October 25th, 2016

Years ago one of my rabbis taught me that the opposite of love is not hate but rather indifference. If we can’t be loved, we’ll take someone hating us over being ignored. One of the thoughts I’ve had in recent years is that the smart phones both isolate us from attention and simultaneously bathe us in attention. Each like is someone noticing us while we are surrounded by peers ignoring us because they too have their faces in a screen jonesing for an attention hit.

Oliver Burkeman, writing in We mustn’t ignore attention-seekers for The Guardian, explains:

Beneath almost everything humans do, [Idries Shah] argued, lay an unacknowledged motive: the attention-factor. The theory is, we need attention almost as desperately as food and warmth, but don’t realise it, so we fail to understand that many everyday encounters “are in fact disguised attention-situations”. In a business negotiation, you might think your only motive is to win; in an argument with a spouse, you might believe your primary goal is to get the other person to change. Yet in both cases you might really be motivated by trying to satisfy your unmet need for attention.

Crucially, “attention may be ‘hostile’ or ‘friendly’ and still fulfil the appetite for attention”. A bad-tempered fight between friends is still a form of engagement: in the very act of fighting, each is acknowledging that the other matters.

Burkeman wrote this piece more than two years ago, but this end bit struck me as more than a little applicable to our current political dustup:

Our failure to understand our need for attention routinely lands us in trouble, Shah believed, because it leaves us at the mercy of anyone, however unpleasant, who’s willing to bestow some. When people feel ignored, a political leader who makes them feel acknowledged will acquire their support, even if he’s an egomaniacal tyrant with no plans to improve their lives. A controlling or otherwise abusive partner will doubtless pay you plenty of attention, even as he or she destroys you. Worse, you’ll be predisposed to believe it when you’re told it’s for your own good: when people lack the attention they require, Shah wrote, “they are vulnerable to the message which too often accompanies the exercise of attention towards them”.

So, who ignored you yesterday? Who will you ignore today?

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