Today, I am taking aim at everyone. Conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, Right, Left – everyone. We suck at communicating, folks.
Empathy first, advice/criticism second.
Here are some observations I have made regarding interactions in the digital age and amid the 24-hour news cycle.
The “talking heads” of the ideology blindly support whomever has power in the ideology at the moment.
Consider FOX News – we have plenty of footage of their pundits defending Trump time and again in the face of what Democrats consider indefensible acts. This in and of itself is not the phenomenon that I am referencing though. What I am referring to here is the equally substantial amount of footage of those same pundits discussing how the GOP was fleeing the sinking ship that was the Trump campaign at one point.
FOX is not unique in this though – MSNBC and CNN display similar tendencies with the liberal candidates. We do have a liberal media, but we also have a conservative media – their interest is in viewers, readers, and listeners that will allow them to collect advertising revenues. They will, by the capitalist nature of the venture, tow whatever line profits them most.
They will gang up against any person of high-ranking substance within that ideology who challenges the authority of said leader(s).
Some will like to indicate that they opposed one of these ideological leaders on a particular issue. While that open-minded opposition is desirable, bear in mind that rarely is such consideration given to an ideological opponent. They reject anything from the other side of the ideological divide, if only because appearing to concede a point damages their brand.
Subscribers to the ideology may be bold enough to take a stand against specific instances (statements or actions) of fellow subscribers.
This extends to the arena of Joe and Jane Average, on Facebook, on Twitter, in Comments sections, and anywhere else. We see a strong tendency among people to criticise specific items of their own group ideology with which they might disagree, but they offer a generalised disagreement with the opposition. This ability to appreciate nuance only when it applies to personal ideology, to fail in having the empathy to appreciate the nuance of the opposing perspective, is a large part of our discourse problem.
Other subscribers to that ideology, however, may also feel inclined to attack those who break the ideological line, even if for a specific item.
This, as best I can tell, is far more a liberal/progressive problem than a conservative one. If a person who generally subscribes to the ideology a) criticises another member of that ideology for something or b) appears to agree with an opponent about a point that belongs to the other ideology, fellow subscribers may gang up on that individual for “betraying the ideology”.
This shuts down any sort of opportunity for dialogue between the two sides because it further reduces the willingness of people to find common ground. It would be far better to remain alienated against the ideological opponents (with whom one mostly disagrees) than ideological supporters (with whom one mostly agrees).
Most people do not know about what they are speaking.
This is not an intellectual criticising the sheep for their idiocy. I am a fictional writer who enjoys a broad range of topics casually. Even within the realm of writing, I am not expert – my work constantly evolves as I learn through the process. When I present things, I offer my observations and opinions on topics, and regard them as such. They are my beliefs, but they are not so sacred that I defend them to the last against interlocutors. In fact, the point of sharing my observations and opinions publicly is 1) to find like-minded individuals and talk through those experiences and 2) to find the interlocutors to challenge my opinion.
That does not mean that I will immediately (or ever) side with the interlocutor. In some cases, I vehemently oppose the opinion of that person, and that is my right.
Here is where the breakdown occurs:
When confronted with evidence contrary to a position, a person does have a responsibility to update that belief or opinion.
When one person counters a belief or opinion with another belief or opinion, that is not enough to update that belief or opinion. And depending on the attitude with which the interlocutor presents their belief or opinion, they should expect a certain amount of vitriol in response. (Brief aside: this is a question I often ask of religion, when one attempts to persuade those who do not share the same faith to accept a conclusion based on those religious principles.)
This category very much includes politicians and pundits. Presidents, congresspersons, governors, and the like, remember, are not economists/environmental engineers/civil engineers/physicists/chemists/doctors/biologists/etc. They are, if lucky, maybe one or two of those things attempting to speak across the full range of policy. Those stances are not nearly as sacrosanct as the reverence with which supporters often hold them.
Often in disagreements I will see an interlocutor offer something such as, “I am offering an alternative perspective on this issue, why are you so intent on shutting me down?”
The answer is often “because you are an interlocutor challenging my belief with one of your own, and, frankly, I don’t give a shit about your belief”. That is a fair response – not a particularly civil one and not one that I would prefer to give or receive, but well within the rights of the speaker.
If you have evidence to the contrary of the opinion you see, it becomes incumbent upon you as the interlocutor to establish the veracity of that evidence. Simply throwing out articles that support your view, or quoting from the talking heads of that side of the debate, is not going to ingratiate you to the opposition.
Of course, all of this is far easier said than done. Plenty of people feel they are doing these things already (people who follow the conspiracy theories of Alex Jones, for example, who can dismiss any evidence no matter how demonstrably false their belief may be).
For many people though, emotions are running high and we simply forget that empathy piece. As I have discussed in other pieces, human beings are more aligned on more items than the media portrays. We see it in the face-to-face conversations we face with family, friends, and colleagues – not at the Klan hood-to-Antifa mask conversations of rallies and protests where people arrive already agitated by their now clearly marked opposition.
Some readers may interpret this as, “There are many fine people on all sides. Let’s hear them out”. No, I am not saying we tolerate racists, sexists, bigots, and anyone else who is discriminatory and intolerant of an entire class of people.
What I am saying is that we need to stop assuming that anyone with a conservative opinion is a neo-Nazi. We need to stop assuming that anyone with a progressive opinion is a radical Leftist. Everyone associates with an ideology and then fights the most extreme version of the opposition, even when speaking with the most moderate voices of the opposition.
Those who deviate even slightly from the ideology face the wrath of former friends with whom they agree on virtually everything else. Again, I am looking more at fellow Democrats. We even see this in elections. Democrats go to primaries divided over two or more candidates, and those who support the candidate who lost will abandon their ideology altogether rather than support the primary winner.
I am not saying, “Vote the party line”. I am saying, if your ideology involves 10 key tenets and the party with which you identify proposes two candidates, one who agrees with you on all 10 and one who agrees with only 9, and the latter candidate wins, do not vote with a person who only agrees with 6 of your values just to stick it to them. Voting against self-interest is one of the most astounding trends of the elections I have witnessed lately.
Lastly – vote. The presidential election, one that we knew beforehand would result in the appointment of multiple judiciary seats for life, still only generated a turnout in the 60-70% range of registered voters. Not of eligible voters, to include those who face obstacles to their registration – registered voters who only had to show up and cast a ballot. Turnout is even lower for other types of elections.
By not voting, you are voting. The most radical ideologues in this country vote with zeal. When 60% of the country turns up to vote, that includes 100% of the zealots and a much lower percentage of moderate, reasonable voices. That is how we wind up in situations where the zealots appear to be calling the shots. You hated Obama? You hate Trump? Get your fellow Americans to vote so the outcome reflects us. Then maybe we can also begin to tackle things like gerrymandering.
Above all, have empathy first. Maybe the person you are speaking with online is, to the appearance of any reasonable person, batshit crazy. There is a reason people get that way. Empathy is the only path to persuading someone else away from a ridiculous ideology, or of bridging the communication gap between persons who happen to be opposed in reasonable ideology.
Once we start to get on the same page, we can work together to demand the accountability we need from the talking heads about actual fact rather than constantly dealing with a liberal spin against a conservative spin. News flash – no one is omniscient. We are all dealing with a degree of spin that we amplify in echo chambers. Everyone.
Empathy is how one hears the voices outside the chamber.