitive. We think of hospitality in terms of dinner parties and house guests. It gets more difficult to describe hospitality when we put it into the context of ideas and opinions. How do I welcome others into my ideas as they are? How do I welcome others into my opinions as they are? Remove a dinner table and add technology, and the difficulty of being hospitable with one’s ideas and opinions becomes acute.

I believe there is a reason why technologies make hospitality difficult. Disembodiment. When we disembody an idea or opinion, we separate it from something concrete and real––like us and them. A table of food, glasses of wine, a house and, most of all, breathing persons all combine to embody hot-button conversations. Remove the meal, drinks, place and animated bodied, and all we are left with are ideas and opinions.

Actually not entirely, we also have our imaginations. That is, if we have trained ourselves well, we can empathize with the persons on the other end of the tweetstorm or comments section. Yet, without the physical reality of their presence, it becomes a chore for us to balance getting hot in the head and also imagining others being a lot like us. When we are in the same room we see that, despite our different views, we all nibble on the same snacks, drink the same drinks, wear the same kinds of clothes, use the same sorts of hand gestures, pause to laugh at the same witty puns and so on. Separated physically and united only by technology, all the same is true. But we do not see it embodied. So we have to muster the energy to not only express our ideas and options but also the energy to employ our imaginations to see in our mind’s eyes that others are much like us.

Do the technologies we use help us with this juggling act? I want to keep writing about that question, but will hold off. For now I will simply assert what I plan to discuss later, namely, that technology makers are financially disincentivized to make hospitable social technologies. For the most part, scaling and monetizing social technologies happens when users are less embodied and less imaginative.

If that is right and our technology-mediated environments discourage hospitality, how do we go about inviting others into our experiences using technology? How do we “see” them online? That is the challenge of the Civil Language Project. And like I confessed in my last post (the oddest thing I have ever published), I struggle to be hopeful.

Let me wrap it up and try to encourage myself by remembering Rivendell. Recall that in The Fellowship of the Ring the Council of Elrond was held in Rivendell, the “last homely house.” Boromir was there. Dwarves were there. Gandalf spoke empathetically of Gollum there. What might it look like to create a Rivendell-like technology: an app or website or social platform where people of differing opinions and little hope could convene to seek common purpose?

It strikes me how everyone was invited into Elrond’s house as they were. And during the Council, questions were raised without seeking compliance. No one forced Boromir to go with the fellowship. There was no expectation that Gimli and Legolas should leave the Council fast friends. There was purpose without compliance. In the face of hopelessness, they placed their trust in what could be if they trusted their companions to handle their own lives.

The pronouns in that last sentence are confusing. So is hospitality. The more we resist the ambiguity of hospitality and try to make it comfortable and predictable, the less it works out.

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