Fellow United States Citizens.
Many of us feel a growing sense of unease at the division, discord and lack of public discourse in our democracy. We have witnessed a steady increase in the delivery of advocacy information as we have allowed our attention to be drawn to the most extreme and divisive views.
Why is this happening?
I propose that the primary causes of the decline in our capacity to be in civil conversation are economic and cognitive.
Collectively, we have allowed economic power to be given the status of free speech, and with the Supreme Court decision of “Citizens United” that economic power has been rendered invisible and unaccountable to the general public.
The result, tightly controlled media messaging companies that operate in lockstep with political machines both fueled by and accountable to economic interests. It is these economic interests that seek to control the political agenda and define the range of possible public conversations.
This move away from citizen-driven democratic institutions toward a system controlled by oligarchic institutions is visible in the devaluation of language (double-speak), and the creation of division fueled by sound bites. Even facts have lost meaning through distortion and outright fabrication.
In other words, we have allowed shadowy players and political operatives in our political/information industry to be the ones to define what is important. This is happening because we the people are allowing the media to determine the meaning of words, framing of issues, and rigging of the basic rules by which we use language.
What do I mean by rigging of language itself?
Language as a medium for the exchange of reasoned views has been replaced with political and information speech that is inherently loaded with judgement that cannot be challenged given the authority that is being claimed by the speaker. This is a form of language warfare designed to “win” conversations.
A number of examples of this can be drawn from an interview by Megyn Kelly with Newt Gingrich in late October, 2016. This interview revealed a struggle for who gets to define the language “rules” in order to “win” their position.
In this interview, Megyn Kelly asks “If Trump is a sexual predator, than that is…..” at which point Newt Gingrich interrupts and says that “You cannot make that statement” and “I am sick and tired of people like you using inflammatory language that is not true.”, and “When you used the words you took a position (that it is true)”.
First, we can observe that Megyn Kelly was in her question using loaded language, i.e. her choice of words “sexual predator” could be considered inflammatory as well as judgmental. I say this because she said “If Trump is a sexual predator….” instead of saying “If Trump is found to have acted in a sexually predatory manner…”.
This is important because it reveals the fundamental question of who has the authority to determine the validity of an accusation. The answer is the courts. An individual is not authorized to declare that Trump is a sexual predator, even in the form of a question.
Newt Gingrich’s response is nothing short of surreal. Mr. Gingrich is a master at phrasing language in coercive terms that are not true. Google “Gingrich Gopac” and you will find a memo titled “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control”. In that memo it points to using words to control and influence others.
Gingrich advocates using loaded language in exactly the manner used by Megyn Kelly, and in his own defense he claimed the authority to exactly deny the control language techniques that he himself advocates. Rich.
My fellow citizens, we are losing control over our capacity to use language together because we are blind to those who claim the authority to define “the way it is”. We are listening to those who butcher language when we should be pointing them out as being nothing more than hooligans loudly crying “fire” in a crowded theatre.
Here is the crux of the problem.
We have allowed ourselves to be manipulated, divided and therefore marginalized. We have ceded our public conversations (and our power) to media empires, while we passively “consume” messaging intended to polarize and distract.
We are not doing our part as citizens to educate ourselves by engaging with each other to bridge and refine our understanding of competing views. We seem to be more concerned with being right than with being of service. We show up as disinterested in the kind of America we will leave to our children and grandchildren.
In short, we are behaving as adolescents, believing that our opinions are the right ones, in a mood of cynicism and hollow outrage.
Why outrage? My answer is that it is the easiest and strongest emotion for media to manufacture. All that is needed is to exploit our basest fears, creating an “us versus them” with obvious solutions presented to us by friendly folk that we wish to identify with (appealing to our instincts to belong to a community).
Why I consider this form of outrage to be hollow is that manufactured outrage is typically against, and not for a cause. To be for something one must present the merits and challenges of an issue, with subtlety and reasoned thought. To oppose, one need only criticize, demean and employ sarcasm.
By the way, our isolation and lack of genuine community is part a product of the steady diet of fear we have embraced. Our kids and grandkids see this, and are aware of our abdication of our role as leaders who are of service to the greater good, and to them.
For sake of discussion, and the possibility of redefining our political discourse, I propose a few working definitions.
Childish View – We expect that everyone is having the same life experience as we, and we are truly puzzled that there are others in our country having a fundamentally different experience of life. Politics is about supporting “one of us”.
Adolescent View – We claim the power to be right in our opinions, to the extreme that our opinions are true. We impose our values and standards over everyone else, while expressing outrage if someone appears to be imposing their values over us. We believe that we can win if others lose. Politics is about winning.
Adult View – We recognize that we can only make sense of our own experience of life; we seek diverse opinions in order to learn and gain perspective. We believe that to win, we all must win and therefore we seek nuanced solutions to the complex issues we face. Politics is about service.
How I propose we interrupt the insanity of our adolescent political discourse is to stop electing adolescents.
How I propose we do that is by each of us participating in the public discourse by being a participant in the evaluation of opinions, particularly those that advocate public action.
The definition I propose for opinion is that an opinion is neither true nor false.
An opinion is a speech act in which the speaker:
Has a reason for holding the opinion, i.e. sees that there is a problem or concern.
(It is our responsibility to demand that the problem or concern the opinion addresses is clearly defined by the speaker in a manner that stands up to national scrutiny. This serves to reveal the worldview of the speaker and may serve to educate the public on the issue.)
Believes his opinion is the most effective solution for the problem or concern.
(We can expect a speaker to defend their opinion as the most effective of many solutions, while we as a nation consider the alternatives. Part of this process is that the speaker may be challenged to provide evidence to support the effectiveness of his chosen solution.
If we collectively hold this standard for public discourse, and not get drawn into sensationalism or the senseless conversation of “who is right”, we will begin to authentically discuss issues while discovering the key information about those who seek to lead us.
Is the speaker attempting to sell us on “the” solution for a problem that is left vague and undefined, avoiding specifics or discussion of who the opinion actually serves.
Or is the speaker open to public contribution to our understanding of the nature of the problem; and open to other’s coming up with more effective solutions. By this we will recognize that the speaker is seeking the public good.
This perspective is aimed at the left and right.
In my view an adult politician would be more concerned with educating the public on the complexities of a problem or concern, creating an understanding of the issue long before voicing an opinion on the preferred solution.
This enables contribution from of a wide range of perspectives, and a genuine search for the most effective way forward in service to the common good. Only then would an adult politician stand up and advocate for their choice of solution.
This can be the new normal, if we demand it.