These days I often think of the famous line uttered by Rodney King during the 1992 L.A. riots. The election year of 2016 was contentious, to say the least. This year is shaping up to be no better. Although everyone expected tensions to ease once the votes were counted, things got worse. Those who expected the opposing candidate’s supporters to have trouble accepting the election results have had trouble accepting the election results. The year began with protesting and a bit of rioting.
Now, to be fair, the President and his supporters are not entirely blameless in all of this. He pokes and prods the press, offering up alternative facts and cries of fake news. While some of his criticism has merit, he takes things too far. One of his most newsworthy supporters, Milo Yiannopoulos, makes a living inciting nearly everyone he encounters.
Everyone, it seems, whether right, left, or center, is in a tizzy these days. The news media runs at full bore, fretting over every move the current administration makes. Trump’s supporters love his every move; his detractors hate his every breath. Those in the middle are reviled for not taking sides. The rhetoric is turned up to eleven.
How did we get here? Well, for starters, the world is more connected now than ever before. Ideas are passed around with lightning speed. And with that speed often comes a lack of precision. There was a time, in the not too distant past, when information was gathered from books, newspapers, magazines, and the network evening news. Regular folks would exchange ideas face to face or on the telephone.
The advent of social media has completely changed the communications landscape for better and for worse. On the one hand, it has never been easier for people to share their thoughts with a wide network of acquaintances. On the other hand, the brevity of social media does not lend itself to polite discussions. Take Twitter for example. It is impossible to flesh out an entire argument in 140 characters. Instead, the writer must cut directly to the point. One terse statement leads to a curt reply. Rinse and repeat for several years among millions of people, and here we are. Facebook is no better forum. While there is room for endless writing on Facebook, nobody is going to read their friends’ friend’s seven paragraph defense of their favorite politician or cause. And those who do read all seven paragraphs will discover that each sentence was built in service of the point being made. No matter the medium, we are beating each other over the head with the facts (whether standard or alternative).
The more important question is: how do we improve the situation? I would argue (online) that arguing online is very nearly pointless. Rather than changing hearts and minds, we are all fanning the flames. We are preaching to the choir. We are alienating our neighbors. Maybe it is time to walk things back a bit. It is time to put the smartphone down, step away from the computer, and look people in the eye again.
The best solution here may very well be to save all political discussions for face-to-face conversations. It is time to see the person on the other side of the argument, rather than the computer screen. Barring a catastrophic collapse of the Internet, that will never happen. The more pragmatic approach is to think before posting. Think of the person on the other end of argument. Find points of agreement and express them. Step back and pray before each post. It is time that we re-learn how to discuss things with people, rather than fighting with abstract ideas.