The Case for Civility, Midterm Version

Hands up, anyone whose opinion has been changed by being slammed, punked, embarrassed, humiliated or publicly shamed on social media. I’ll wait…

Right. None of us, with the possible exception of those abject apologies coerced from public figures attempting to rescue their peer-dependent careers.

So, what purpose does it serve when we post derogatory things about people, politicians, political parties or x, y and z axis orientations on the internet?

Before we try to answer that, consider this:

Most of our friends, the real ones, not the pixelated ones on social media, already agree with us. Statistically (and sadly, if you ask me) we gravitate almost exclusively toward people who view the world just like we do. When we denigrate people who think differently, we are simply reinforcing our “positionality.” (You can look that one up in the urban dictionary.) When we become positional and encourage others to do the same, we are less likely to be open to new information. To put it bluntly, it makes us dumber. Yay team.

In many cases our aggressive negativity also helps to create or reinforce fear, anger and mistrust, which have very little chance of finding a constructive outlet. Unresolved anger can make us feel bad. It can, in fact, make us sick. It can and does spread like a virus.

None of us are completely without responsibility when it comes to encouraging negativity. I spent much of 2016 writing quite disrespectfully (and occasionally, humorously) about two of the most unlikable candidates to ever run for the presidency. I had hoped to contribute in some small way to the erosion of the great cults of personality that seem to form around our leaders and our celebrities. But as we will soon see, many of us are conditioned to take a long list of things very personally these days.

Baked into our political paradigm is a logical fallacy called the “false dilemma,” and over the last thirty years the false dilemma of the two-party system has made us subject to manipulation through controlled opposition. Thus, some things never change, no matter which party assumes control.

But something very interesting happens between the horns of this dilemma. As the political campaign progresses and contenders are eliminated, the survivors begin to take on a mantle of respectability among their respective supporters which is often completely divorced from the facts. Why? Because we become personally invested in the IMAGE of the candidates, and when those images are attacked, we take it personally. We feel like WE have been attacked.

Meanwhile, the candidate we do not support becomes a straw man (or woman), and that negative image is reinforced by rumor, innuendo and outright deception.

By the end of the campaign, we have two candidates and four illusions running for one office: one chimera, and one straw man for each candidate, and millions of people have come to either personally identify with or vilify those images. When one of these illusions finally wins the election, some of us will never again see the real person or the real effects of their actions as an elected official. We see them through the filters of our altered perception.

We desperately need a more mature understanding of what happens in and around Washington. Scratch the surface of the headlines and there is another story about the differing goals and philosophies of the companies that control our leadership. Time Warner, Disney and Verizon, for example, have a very different worldview than Exxon-Mobile and the energy giants.  Beneath that, when we look at the companies which contribute heavily to both Democrats and Republicans, we see another story.  For example, the banksters that were heavily represented in the Obama Administration remained during the Trump years, and some are still active in the Biden Administration.

If Goldman Sachs can work equally well with Democrats and Republicans, we would be wise to ask ourselves, what purpose might be served by driving a wedge between two evenly balanced factions of the voting population?

The answer to that will probably be found by observing where wealth has accumulated over the last 30 years – and where it has diminished.

The final questions for today are these: When we pass along an attack meme, click “like” and “share,” (which for many of us is the extent of our engagement in the political process), when we insult or denigrate someone with whom we disagree, are we helping to drive deeper the wedge that divides our country?  Most assuredly. Also, if we were receiving, rather than giving, a medicinal dose of truth, would we prefer that to be in the form of a lozenge flavored with civility – or a suppository? Let the Golden Rule apply.

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