There was a time when I was mostly worried about politicians lying to me. These days, I’m just as afraid of the vicious lies from political activists. The ones who know they’re lying are bad enough, but the really scary ones are those who are so full of hatred that they have no room for nuance — or even truth.
Truth can be a nebulous concept to an angry person. For someone who is filled with rage and is convinced that the other side — whichever that “other side” might be — consists of evil people, anything is justified as long as he strikes out at those enemies. If he lies a little in spreading his message, well, the other sides is even worse about that. Besides, since it’s the only way to get people to listen to the ultimate truth, a little lying is justified to get their attention.
You can’t just give a reasoned opinion today if you want to be heard. You have to scream. You have to be angry. You have to demonize the people who disagree with you. If you try to be reasonable and understand why different people see the world in ways that are different from your ways, the truth is that your voice is going to get lost in the crowd. It’s going to take a lot longer to be heard. It’s a lot more work and there are fewer immediate rewards.
So many people who write and speak to the world politically take short cuts. They lie when it suits their needs. They don’t worry about little things such as fairness. They don’t worry about holding themselves to a higher standard than they expect of “the enemy.” And they scream their message to a willing audience that’s angry, too, and will amplify the message by way of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media tools.
In my Twitter feed this morning was a link to an article headlined, “Obama Signs Bill That Ends Free Speech.” This was either another deception or I’d missed the biggest story to come out lately, so I went to check. Here’s the link for you to read the story yourself. I defy you to find any fair and honest way to come up with that headline from anything the story says. Even though the new law might be bad, it very definitely doesn’t end free speech. It’s on a website for a very conservative group with Christian roots, so I’d like to think that the concept of truth means something to them, but it clearly doesn’t. As with almost everybody else, they’re shouting and sensationalizing in order to be heard.
If you’re on the progressive left and you feel smug seeing that the offender here was some social conservative outfit, don’t be that way. The folks on your side are just as bad. Taking a look at something such as Daily Kos means finding the same sorts of casual dishonesty and unfairness plenty of times.
I have to be honest and say that there are times when I wish I could take a more sensationalistic tone here. It would certainly help readership. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — I can’t do that. It’s not me. If I were to do that, I would be far too conscious of the unfairness and dishonesty of what I was doing. It would be corrosive on the inside, I’m sure.
Unfortunately, most people want inflammatory articles that they already agree with. If they already hate Barack Obama and various liberal Democrats, they want articles to feed their hatred. If they already hate religious people and various kinds of conservatives and Republicans, they want articles that pander to what they already believe, too.
With as many articles as I write, not all of them can be thoughtful and insightful. (Some might not think any of them are.) Some of what I write has to be a matter of holding up something that someone has done — from either side of the mainstream, for the most part — and saying, “This is a terrible thing this person or group has done.” Those are the least interesting things I write and they’re the least useful for making you think, but they’re also the articles most likely to be shared on Facebook and Twitter. The articles that I think actually do have insight — which do come along every now and then — are the ones most likely to be ignored.
I’m frustrated at the state of public discourse, but it’s something Neil Postman predicted in his classic 1984 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” which I’ve mentioned before. To a large extent, the media we use make it impossible to fairly and reasonably communicate complex ideas and learn from each other. I highly recommend the book, which was the catalyst for me giving up television about 15 years ago.
Reasonable people have to find ways of talking and disagreeing. We have to find some sort of political and intellectual framework that will allow us to disagree — rather than feeling it’s a fight to the death and everyone who isn’t on “our side” is an enemy to be destroyed. I don’t know if there are enough people who are interested in this. I don’t know if there are enough people who yet realize that some of us are going to have to peacefully go our separate ways. But that conversation has to begin sometime.
In the meantime, I’ll keep talking about whatever is on my mind and hoping to find the tiny minority who are interested in those things. I think it’s important that those of us who feel that way find each other. Even if we disagree on deeply held beliefs, our civility might lay the groundwork for something important in the future.