John is a middle-school business teacher, happily married since 1989 and grateful to have been given the gift of life.
The news we watch is a cleverly crafted combination of entertainment and information. I feel sometimes manipulated by the media, even though the shows I like represent my political beliefs. Every now and again the hosts exude an inflammatory demeanor which is unnecessary in communicating their arguments. Tuning in to our favorite news shows can easily become a dangerous habit, reinforcing the “tribal” nature of our society. I want the news I watch to assuage my anger at “the other side,” but like illicit drugs, I want more than I can get. Addiction there. Self-righteous hatred feels good, just like addictive drugs must. I feel ashamed of myself, yet frustrated that the media seem more than happy to be purveyors of hate addiction.
Technology has done a great thing; it has given us a “voice” that did not exist a few decades ago. Not just social media, but also we can share with the world our memoirs, persuasive points of view, live job experiences, moral convictions, how-to expertise, artwork, fiction, poetry, advice, love, etcetera. Technology has not found its way to our senses of smell, touch or taste, but that’s probably on its way.
The problem is that we were not trained, nor were we equipped to be aware of the dangers of our new power. We just saw the potential for gratification. The old adage, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” comes to mind. We have absolute power to deliver our content, whatever that may be, to a huge audience. Recognition, the most important social need, can be found in one way or another, using Internet technology. The online “presence” that we exude is a malleable mixture of our ego, expertise, feelings, knowledge, anger, life experience convictions, stereotypes, humor, fear, political disposition, religion, etc. People around the world have access to this “presence,” which used to be confined to just a small circle of friends and family. As a writer of fiction, opinion articles, memoirs, hobbyist how-to posts, video parody as well as a consumer of content, I sometimes feel that my online presence is like getting for free 5000 gallons of my favorite ice cream, Coffee Blast, but being forced to take delivery of it in the searing desert. By myself, just me, the ice cream and the arid weight of heat and the wind-driven biting sand. Feeling empty and overwhelmed at the same time. What do I do now? Sometimes online, I feel my self-righteous ego taking over and simply needing to “win the argument.” Other times, my self-doubt leaves me feeling inferior and vulnerable to justified harsh criticism. I guess my online presence is like life itself, ups and downs. I need to exercise care in what I do online just like anything else in my life.
My wife and I have differing political inclinations. We disagree on the issues of abortion, immigration, raising of kids, political candidates, the COVID response, whether we should get artificial turf, whether vitamins and flu shots are good things. Yet we’ve been happily married for nearly thirty-two years. The reason for our successful marriage with our political frictions is that we have a common foundation which maintains us: we were both raised to be polite, to be grateful, to be responsible, to listen, to communicate carefully, to persevere, to respect humankind, to pursue mindful goals. I think most people are like us, not perfect but generally functional. So then, why is our nation so divided? The answer is that it isn’t.
We are not “divided,” as lots of people say as though the demise of our country is imminent. Most of us are careful and respectful people; these are the most important things. Our decency unites us! That’s as it should be! We don’t need to be united in our political opinions any more than there should be a national recipe for meatloaf. We are divided on politics, but that is the way it has always been and always should be. It just seems that we are more divided because of the proliferation of our voices due to technology. Contentious issues on the online stage lower our inhibitions, just like the ingestion of alcohol does, and our emotions quickly take us over. The nasty comments, accusations, ad hominem attacks, and uninformed opinions are not the face of this country; they are just “bar fights.” Obviously, bar fights are not good things but sometimes people need to “blow off some steam.” It does not mean we are fractured as a nation. Put it like this: if you “grabbed” a couple of these online “bar patrons” and set them walking down a street heatedly arguing, and they came across an injured person crumpled on the pavement, both of them would render assistance. They would quickly forget their anger and work together to help the injured person. Therefore, once a reasonable person realizes the pitfalls of an online presence, just as with not having to many drinks, an online presence can be an engaging and productive tool for being educated and for educating others. It’s not a smooth road, however. But nothing good ever is.
The goal of America is not some “unanimous society” in which everyone agrees; it would be a fool’s errand. Imagine a day unfolding when everyone in America suddenly agrees with each other. Ridiculous! As such, we should instead “seek to understand those with opposing viewpoints before expecting them to understand ours.” We should try to gain a core understanding of the values which drive the ideas of those with whom we disagree. Then we can learn more about ourselves. The fact is that we can gain a lot more from immersing themselves in the facts of other peoples’ arguments while gently sharing our own, than we could from simply trying to “win” an argument or expecting everyone to just “come to their senses” and agree with us.
Most of us from both sides are decent people but the “news” hosts and social media platforms place us into “warring” tribes, feeding us what we need to grow our hatred towards each other, just as an addict ingests their drug. Without the news media and social platforms, I don’t think we would be as spiteful, as we grope and sniff around the Internet for “table scraps” to feed our hatred habits. That being said, the media has a right to their free speech editorials and the platforms have every right to provide for the free speech of our fellow citizens. (This assumes that the platforms are managed fairly.) It is our responsibility to analyze the content of news outlets and social media output in terms of our own values to determine if it helps our understanding of the news events or helps us meaningfully share our views of the issues. We cannot place blame on the media for our national strife any more than we can blame a bartender for drunken misbehavior. We should be grateful to all forms of media because they represent freedom, even though that freedom may require care and respect and test our patience. Personal responsibility, as with many other things, is the only thing that will make the media a constructive presence in our lives.