My views on how we consume news, have civil discourse and debate, on politics, religion, and everything else in the age of social media.
Even to the most independent observer, it’s undeniable that in the past few years civil discourse in America and the world has taken a turn for the worse. I am not naive in my thinking that it didn’t exist before. But now it is being championed as a legitimate political strategy. In the age of social media, this strategy is working better than ever before. The ugliness of how our politicians address issues is spilling over to our own communities and society.
If you are quick to think that this writing is in some way a criticism of president Trump you are mistaken. While he is the most striking catalyst for this phenomenon, he is only one individual. This is my effort at understanding which of our actions and behaviors have led to the erosion of civility and respect for the truth.
In my opinion, one of the broader problems now is how society as a whole no longer looks at issues as nuanced articles, encompassing complex elements that require effort to understand. We try and minimize complex issues to sound bites, memes, and insults on opposing viewpoints rather than addressing them. We demand our leaders simplify matters for us, rather than have them explained. We are more comfortable in our ignorance.
The second problem I notice is the lack of empathy and understanding of those who might have a different opinion to ours. There’s no longer a recognition that there might exist another valid viewpoint. In some ways, the absurdity of some of the opposing viewpoint might have contributed to this. (Info Wars/ Charlottesville comes to mind). There has to still exist respect and recognition of valid opposing viewpoints.
This is where leadership styles such as president Trumps hurt civil discourse. When an opposing viewpoint is dismissed as being wrong or unpatriotic without any facts, discussion, or basis for the opposition, it validates the notion that one does not need to try an understand or respect an opposing viewpoint or the person who holds it.
I think it’s undeniable whichever side of the political aisle you are on, that his method of rallying his supporters and communicating has contributed to the erosion of civility in our time.
Information, News and how we consume it
To some of us, News was information, factually based, delivered by recognized reporters with credibility that informed us and recognized two sides to an argument or subject.
But lately, News is less informative and more opinionated. Crafted to fit a larger narrative. News shows report a factual element and have opposing viewpoints discussed by biased individuals representing the two sides, with the anchor or host taking one side of the commentary. It is less informative. The drama and the back and forth are what boosts ratings.
These pundits are not held responsible for the material they provide. They have very little credibility or responsibility to what they say and are rarely fact-checked. In a reality TV world, the more aggressive drama filled discussions have increased viewership and higher ratings.
With the primary News sources taking on a partisan bickering feel; the general public has turned to social media for their information.
Memes, Facebook posts and 280 characters on Twitter, are how we form opinions on complex subjects in this day and age.
Our failure is not merely in not recognizing the biases of the media, but in not being able to filter out the biases and recognizing facts and valid arguments. Without using facts to form our own fact-based opinions, we get swept up in our knee-jerk reaction to how a title in a news clip or breaking news segment is presented. We never try and independently verify or understand an issue. We are too naive or too lazy. We adopt the opinions provided to us, spoon-fed only to support one viewpoint. Rather than independently making our own minds after careful deliberation, consideration, and critical evaluation
The barrage of posts on social media and our conversations in our own echo chambers drives our opinion rather than factual intelligence.
This failure in us and our society to absorb information and understand factual elements is how a foreign adversary was able to target the United States in a misinformation and manipulation campaign that has been proved to have influenced the 2016 election.
Characterizing truth and facts
I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians. – Newt Gingrich.
“Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to [these claims], but the point remains that…” – Kellyanne Conway
Before we speak about facts and truths, we must clarify two concepts missing in our dialogue these days.
A fact is a statement that is consistent with reality. It can be proven with evidence. It is used in an argument to support an opinion. The fact alone does not give the argument credibility. There has to exist rational logic in how the fact relates to the said opinion, this logic is what is up for debate.
Correlation does not always mean causation. Correlation is the relationship between two sets of variables used to describe or predict information. Sometimes we can use correlation to find causality, but not always. Remember that correlation can either be positive or negative.
Truth and facts have taken an unusual tone in our discussions. We carelessly dismiss facts or truths based on the messenger rather than on the merits of the fact or the source. Our feelings towards how we perceive a certain situation or facts is all that seems to matter when considering the validity of facts of truths.
We no longer respect facts and truths that don’t fit our beliefs. We and our leaders deny them, attack the source and dismiss factual evidence, rather than address them.
This leads me to my third observation.
Identity and echo chamber
The reason I observe for such hardline, narrow-minded viewpoints is that we, to some extent base our personal identity on our political viewpoints. We are either red or blue, pro-life or pro-choice, a Trumper or a never Trumper. The political alliance is the new sports team.
Political discourse among politicians and layman are no longer based on policies, but loyalties to political identity. History has taught us how dangerous loyalties to a person over values can be. But still, that is where I see our discourse heading.
We now pick our cable news channels and our friends based on our politics. We unfollow friends on Facebook that have opposing viewpoints and pick the news feeds on google that we agree with.
Frustration, fear, and anger
Frustration, fear, and anger are three of the strongest emotions, that have been used by many in history to rally, control and manipulate the masses.
The perceived fear of losing rights, our entitlement, or the envy of entitlements for others, a fear of losing a way of life. The frustrations at a changing world and the anger by those left behind, confused at not being a part of this change. These emotions have been highjacked and directed at generating blind loyalty to a party or person, rather than truth and fact.
We let our anger and outrage drive our opinions. We try to belong to the mob and adopt a mob mentality. We have to feel like we are either red or blue, but not in the sense of policy, but in our loyalty to a person. These hardline extremes make us stubborn and become a hurdle in discussing real issues that matter, in any meaningful constructive way.
As an immigrant, one of the hardest things to see, and explain, outside of the USA was the detention and separation of children at the border by the current administration.
It was even harder to hear justification and rational. At some level, there has to exist sympathy and empathy towards children separated from their families and detained.
Our blind loyalty is so strong that some of us refused to question the rationale, we believe whatever is fed to us by propaganda and never took the time to investigate, evaluate and make our own judgments.
In its simplest forms, we lack the empathy to understand or see another viewpoint or recognize another viewpoint. We fail to understand why there exists a black lives matter movement, why a mother of a black teenager fears for her son’s safety, or the fears of the NRA member who has grown up in a culture of hunting, his fears of his rights being taken away. We no longer try to see the other side, we insult, we dismiss, never engaging in an attempt to understand. And even if we are unable to understand it, accept another viewpoint as still being valid.
lack of leadership
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” – Words that are wrongfully credited to Churchill, to which the internet is its true author
Democracy requires leadership. In my opinion, we have failed in the qualities we look for in our leaders, and our leaders have failed us in trying too hard to appeal to us, rather than lead us.
One of the frequent lines heard during the 2016 election was “We need an outsider, we need a change.” When did we start looking for leaders we can relate to? when did we stop looking for leaders who are smarter than us, who are more educated than us, who are better than us? But we did, we didn’t want our leaders to explain policy, or discuss their intricacies, more importantly, we stopped demanding our leaders respect facts and truths. What we wanted was to be entertained.