I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when society has felt more divided. We play the “both sides” game with seemingly every topic that enters into our consciousness. This debate club approach to public discourse isn’t completely without benefit, because in theory, it’s a good thing to engage and listen to people who have different perspectives than you. But in practice, there is no denying that the way we talk to each other about sensitive issues has resulted in a lot of vitriol.
The thing that really bugs me about this is that not every subject we discuss this way should be treated as debatable. When I tell you that 2+2=4, there’s no reasonable human being that would come back at me with, “Well actually, 2+2=Tangerine.” Obviously, sociopolitical issues are never as cut and dry as an arithmetic problem, but we’ve been pitted against one another to such a degree, that it feels like we’ve lost the ability to agree on ANYTHING. And lemme tell ya folks, that’s a big problem.
The best example I can think of to illustrate this is the “controversy” surrounding climate change. Let’s start with a basic, indisputable fact. At least 97% of scientists agree that warming trends in climate are real and increasingly dangerous, and that human activity is the leading contributor to that trend. It takes a pretty convincing argument to get 97% of any group of people to agree on anything. Yet somehow, instead of saying “Ok, this is a problem. How do we address it?” we can’t seem to get past the first part – the acceptance of the problem.
The arguments supporting the idea that decades of peer-reviewed science are either wrong or made-up range from questionable to laughable. My favorite is the one where the position is that scientists are getting paid to manipulate their research into supporting the “climate change agenda.” If it were true that the science community could be paid off, best believe that wealthy oil companies and the like would have been making it rain in nerd town for years now.
While picking a battle with science may be dumb and silly, it still isn’t the most disheartening category of angry debate that we have. The Trump era in politics has introduced a concept that many of us had never heard of before, but now has become a common term in our vernacular. I’m referring to the idea of gaslighting. The basic premise is that one side of a debate encourages the other to ignore evidence that supports their argument even if it’s in plain sight. In other words – specifically the words of the President himself – “What you’re seeing…is not what’s happening.”
This is literally the tactic taken by conspiracy theorists. It’s enraging, but the scary part is, it’s effective. Being told over and over again that you can’t trust your own eyes and ears can make you feel like a crazy person. You might even find yourself acquiescing to ideas that you vehemently disagree with just because it’s easier than trying to argue with someone who’s not operating on the same playing field as you.
The best way to deal with someone engaging you in this way is to shut the conversation down, because they don’t actually have any interest in hearing what you have to say. Their goal is not to have a discussion, it’s to WIN the discussion. The problem is that nowadays this method is being used frequently by people with massive platforms. You have no choice but to take them seriously, because their captive audiences certainly will. Whether we’re talking about Donald Trump or someone like Tucker Carlson, just shrugging them off somehow isn’t good enough.
We can have substantive, thoughtful arguments about the best way forward for healthcare or taxation or immigration. But if we can’t agree that putting babies in cages is royally fucked up, how are we supposed to move any conversation forward? How can we address the best way to fix the tax bracket if your opinion is that poor people are poor because they’re lazy and they deserve it? It’s like being handed a giant turd along with some eggs and flour and being asked to make carrot cake out of it.
It would take an entire thesis paper to address the multitude of reasons explaining how we got here, but there is one thing that seems to be a given. Media, in all its forms, is broken. And honestly, I’m not even sure it can be fixed. There’s so much money invested in the success of 24-hour cable news networks that cater their programming more to supporting confirmation bias of their viewers than delivering nuts and bolts news coverage. That’s a big issue no matter which side of the political aisle you subscribe to.
There may be no better indicator that the media is not prepared to handle a figure like Donald Trump in the White House than seeing well-respected news publications having such a hard time labeling the things he says and does for what they are. What I mean by this is that when the President calls for an outright ban of Muslims entering the country, or refers to a group of neo-Nazis as “very fine people” while framing Mexicans as criminals and rapists, that kind of talk is not racially charged. It doesn’t have racial undertones. It’s fucking RACIST. But instead, they’ll continue to handle him with kid gloves, even though he should have lost the benefit of that doubt before he ever even took the oath of office.
The rise of social media has unleashed this Pandora’s box where everyone has been handed a platform. This is conflicting for me, because my platform (small though it may be) can be largely contributed to my presence on social media. That’s especially true at this stage of my career where I’m no longer affiliated with a large media conglomerate. I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t be reading this right now if it weren’t a link you could click on someone’s Facebook or Twitter page.
The problem is that it takes no effort at all for some jabroni to hop in your mentions and start spitting venom at you. And that shit is wack. I don’t know about you, but as much as I love and appreciate every message of support and encouragement I get online, it’s the shit-posters that stick with me the longest. That might just be a flaw in my personality, but I hate it, and there are times it makes me not want to be online at all.
So I’ll finish by saying this. I’m sure there are things I’ve written here that are going to piss some people off. And that’s a shame, because the reasons I have for being so opposed to much of what’s going on in politics these days doesn’t really stem from the fact that I am left-leaning. I am, but it’s not because I’m a policy wonk who disagrees with all conservative ideology at face value. Honestly, that couldn’t be further from the truth. My issue is that in coordination with the M.O. of the current administration, society itself seems to be getting more cruel, less compassionate and increasingly morally bankrupt. At the very least our exposure to these moral failings is at an all-time high.
Ultimately, what I’m proposing is that we all try to focus our frustrations in the right direction. It’s so strange to me how successful those at the top have been at convincing us that our struggles are being caused by our fellow citizens who are struggling just as much as us, if not worse. Lost your job? I bet you it’s because that immigrant took it. Can’t afford to pay your bills? Well, we would have given you a break on your taxes, but we can’t afford to do that AND provide welfare to your neighbor. Don’t feel safe? You shouldn’t. Something something RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM.
As George Carlin once said: “It’s all bullshit, folks. And it’s bad for ya.” For all of this talk about how “the elites are out of control,” as long as we continue to fight with each other about everything under the sun, we’re giving them exactly what they want.