By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
This past Presidential election was one of the most divisive and closely contested in the past three decades. We’re still arguing about the outcome. It was set against a backdrop of new participant media. Everybody with social media has a voice of equal visual size, if not reach.
Because of this our closely contested and highly divisive election played out over the stage of social media. And now it feels like we’ve entered an era of rising hysteria.
From the printing press, the Manhattan Project, the Internet, stem cell research, and social media, we develop technology before we develop the ethics and conventions to employ it with moderation and reason. We just turn it loose, and hope for the best. We’re experiencing that now with social media and in politics.
We’ve entered an era of more polarized and less moderate opinion shared at louder volume than I’ve known in my 55-year lifetime, and maybe in the history of mankind. Author/philosopher Alan Watts once recounted a tour of the MIT campus where the vast and numerous science and engineering facilities were showcased with pride and grandeur, but when someone asked where the philosophy department was, the response was, “Oh, I think it is somewhere over by the library.”
Some of that may be good. But a lot of it isn’t. At least not yet.
There is an axiom that if you redistribute the collective monetary wealth of the planet equally between all people it will, over time, wind up right back with the people who originally had it, and away from those who didn’t.
But what if you equally distributed access to publishing media? To having a public voice? The same outcome might happen in contributory/social media, and for the same reasons. People may not use it responsibly and with reason. So, just as those who would not be good at managing monetary resources would fall victim to those who are, those who do not use communicational resources responsibly will stop getting listened to and lose their voice to those with more judicious use of media. But before they do lose their voice they raise the volume and frequency in one last, desperate attention grab.
We are at the leading edge of that redistribution of voice right now. Everyone has a voice now, and most people love using it, but aren’t quite sure what to say except that they should say something. And, in a new global room full of rising voices we continue to shout louder and louder to be heard above the rising din. And few people take the time to listen. I’m constantly reminded of that great axiom, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
The formerly mainstream news media is included in the rising number and volume of voices and opinions. In order to compete with Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, Snapchat, and Instagram attention grabbing, the formerly mainstream media has had to change to also grab attention. Much of that change isn’t for the better. That has influenced our own behavior, but mostly it has influenced theirs. For mainstream media now, it looks and reads like, the rules are, there are no rules.
So the shouting gets louder and louder, more and more frequent. And as the frequency increases the depth of insight seems to become shallower, more superficial. Sound bytes, YouTubes, hotlinks and infographics are batted back and forth in some new form of cyber argument that mimics a fast and loose version of the Greek forums, where debate raged between scholars in a public forum.
We’ve seen two examples of this in the ongoing, divisive political narrative. Some time ago an expired rock star, Ted Nugent, ignited rancor with radical right commentary that included inciting violence as a political tool. That’s wrong, no matter the political agenda. Every despot has proved that. More recently, an equally less relevant celebrity, Kathy Griffin, depicted the President’s decapitated head in a sensational lampoon that also suggested inciting violent response as a political tool, at least as commentary. That is also wrong.
Both are wrong. Both went too far. Both are a sensational attention grab for a waning career. And both sides argue some justification for each one’s bizarre and extreme political commentary. Both also illustrate our use- or misuse- of new access to media and our rising consumption of it.
One positive outcome has been the impetus to do more investigation into the media we see. That has been fascinating. It’s also helps shape opinions, hopefully to the more informed. And I’ll suggest a more informed opinion is likely to be more structurally sound.
Before the last presidential election I took an online survey that queries you on a long list of issues and, depending on your responses, prescribes who you should vote for. I got Bernie Sanders. I liked that, so I dug a little deeper into the ramifications of having Bernie Sanders as our President.
Voting for President is a little like going shopping without knowing any of the prices. The system tells you, “Pick out something nice, whatever you want.” But there are no prices and you may not even know how much you have to spend. You don’t get the bill until after you made it to the register. If you can’t afford what’s in your political shopping cart you either throw it on a charge card that has been maxed out since Nixon was President or you say, “The person in line behind me is paying.” Then they do that for the next person, and so on…
Increasingly, being in the middle seems to feel oddly isolated as the rising din to “pick a side” on social media gets louder and louder. It seems like the social media doctrine is to pick a side lock, stock and barrel- a political “Happy Meal” that includes a somewhat superficial acceptance of all or nothing from one side or the other. We only get a second to read, to decide, to respond. We may have learned something a long time ago in school, and we do remember part of that, so we quickly compare what we see to what we know and then we hit “post”. God forbid we should actually question, criticize, and inquire. And when we disagree, we need to be ready for the attempts to be shouted down.
I’m satisfied looking at the political and social landscape ala Carte though, and I’d like to know what it is I’m reading and where it came from- to the extent I can.
The outcome of this last election was about as wild a swing from one extreme to the other as you can get. The only way we could be farther from who we had as a former President would be to have elected an albino Margaret Thatcher with male reproductive organs. So things are pretty crazy right now.
The choice we have now is to make use of social media as a shield to paint our existing beliefs on and protect our entrenched views from the swords of new thinking, or as a mirror to reflect our own beliefs in the concern that we may have a big political booger hanging out of our nose.
I’m checking my own nose now. I suggest you do the same.