(if you’d rather listen than read, find the podcast version of this post at URNotListening2This-Episode 7)
I’m going to make this “quick” (well quick for me), so I’m not going to fully flesh out everything I talk about here. So bear with me on that. Also, I know we are all tired of political “debates”, or rather arguments, so while I am going to talk about politics a little, it will hopefully be in the most abstract of ways. I have no intention on talking about policy or party or any of that. But, I think we should spend time contemplating what we have learned from this campaign season and beyond, and why these arguments keep happening.
What we should have learned, at the very least, is a keen awareness that our nation is one of many diverse perspectives.
There are not 2 sides to every story, there are countless sides. Yet, we fight because for some reason we navigate this labyrinth of ideas with the language of a binary system: Left and Right, Democrats and Republicans, Fringe and Mainstream. Elites and deplorables. Us vs. Them.
We are comfortable here.
But we are not convincing here.
It is how we have always done it. And there is something warm and fuzzy in thinking that whatever it is I believe is not just what my whole tribe believes, but everyone else is wrong in their singularly focused opposition of me. This is why we are so quickly dismissive of other’s opinions. We don’t naturally look at other’s ideas as another layer of nuance in the tapestry. We dismiss nuance, and instead we only see adversaries. Further, and because of this, we constantly believe that “we” have heard “your” side before and already have the perfect retort before you finish speaking.
We are all speaking, but we are not listening.
Now, politics has shown a light on this diversity of ideas in a new way in very recent years. Obviously, a lot of things became more visible in this campaign season on all sides.
Issues that many didn’t know existed. Issues that many thought were dead. Hoped were dead.
This happens often, but this time seemed…different. In many ways it was.
Many people found themselves stuck having to make choices they could hardly stomach themselves. Hate grew louder than love. Fear overshadowed logic. And I am not talking about the candidates. I am talking about us.
The peaceful transfer of power didn’t feel that peaceful. Closest of friends have hard times looking each other in the eye. Family dinners became…awkward. A fever arose across the nation a little hotter than we have seen.
We definitely broke new ground with the individuals that ran a campaign, from Donald Trump’s teflon charisma and magnetism, Hilary’s historic trailblazing at each stage of the process for women in the future, to Bernie Sanders re-capturing the spirit of the younger generation which is the future.
But these are symptoms of change, not the cause. This is a new wave of dissonance. I don’t fault anyone involved for taking credit for it, but I think what really changed is our relationship with and access to information.
Yes, we have had 24 hour news networks for a while. We have had the internet for a little bit now too. The major networks have spawned so many channels that all have time slots to fill. Their web-based companies constantly require content, tweets, instagram pics, shares and likes.
We have all found ourselves overwhelmed by the access, but at the same time, we find ourselves underwhelmed by the information itself. Too biased. Too narrow. Too conservative. Too liberal.
Predictably, the rise in access to information hasn’t equated to any more trust in the veracity of that information. Just google “American trust in the media” and you’ll see result after result with headlines using words like “sinks to new low” or “lowest level in history.”
This shouldn’t have been surprising. Content providers at all levels also feel constricted by the binary narrative. But the internet has provided new avenues to disseminate other perspectives. With blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and twitter, any idea is fair game.
And those ideas are everywhere. Information is everywhere. Anytime. Now, it is the News that is trying to keep up with Us, and the lines have blurred. Truth vs intrigue. Thorough investigation vs. deadlines. Informing vs. alarming.
Opinion and fact have become interchangeable. The biggest determinate of what information we will receive is what will go viral, not what is true?
There is what we need to know vs. what we want to see. There is educating the electorate vs. entertaining the masses. There is providing accurate detailed information vs. breaking news first.
The fault lies everywhere. “They” don’t want to get scooped and “we” don’t want to wait.
And often, we don’t want to think or feel.
We all want change, but none of us want to be changed.
Yet as the informational landscape was changing and access evolved, from a political standpoint, society evolved to. Particularly, I believe, this is true of us Americans in our 30’s right now. I don’t know how it was where you come from, but I remember as a kid who couldn’t wait to grow up, I hung out with and/or eavesdropped on the “Old people” as much as possible. I remember it being completely taboo to talk about politics or who you voted for or wouldn’t vote for. You could complain about how high taxes were from a purely economic stand point, but that was pretty much it. Only “crazy people” put stickers on their cars or wore buttons or hats.
But then here we came! We are the first generation to “develop” our values publicly. Whether they be the cementing of those handed to us by our parents and their parents before them, our neighborhoods, communities, and cultures or whether we did the work of forging new values for ourselves, (though largely informed by those same sources), we have chosen to do it publicly because we have chosen to do it digitally.
We are a generation that has chosen to live out loud. We are individuals, and we want everyone to know all about it. Our eclectic taste in cuisine. Our knowledge of craft beers. All the vices we adore or abstain from. What makes us laugh? What makes us cry? Our favorite books, movies and past times. Who our candidates are…
And don’t get me wrong, I love this change. We shouldn’t be hiding.
With Facebook, Twitter, and others before them, we were in our adolescence, attracted to the bright flashing screens. We are the kids social media was made for but are so afraid to give our own kids access to.
We are the guinea pigs. One of the unintended outcomes of this experiment is that in a time where politics became more and more personal, and by that I mean focused on individuals, our personal opinions on policy became more public.
Through the photos, quotes, links and likes, we gladly define ourselves in this new digital world. Whether we did this intentionally or in short sight, we’ve painted a portrait of who we are or who we think we should be. What we believe in and what we don’t. What we will accept from and for those around us and what we won’t.
In the abstract, this portrait is destined to be beautiful. A mosaic of human individuality can be no other thing. Additionally, the digital world should be more level and equitable than the “real” one. What we, as the general public care about, should be what moves the national discussion. Politics, Community, Religion, Economics, whatever, moving with the will of the people.
But it is showing itself a façade. Our individualism is a mask over our self-centered tribalism. We hide our real truths just like everyone before us has.
As a result, instead of a true national discussion about anything, where this individualism inside our communal self could shine, our national conversations are consistently shallow.
Real debate, real change, real unity could be mined. The process would be painful, and perhaps this is part of the process. However, we do not express our individual perspectives.
We do not choose what will matter.
Instead, we choose our preferred spin about what we have been told matters. We adopt ideas instead of espousing them. In this way we can perceive ourselves as expressing individualism while keeping our true emotional selves safe and protected from ridicule. We hide in our ignorance to save face. Even at the expense of our fellow citizens.
No, we do not set the conversation. We react to it.
We are told what to talk about and who or what is important. Who and what t isn’t. And where I am not naive of the many benefits that small powerful groups might obtain from distracting and setting the conversation they want, personal experience causes me to greatly doubt the population at large wants anything with much depth.
It is not a coincidence that the most taboo topics are the ones we supposedly hold strongest beliefs about. We refuse to entertain new ideas that might make us “feel.” In fact we think “feeling” is a weakness. We established hard fast rules without a mechanism to deal with the reality of exceptions to those rules, or flaws in those rules. We refuse to have our beliefs challenged. We have fooled ourselves into thinking this is actually a virtue. Shame on us.
We may be more willing to get into a political debate than generations before, but all we tend to do is parrot the dumbed down ideas the talking heads on our preferred channels and website spouted the night before. How many of these discussions become defensive arguments because we haven’t truly thought enough about these topics to develop our own language around them? Our “feelings” about things are easily traced to a pattern of trends we have chosen. The safety of blending in.
We sit in this magnificent space and time where we can all develop our own ethos and find unique ways to express our opinions, hell I am just some guy with a computer and microphones. But mostly it seems we are satisfied to just “pick a side”; attach ourselves to another’s rationale instead of cultivating our own. We’d still rather fit in than stick out.
As a result, we substitute biased twists of an idea for the diversity of ideas at our disposal.
Instead of valuing truth, we value entertainment or tradition in not just how we access information but the information itself. The value of entertainment sheds light on the rise of the sensational far end sources of “news”; both left and right. Tradition explains why party lines rarely change even when the parties themselves fundamentally do.
So we trade in our new sense of individualism to sort ourselves back into the groups of “us” and “them.” We doubled down in our commitment to tribes. We blindly believe not only what our group says about itself but also what it says about “other” groups. We believe the worst about each other to not deal with the worst in ourselves. We cannot trust you to look past your biases, so we cannot afford to look past our own. We compromised ourselves.
Perhaps this is why we are so inclined to attract ourselves to negative narratives about people that are not like us or at least do not think like us. I do not have to address my prioritizing myself over you or dismissing your needs and concerns if I’m already convinced you are undeserving, immoral, unfit, etc. I need not worry about the plank in my eye as long as the splinter remains in yours.
But it is undeniable that some have dropped the façade; disrobed and discarded their camouflage. Allowed themselves to be exposed and vulnerable. Now these stereotypes and narratives are losing viability as these brave souls continue to live out loud, and be supported out loud.
Ask yourself: Are your values and beliefs the same as your neighbor or colleague that voted the way you did? Are they similar to your neighbor or colleague that voted the other way? Have you found yourself in complete disbelief by the things “they” have said or been able to dismiss? Do people think this about you?
We speak in extremes, but do we really believe in them? Is that sustainable?
Why are you and your ideas normal? Why are mine? Don’t you think that people whom we might characterize as not being “normal” answer those questions the same way we do? How and why is that?
Even if we could divine a model for “normal” based on some set of diagnostics culled from extensive qualitative and quantitative research, a reasonable persons test, or even a simple “smell” test, how diverse then are our motivations behind our “normal” behavior?
Is it instinct? Tradition? Religion? Secularism? Money? Revenge? Fear?
Within those motivators, how diverse are our reactions to them?
How much love and charity; hatred and bigotry has been shown by groups of people motivated by the same God? How much have these same characteristics been exhibited by groups which deny there even is one? What about everyone in between? Can anyone tell the difference on Mondays?
The time and place has come where we must realize that there is no us and them, and until we figure that out, there will barely be an “us” at all. But it is also the time to realize that our differences don’t divide us, they enrich us.
It is an interesting time to be alive. Perhaps our most critical.
Not because we are the first to see this. No. Nothing is new under the sun. What we should be is the group of generations mature enough not to dismiss it. To not pretend any longer.
Now, I know we do not like “shoulds” anymore, but let’s at least move past the assumption that “most people think like me and the rest are these small, insignificant groups on the fringes.” There is no “most”, and “the rest” are neither small nor insignificant.
We are one Nation, but we are the Many. We are messy. We are all over the place. But this is what we are.
This is why we are beautiful! We must stop forgetting that.
We must stop trying to force our fellow citizens into our boxes. And when someone won’t fit; we must stop forcing them into the other box.
We saw too much of that this past year, and none of us were comfortable with it.
We have now seen the spectrum, and what has been seen cannot be unseen.
So keep speaking, but listen. Really listen. Be confident enough to be wrong. Be wise enough to accept it. Be vulnerable enough to love. Challenge and be challenged. Do not settle for tradition, forge a new one. Do not confuse uniformity with unity. Embrace nuance. Embrace debate.
I do not know what tomorrow looks like. No one does or can. But, today, I am hopeful.
I am hopeful because I suspect that many of you have felt the tensions I have and you agree with me. Many of you have looked inside and out and see the beginnings of real change.
You feel it.
Incremental maybe, but Tectonic.
We have been told before that our differences and divisions aren’t as black and white as anyone has believed, but now we have seen it for ourselves. We know it now.
Yet, I also know that not everyone shares this hope. For many, it still feels like everybody is losing their way…and minds, if only just a little bit. We hit landmarks that come with age and experience, we increase our level of investment in the world at large and our more intimate communities. Our friendships deepen, jobs give way to careers. We settle down and start families. All of a sudden, we are forced to start paying attention to things around us and we are frightened at all that appears to be “new.” Things are not what we thought, so we must find something or someone to blame. Some cause for how we have gone too far and lost the path.
But, let me let you in on a little secret: It always feels like that. Every generation feels this way. This is just our continuation of the eternal cycle. Many things are changing in the world around us, but the biggest and brightest change is and will be US.
The country is NOT falling apart… well, not much more than it did for generations past.
No, instead, you; we, are waking up.