Friday, June 6, 2014

#165 - What's Happened to Us?

I should learn my lesson; I really should. At my age, with my level of education, I should know better that to try and discuss serious issues on social networking sites, such as Facebook. (I imagine Twitter, with its 140-character tweet limit, would be even worse, but I don’t have a Twitter account.) Yet I persist.

I must be a glutton for punishment. Almost never do I encounter consistent and thoughtful discussion, particularly when it comes to political issues. Instead, I see name-calling along the lines of “(insert the name of your least favorite President) is the worst (insert favorite derogatory phrase) EVER!” Opposing views are seen as disrespectful, and each side becomes polarized against the other with no space for discussion, no room for compromise (which is itself seen as a dirty word), and no middle or common ground to be found.

Social networking venues, such as Facebook and Twitter were heralded as great democratizing forces. Personally, I think Facebook is great for keeping up with the goings-on of family and friends. As far as democracy goes, however, I think social networking sites, so-called “citizen journalism,” and the 24-hour news cycle have each done more to polarize this nation than perhaps anything since the battle over Civil Rights in the 1960s. 

Each of these, in its own way, is more about “instant gratification” than it is about meaningful discussion. There are repeated instances of erroneous information being distributed, widely read, widely believed, and widely available for several hours before it was shown to be wrong. The correction gets lost or missed in the avalanche of response to the original report.

The 24-hour news cycle, with its pressure to be first, is largely to blame for this. Social networking, with its ability to quickly and widely share such information, is not blameless. Such instantaneous dissemination of information encourages and even demands instantaneous response. 

I would argue that at no time in history has an instant response to anything ever been well thought out. Thoughtful response and instant reaction are mutually exclusive to one another by nature. (Let's not even talk about the fact that something posted by Joe Schmo potentially carries the same authority and weight as something posted by NBC's Brian Williams since the internet has no way to discern which voice is more trustworthy or authoritative aside from measuring web traffic.)

As I mentioned, compromise has become a dirty word in today’s political arena. Yet for years, give and take by both sides was how anything in this country got done. Today, action is replaced by gridlock caused in large measure by both political parties mapping out positions increasingly at the extreme edge of their respective ideologies in order to even further differentiate themselves from the other side. The President then gets blamed for inaction, unless he actually tries to do something through Executive Order, in which case he gets accused of bypassing Congress and acting like a dictator.

Some of this I have touched upon before, but if anything, things have gotten even worse. I’ve concluded the wisest thing (or at least the safest) is to disengage from politics and political discussion. Such an act is seen as capitulating to the opposite side and as being part of the problem rather than the solution. However, I have now lived long enough to see that people will believe even the most outrageous lies if they are repeated often enough just as many people, for whatever reason, seem inclined to vote against their own base interests based on some faceless group’s assertions that “X (whether it be reduced coal emission, a higher minimum wage, clean air, etc.) is bad for America.”
I am increasingly convinced that America as we know it is nearing the end of its life cycle. We should not be surprised; no empire or democracy lasts forever, and America has had a pretty good run. Not as good as the Roman empire, but not bad. I don’t think the end of America will come because of its failure to address the national debt or because of its failure to protect its environment or a failure to transition to alternative fuels or because of a decline in the nation’s morals or an abandonment of “the American ideal," whatever that ideal is.

No, when American as we know it is no longer, it will be due to the fact that we have lost the ability to talk with one another on the national stage in a meaningful and respectful manner. We have lost the willingness to compromise and the desire to search for common ground with one another. That, more than anything else I can think of, will be our undoing.


Willow said...

Well said. I have been thinking this for along time but was not able to express it so eloquently and to the point.

Walt said...

Thanks. I appreciate the feedback!