We find ourselves immersed in a struggle, a struggle that is not unfamiliar in its nature, but one that is unprecedented in degrees of passion. Technology has provided us with a gift: the ability to freely, instantly, and anonymously exchange ideas and opinions on a global scale. But there is a price to be paid for such a remarkable gift. In a world where every voice can be heard, the shrillest voices inevitably dominate any discussion.
Candor, thoughtfulness, self-doubt, reflection, sober analysis, and a host of other virtuous concepts that once defined today’s increasingly arcane concept of civil discourse, have all but disappeared. Today, mudslinging is more important than morality, vindictiveness tops virtue, and flinging insults is valued more highly than the ability to exchange ideas. I am not the first to comment on the demise of respectful dialogue in modern-day America, but few remark on the troubling phenomenon that accompanies increased incivility, as both cause and effect: the dumbing down of America.
The Complexity Problem
There’s nothing new about slinging mud when debating the great issues of the day. Demonizing one’s opponent has been a consistent feature of American politics since Andrew Jackson ran one of the most vile presidential campaigns in history to defeat John Quincy Adams in 1828.
Yet, there are very important differences between the way things used to be and the way things are today. The core of those differences involves the ever-increasing complexity of the modern world.
Let us consider Abraham Lincoln as an example of the way things used to be. Lincoln’s opponents regularly attacked him based on his looks and his rustic origins. He was deemed “the original gorilla” by the most vicious of his enemies. Others, then and now, deemed him a tyrant. No matter. The issues that Lincoln championed were simple and understandable: saving the Union and containing the spread of slavery so that the “peculiar institution” would wither and die. Clear moral choices were at play, choices that most everyone understood. Lincoln’s supporters could brush off the gratuitous insults, because bright lines separated his policies from those of his opponents.
As issues become more complicated, moral clarity is harder to find. For example, given enough time, I am confident in my ability to convince an unbiased listener that environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace do far more overall harm than good in modern-day America. I can do that because the fields of environmental science and environmental regulation are my particular areas of expertise, and I have thirty-five years of experience in those fields.
Further, I am certain that I can—and I in fact have on many occasions—convinced an unbiased listener that my position is the correct one without resorting to rancor. I don’t need to employ derogatory terms like “tree hugger.” I don’t need to question the motives of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace…or their supporters. I don’t need to look for hidden agendas or conspiracies. Indeed, I don’t care about motives, hidden agendas, or conspiracies. I care about risk versus reward. I care about unintended consequences. I care about fairly assessing where we are versus where we were. I care, in other words, about facts. And, due to my vocation, I know where to find the relevant facts without relying on dubious “experts” who derive their self-proclaimed status by quoting equally dubious “experts,” ad infinitum and ad nauseum.
However, therein lies the problem. The more complex the issues, the more we need experts to explain them, demanding time and attention from the listener. Understanding the nuances of any complex issue requires an attempt at unbiased study. Few are willing to do that. So a growing number of us rely on faux experts and overly simplistic arguments to justify our preferred positions.
Consider the ways that just a few hot-button, complex issues are commonly presented today:
- Use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs):
- Anti: Humans messing with nature; will kill us all.
- Pro: Humans improving nature, making food cheaper.
- Importance of Reducing Fossil Fuel Use:
- Anti: Leftist conspiracy to impose socialism.
- Pro: Battling right-wing conspiracy to prop up big energy companies.
- Need for “Net Neutrality”:
- Anti: The future of the internet itself is at stake.
- Pro: Equal access to the internet is at stake.
Messaging in the Modern Era
Those few issues noted above and dozens like them are too complex for anyone to understand in depth through sound-bites and slogans. Yet in an era where one of the most popular forms of communication limits a message to 280 characters, that’s exactly the way we discuss things, although “discuss” is far too generous a verb to describe exchanges in the Twitter-verse.
In the absence of informed, in-depth understanding, the average American relies on outside sources of information to let him or her understand the great issues of the day. That’s not a criticism. I do it. You do it. We all do it. It’s a fact of modern life.
Those sources of information break down into the following categories: 1) the traditional mainstream media (MSM), mostly, but not entirely, left-leaning; 2) the nontraditional new media, a delightful and frustrating mixture of views, agendas, and abilities spanning the range of positions from anarchy to tyranny and everything in between; 3) politicians and/or political parties that we favor; and 4) your aunt Gertrude, old buddy Bob, or their equivalent, whose opinion and guidance you deeply value and whom you personally know to be an unbiased expert in the particular field at issue.
With the exception of number four, all of the above sources of information deliver their messages with the principle of maximum impact in mind. The MSM wants viewers, because viewers equal ratings and ratings equal advertising revenue. The new media wants pretty much the same, except that their viewers are more often defined by clicks and subscribers. Most politicians want votes, and when their handlers/staffers run the show—as they most often do—they really want votes.
Whether the issue involves the MSM, the new media, or political types, the go-to strategy is the same: the more irreverent and/or spectacular the message, the more attention it gets. The merit of the message doesn’t really matter in this environment. It’s all about whether the slogan will capture your ongoing loyalty. Attempting to correct an ideological opponent’s factual misstep by describing him or her as misinformed will not generate anywhere near the attention and social media shares as calling him or her a “fucking idiot who couldn’t find their ass in the dark with a flashlight” will.
The Trump Effect
Many on the right and left will point to President Trump as the root cause of all of the rancor and name-calling infecting our society these days. To cite just one example, Maxine Waters seems to be willing to justify any action short of blowing away Trump supporters’ kneecaps in the name of proportionate retaliation.
The reality is that Trump and Trump’s rhetoric are not the cause of incivility in modern-day America. It’s the inevitable reaction to incivility. In recent times some Republicans, libertarians, and conservatives tried civil discourse and they were utterly, mercilessly pummeled by the MSM and the left. I didn’t agree with everything George W. Bush did during his terms in office, but the way the MSM and the left attacked the man was unconscionable. Bush was and is a gentleman—a gentleman who would not rise to the bait when called a hick, labeled an idiot, or described in terms usually reserved for the Emperor Palpatine.
Trump did something different, something unimaginable just a few years ago. He chose to fight back. He not only fought back, he punched as hard—or harder—than they did. This was not the way the game was supposed to be played. Ever since the Nixon administration, the rules were clear. Republicans might get elected, but they were required to absorb the insults and derision of the left and their MSM allies whenever that happened without complaint.
Reagan gently but firmly pushed back in his own, unique way. He balanced charming and whimsical and insightful and principled in a way that no president had done before or has done since. His opponents tried to paint the Gipper as a lovable, empty-headed stooge—cartoonist Garry Trudeau spent eight years depicting Reagan as a cowboy hat floating in space with nothing underneath, get it?!—but Reagan was far too good a communicator to let that happen. Reagan winked at America, and most Americans got it and gratefully winked back.
I don’t think Trump is devoid of a sense of humor, but his is nothing like Reagan’s playfulness and the Gipper’s instinctual understanding of his average fellow citizen. In boxing terms, Reagan was Muhammad Ali in his “rope-a-dope” days: he’d absorb the best his opponents could hit him with, then when they were exhausted, he would dance away to pick them apart with precisely aimed jabs. Trump, on the other hand, is a classic counterpuncher, à la Floyd Mayweather. The bigger the blow you try to land on Trump, the harder the counterpunch you can expect in return.
Ignorance Is Not Bliss
Today, we tend to focus on the rancor and the fervor and the outrage. That’s understandable. The emotional appeals draw our attention, whether those appeals are repugnant, justify our belief systems, fill us with joy, or drown us with grief. Yet the policies and directions that may result from these sorts of emotional appeals are not nearly as important as the societal foundations such appeals eventually erode: the foundations that involve the concepts of logic, reason, and sober reflection upon which stable societies are built.
In response to an increasingly complex world, we have—as a society—willingly chosen to understand less as individuals rather than trying to personally understand more. We put increasing faith in supposed experts and champions, whose credentials are purportedly vetted by impartial authorities.
Understanding less while the need for understanding grows is the definition of increasing societal ignorance. The consequences of ignorance to a free society are dire, for doing so amounts to willingly transferring power to a self-proclaimed intellectual elite. History repeatedly proves that elites, of whatever ideology, do not take very long before they abuse their power and positions.
The turning point in Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol is the scene in which Scrooge, who had up to this point in the story viewed the Ghost of Christmas Present as a jolly old fellow, discovers that a deep, deadly cancer has infected Scrooge’s ego-centralized world and that the cancer’s name is “ignorance”:
“‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe,’ but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.’
‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
‘Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and
pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’”
The rise of the Communication Age, for better or worse, is the modern-day equivalent of the parting of the Spirit of Christmas Present’s robes. We can, if we choose to look, clearly see Want and her far more dangerous brother, Ignorance. We can choose to do the hard things we ought to do to free both of them from their plights, and to figure out ways to do that together without demonizing each other. Or we can choose to use the plight of Want and Ignorance to our personal, prurient advantages, using them for our own “factious purposes,” which will thus “make it worse.”
Either way, we must abide the end. It’s our choice.
Richard Trzupek is a chemist, columnist and author. His latest book America’s Journey: Underdog to Overlord, Regrets to Rebirth is available wherever books are sold. Get in touch with Rich at his website: richtrzupek.com.