The Age of Information has produced experts for any notion and every pursuit. I’m sure there is an expert, or a hundred, who can tell us, for example, whether corporal punishment is a bad thing or not.
It was a familiar sound to many who might read this, but regardless of whether your childhood was punctuated by the crack of a thin leather belt breaking the sound barrier in an effort to adjust your attitude, you probably heard something like this at least once while growing up: “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
I’m guessing that you heard that phrase when you were mean to your brother or sister or one of the neighborhood kids on the playground. Children are like that. But there is probably an expert school of thought which holds that even this method of attempting to foster a sense of right and wrong in a child is incorrect. A popular opinion holds that guilt is bad and wrong. There are hundreds of books and even more experts who are ready to help us live a life free from guilt, governed only by our creativity, like our celebrities.
But let’s not be too hasty. Perhaps a measure of guilt serves a purpose if it leads to self awareness and the development of a conscience. Not too much, just enough, like leavening in bread. Which brings us to today’s discussion. There is something many of us do that is a recipe for hard feelings, and when those are left to fester, it can lead to disaster. We learned this behavior on the playground, but we’re not kids anymore, and we’ve been mean to our brothers and sisters and our neighbors.
We’ve had many discussions here about the tribal nature of identity politics and the conditioning which pushes us to see everything in terms of left and right or us and them, and it is in that spirit of the tribe that we do something every day that makes us a part of the problem.
Americans spend at least two hours a day functioning as transponders for social media. We spend almost five hours daily on our phones. So here we sit, clicking along until we see a meme that amuses us. It may be snarky or insulting, disparaging someone who thinks differently than we do. It utilizes hyperbole or exaggeration to make the point that those who think or believe differently are foolish and should be ridiculed for being so misguided.
Without thinking too much about it, we post it or re-tweet it. Our friends who think the way we do, like it. They think it’s funny, and they may add something similar to the thread to demonstrate a shared contempt for those poor misguided others.
But when you have 500 Facebook “friends,” chances are that several of those people are “them” and not “us.” So they object. We argue. Feelings get hurt. “They” turn around and post something insulting about “us.” Every day we add a little bit more to the anger and fear in the world. Sometimes our true friends, or people who could be our friends if we were not arbitrarily and unnecessarily separated by politics, become collateral damage.
How many friends did you lose during the course of the last election? Have you made any new ones to replace them? Is your world richer, now that it has been purged of those who hold different opinions?
What do we hope to accomplish when we behave this way? Has anyone in the long history of humanity ever changed their mind because someone insulted them? Way out here on the lonely rim of a small galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars in a universe composed of more galaxies than we can comprehend, on this tiny dot of a planet suspended in the vastness of space, are our opinions so sure, so important, so inviolate and so sacred that they are worth more than the friendship or the peace of mind of another human being, another neighbor? Let’s think about that for a moment.
Maybe we’re not so sure of ourselves. The world is complicated and our ability to influence it is always in doubt. Perhaps our beliefs are on such shaky ground that we need constant reinforcement to sustain them. We need the approval of the tribe to maintain the image we hold of ourselves, and to reinforce that image, we feed it. We only visit websites and watch networks that tell us what we already think we know. We only hang out with people who think like we do, and we follow our herd wherever it goes.
Oh, but I’m not talking about us, right? I’m talking about them.
As democrats, we believe all people are the same and we celebrate diversity, but those republicans…We’ve heard that they’re all racists, misogynists and worse. So what we really mean is that all are the same, except for republicans.
Surely I’m not talking about the republicans either. We are guided by faith, which informs us that all are the same in the sight of God, but those democrats…We’ve been told that they are godless communists who want to destroy this country. So what we really mean is that all are the same in the sight of God, except for democrats.
Does it ever occur to us that when we think and act this way, we are frightfully vulnerable to manipulation? Do we ever see the contradiction or the hypocrisy? Are we truly qualified to judge and condemn other people based on so little information about the world, and even less experience? Ignorance and arrogance is a dangerous combination, and as smart as we think we are, everything we think we know is a one eyed squint through a pinhole from a darkened room. Yes, we have a right to our opinions, but we are not entitled to them.
What is the true value of an opinion against the pale blue dot of our sun in a background of countless stars? We assume a mantle of phenomenal cosmic power when we judge even a single human being, much less millions, but we act as if we were still on the playground.