Thursday, October 22, 2015

Labels And Name-calling

The internet is a wonderful thing.  That is important to remember as we also note that the internet is one of the worst things that has happened to serious thinking and conversation.  Its ability to shrink the world into near-instantaneous communication across the globe, to make the most remote places on earth our virtual next-door neighbors, is almost impossible to comprehend.  Yet the problem comes in what we are frequently saying to our neighbors.  The world of “social media” is all-too-often anything but social.

In the 140 character limit that is a Twitter tweet, or the typical five sentences or less than make up a Facebook post, or the captioned photo or illustration that passes for visual sharing, there is simply no way that any real information of any depth can be communicated.  No existing belief will be changed, no new perspective will be embraced, no understanding of the breadth of multiple factors involved in any issue will surface.  Within these snippets of word fragments, we simply see confirmation of our preexisting beliefs, or are enraged by someone’s contrary opinion.  We are then reduced to “voting” our approval of what we already believe, or aggressively firing back verbally at the transgressor’s contrariness.  Share; Comment; Reply All; Forward.  In a split second, our opinion has digitally circumnavigated the globe.

Rather than meaningfully listening to and exchanging divergent views, we more typically stick labels onto the opinion, or engage in name-calling using words that would likely never be said in face-to-face dialog.  The anonymity of the digital page creates a safe space for us to threaten  others’ sense of personal safety.  Especially on issues of politics, government, religious conviction, and personal lifestyle.

The most common dismissive labels are, of course, “Republican” and “Democrat,” along with the good old standbys, “liberal” and “conservative.”  Each of these terms is used disparagingly to inherently invalidate a particular point of view (“typical liberal stance” or “those Republicans hate people”) without ever bothering to really consider that point of view.  We do not distinguish between institutional Republicans or Democrats – the professional elected politicians and Party operatives – versus their rank and file registered voters with whom they may or may not be in sync.  Or the many party “wings” that branch off the central platform: the Dixiecrats of the 1940s; the “Blue Dog” Democrats of the 2000s; the “silk stocking” moderate-liberal Republicans of the 1950/1960s, and the current “Freedom Caucus” in the House.  Does Peter King (R-NY) really inhabit the same political planet as Louie Gohmert (R-TX)?

Hence the rise of the “independent” who currently has no place to call home.  The socially progressive person who also believes that excess government debt is not a healthy position.  The person who feels that government should be a last resort for action, but also believes we share a mutual responsibility to take care of one another and ensure our equal opportunity.  The person who acknowledges that owning a gun is a protected legal right, but, like all other rights, is limited by demonstrating responsibility.  The person that admires economic success and reward in our free market system, but also recognizes that greed is a human frailty that requires regulation and oversight to keep that market truly free.  The person that believes in limited government, but that government is still required, especially as a counterbalance in a time when mega-sized and mega-rich organizations dominate the decision-making for their individual personal gain.

Growing up, a political “conservative” used to refer to someone with a preference for limiting government intrusion into our personal lives, and resisting any mandate that everyone live and think the same way.  Today, many of those who call themselves conservative are the very ones advocating adherence to a single point of view, a single religious basis for our country, a single set of personal values and life-styles .  All while allowing “the government” to be able to snoop into our privacy in the name of “national defense” with minimal constitutional oversight.  It has now been turned upside down with “liberals” aligned with “libertarians” leading the fight to resist this intervention into the law and interference into the social fabric.  How did such a fascinating role reversal come about with so little acknowledgement of it?

In our digital world, we skip over the effort of discussion and simply (re-)broadcast the billboards of our opinions.  Hence someone against the recent nuclear treaty with Iran grandly pronounces that “John Kerry is the worst Secretary of State in history.”  Reading that, I could not help but wonder whether that writer could even name six Secretaries of State prior to 1945, or how he would evaluate John Foster Dulles or Henry Kissinger.  Similarly, Barack Obama’s presidency is pilloried as “a disaster,” yet more than a few past presidents would love to have achieved his factual economic percentages.  Bernie Sanders is dismissed as anti-American because if his “socialist” beliefs, while many of those detractors could not define what socialism is and why it matters.  Is Social Security/Medicare socialism, or the U.S. Postal Service, or the laws shoring up and protecting the antiquated oil/gas/coal industries?  Donald Trump is dismissed as a “carnival barker and clown,” but in doing so do we simultaneously cavalierly dismiss the fears of millions of Americans who resonate with his declarations?

Some people think we should reduce government spending and debt, but it is always someone else’s government check that they want to reduce.  People receiving food stamps are labeled as “takers” and “welfare loafers who should get a job,” skipping over that a substantial number of recipients are retirees who already worked all their life, and military families and the working poor paid too little to afford the American economy.  One writer accused a U.S. Senator of being a hypocrite because of her supposed inconsistency in being “pro-choice” (i.e. the killing of fetuses) while supporting gun safety laws to protect school children – the writer not acknowledging that killing comes in many forms (war, death penalty, right-to-die, self-defense, etc.), each drawing us to separate moral judgments about the different ways we kill.

The issues we live with in human life are many, and they are complex.  Trying to stake out a position, a solution, in 140 characters is like trying to stop a tsunami wave with a single sandbag.  It cannot be done.  All issues we face have many inputs, many considerations, many constituencies.  Each must be considered and interwoven into the solutions we need.  All the verbal grenades we throw at each other bring us nowhere closer to shared resolution, but only harden our separation.

We who self-servingly rail against the partisanship and polarizing so evident in America today need to first look inward.  Then take an extra second before we speak – or press Share or Forward.  We may make fun of speaking in politically correct-ese, but is not most political correctness simply speaking in kindness and being considerate of others?  If we truly want to end the rancor, stop the polarization, and find genuine solutions, it all starts within each of us.  We have to take down our soapbox banners, stop speaking in meaningless generalities, spend time listening to other perspectives, adjust our opinions, and rein in our belief of being 100% right.  Then we can choose to turn away from those who are more invested in our division rather than our resolution.  We can choose to hang around with listening people who like to think.  Even if they think differently,

©   2015   Randy Bell