Attention Shoppers

Last week on some ubiquitous social media platform I did a quick straw poll. The responses were interesting. This was the proposition – see what you think:

How many thought better of celebrities before you knew their political opinions? How many have been disappointed in (angry with, sad for) a friend after learning their political opinion? (How many have lost a friend because of how you or they voted?) How many changed their vote because of a tweet or facebook post? There was wisdom in establishing the vote as a secret ballot. Should we revisit that tradition ?

Several people agreed with the proposition. Some correctly pointed out that free speech is a right that should not be suppressed. After all, the First Amendment includes the right to express opinions that other people find objectionable, and the Constitution does not safeguard our feelings.

Nevertheless, as we witness the general erosion of civil society empowered by corporate/social media, it behooves us to ask ourselves how we can improve the situation. I think a good place to start would be to depose the almighty opinion from the throne it now occupies in our culture and to learn the difference between a right and an entitlement.

Think of it this way. Entitlement implies a special privilege. You have a right to pass gas in an elevator. You don’t have a special privilege to do so, and if you abuse the right, you contribute to the erosion of civil society.

Thus you have a right to your opinion, but you are not entitled to it. You can seek entitlement by gathering information, weighing evidence, applying reason and giving due consideration to how you will express your thoughts. Do they need to be expressed at all? Are they true, as much as personal truth can be? Are they kind? Do they improve the silence? Chances are that the meme you shared that was created by a bot or a political operative does not qualify.

The world of talking heads and pixels that dominates the national discourse is an arena for competition for attention. Whether it’s clicks for dollars or little doses of adrenaline and serotonin, we have all become shoppers for attention. Look here! This breaking news is unprecedented. Look at me! I’m one of us, not one of them, so please like my opinion and reinforce my sense of belonging.

But how can we discuss the issues and work out our differences if we don’t share our opinions? It’s all in how we share. Most of us would prefer a polite description of what you had for lunch to a burp in the face. Come to think of it, we don’t really need to know what you had for lunch unless you’re recommending a restaurant.

We could also spend more time paying attention than shopping for it. “To pay attention” is a beautiful concept. It implies cost and effort in exchange for knowledge. We could be a bit more like the iconic character, Foggy Dewhurst, standing at attention, and less the verbal old west gunslinger shooting from the hip at every offense, real or implied.

Finally, when we do need to discuss issues, the conversation would be a lot more productive if we actually discussed the issues rather than the personalities and the character flaws of the political celebrities associated with those issues. I only knew my grandfather for a fraction of his long life, but in my hearing he rarely discussed politics, and when he did, he didn’t talk about politicians. I never once heard him say how he had voted.

It seems almost a quaint social convention in today’s society, but when we read history we begin to realize that the sense of opinion entitlement is not unique to our time. Civil War era newspapers were full of insults and provocations, and the nation was torn apart at a time when news traveled mainly on foot or by horseback. We should never give up the right to free speech, but at a time when the almighty opinion travels instantaneously, perhaps we should pay closer attention to it.

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