Code of Silence

It was not a surprise to hear this, but a comment one of my students recently made in class seemed to neatly sum up our anxious and antagonistic national mood: “I really don’t like to express my opinion about anything because people just attack you for what you think.”

Yep. That pretty much nails it.

I am not one of those who believe that our major news outlets are part of some liberal cabal out to subvert America. Watching the sense of shock suffuse the faces of the pollsters and pundits on Election Night in 2016, it was obvious that the results had them completely gobsmacked. Having spent the previous couple of years in animated discussion with one another, they were convinced that anyone with a lick of intelligence thought just the way they did, and all of the national polls served to provide ironclad proof that we would be toasting President-elect Clinton’s landslide victory when the dawn broke.

One of the reasons more and more “experts” are so confused by the current state of our nation is likely that fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in serious discussions that extend beyond a small circle of close friends or immediate family. My student is absolutely correct that talk too often leads to trouble in our hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive environment. I sometimes feel the same way when I receive flaming ripostes regarding my blog commentaries. Principled disagreement based on values, judgment, knowledge, and experience has been relegated to the scrap heap of representative democracy. Now the focus is on “shutting down” those whose views are different from your own. Given the very high probability that your opinions will be misrepresented, misinterpreted, or mischaracterized, many now consider it a mistake to ever express what they think on a topic or issue of the day.

This problem harms our nation in three distinct—and important—ways.

First and foremost, open and fearless debate regarding the issues facing our nation is the very lifeblood of democracy. The moment that citizens start to shut up in order to avoid being “shut down” by angry partisans on either side, the possibilities for discussion leading to consensus are diminished. We may not always like what those who believe differently have to say, but we cheat ourselves and our nation if we do not listen to the doubters and dissenters who may see a problem or flaw that has been overlooked—or simply ignored—by those who are absolutely, positively certain there can be no legitimate viewpoint other than their own.

Moreover, there can be little doubt—particularly after the 2016 election—that silence produces suspicion. All those Trump voters flying beneath the radar resulted in the never ending—and never proven—narrative of Russian collusion that has poisoned our political discussions ever since. Although it is certainly true that the mainstream media chose to ignore the many signals that Hillary Clinton’s coronation was far from assured, it has also been well-documented that many Trump voters kept quiet in order to avoid the ire of family, friends, and co-workers—as well as the scorn of total strangers. In retrospect, more frank and open dialogue would have benefited everyone by perhaps diminishing the shock of Donald Trump’s victory and avoiding the creation of a thriving industry of conspiracy theorists who cling to a self-comforting and self-defeating saga of election fraud rather than doing the hard work of converting more voters to their causes.

Worst of all, any nation in which a few loud and angry voices are allowed to dominate is fertile ground for extremists of all stripes. The eye-rolling, smirks, and sneers that accompany so many of our debates today empower those who present the angriest denunciations of people whose only crime is to hold to a different belief or set of values. Moderation and accommodation is impossible when your opponents are considered twisted, evil, or deluded. Those who vilify others tend to attract a crowd, but that crowd—who are primed for the attack—readily becomes an angry mob intent on driving diversity of opinion down into the dust.

The fragmentation and fulmination of our political sphere today is frightening. Our innate human differences have now become deep and immutable divides that reduce us all to either friend or foe, which leads to yet more insularity and ignorance that will further erode our already damaged and dysfunctional civic culture. We must do better: More listening and less insulting would be a good place to start.

Advertisements

The Blame Game

Roughly a decade ago, I found myself trying to answer a surprising question from a classroom full of my foreign students: Why do ladders in the U.S. have warnings plastered all over them informing users it is possible to fall off? They were honestly befuddled. Don’t Americans, they asked in their innocence, know that already?

I tried to explain the in-and-outs of product liability laws in our nation, but most simply shook their heads. It all just seemed very silly to them.

I am sitting next to a big yellow warning label right now on my bus ride to work: “Caution—Please Hold On While The Bus Is In Motion. Always Be Prepared For Sudden Stops.” This does not seem like unreasonable advice. I have seen passengers stumble and fall because of an unexpected lurch. One should always expect the unexpected. Our lives are full of “sudden stops”.

I spend a fair amount of my work day as a teacher doling out warnings, which I hope sound like sage professorial advice. “Don’t skip class. Don’t do your work at the last minute. Don’t trust Spellcheck. Don’t take zeros by failing to complete your assignments. Don’t just sit there if you have a question. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.

My father filled my formative years with his own singular, all-purpose parental advice: “Don’t be stupid.” This wisdom had the benefit of both pithiness and infinite expandability, and it has served me well throughout my life thus far. I have, nonetheless, still engaged in a fair amount of my very own stupidity—both accidental and deliberate—but I have tried my best to keep this to a manageable minimum.

As much as we might like to believe we can simply avoid problem situations or problem people, the sad fact of the matter is that both are unavoidable at times. In fact, one of the key—and most troublesome—issues that we continually face when it comes to developing and tweaking our social welfare policies is simply deciding to what extent individuals should be asked to bear the consequences of ignoring reasonable warnings of harm. Did your own carelessness or stupidity cause you to land right smack on your face—and should taxpayers bear the responsibility for picking you back up again?

If, for example, someone abuses drugs or alcohol, should taxpayers be asked to bear the cost of a liver transplant? If this individual persists in self-destructive behavior and causes yet more damage to their new liver, does society owe that person yet more expensive—and likely futile—medical treatments?

If someone who is receiving housing assistance is evicted for causing a nuisance or damaging their rental property, should taxpayers be responsible for finding that person or family yet another suitable shelter?

If a teenager decides to skip high school classes and so fails to learn how to read or write well enough to secure gainful employment, who should be responsible for paying for the Adult Education classes that will obviously be necessary later in life to remediate that person’s deficient academic skills?

Every life problem begs a question of personal culpability.

If we deem that a “second chance” is indeed reasonable to offer to those who find themselves in certain difficulties for which we feel they are blameless, do we also by default owe them third, fourth, and fifth chances as well if the same problems reoccur? When does compassion end and enabling begin? Is it possible that in some situations our innate human impulse to be kindhearted is actually destructive to others because we are rewarding irresponsibility and discouraging the development of independence or problem-solving skills?

I hate to write a long string of questions, but these are issues we still struggle to answer as a country, and the many debates that scorch our national dialogue at the present time often boil down to ones of how to best assist those who are unable—or perhaps unwilling—to help themselves. As these questions often hinge upon the failures of other governmental programs—perhaps public schools that failed to educate or family services that failed to keep the family together—the answers are rarely straightforward or simple. Problems caused by governmental inefficiency or neglect in the past many times turn into even worse problems today—so what should we do now? How can we right these wrongs, and how much time, money, and effort is reasonable? Yet more questions we must struggle to answer.

Some problems cannot be prevented, yet we still expect everyone to exercise good judgment and live with the consequences of the stupidity or carelessness that the average person would know to avoid. My foreign students found warning labels on ladders to be inexplicable and ridiculous—if you fall off, it is your own fault. If I stand up during my bus ride home later today, I will have no one to blame but myself if I fail to hold on to a strap and do a face plant when we round the corner.

Whether we decide that individuals should pay more heed to warnings or—as some suggest—our entire nation needs a warning label slapped on it due to its dysfunctions is one we have yet to adequately answer in many instances. Should we decide that foolish or deceitful individuals are causing society’s problems, that drives one set of solutions. If, however, one assumes that a discriminatory and cruel society is the root cause of the problems suffered by individuals, that pushes the discussion in a wholly different direction and alters the equation of blame and personal responsibility that drives the assessment of proposed solutions. Each possibility requires careful thought and sober evaluation when assessing individual or societal problems. Neither can, sad to say, be proven to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And perhaps this debate over blame and responsibility explains our stark political divide better than any other metric we can use. Our problems may not be urban vs. rural, college educated vs. those who are not, or even Democrat vs. Republican. It could instead be the case that we cannot agree whether the individual or society as a whole are to blame for many of the problems that afflict our families and communities, so it is impossible to find the common ground necessary to formulate solutions that seem fair and compassionate to all.

Of course, as any effective physician, judge, or legislator knows, some measure of “tough love” is sometimes necessary in order to effect the best—but not, of course, perfect—outcomes for both individuals and our society as a whole. To lack the will or the spine to make hard decisions when they are needed will only lead to more problems for all later on, and to simply dole out favor where none is warranted is the worst of all possible solutions to the many problems facing us today because yet more problems are almost certain to spring from our “kindness”.

However, we are all ultimately to blame if we cannot cooperatively work to help those in need of help in a manner that balances personality responsibility and at least a smidgen of magnanimity—while also recognizing there is never a “perfect” solution to any of the perfectly awful problems afflicting our nation and its people.

Sex and The Not-So-Single President

Another in a long line of Presidential sex scandals is upon us. The unsurprising news that many women are willing to sleep with rich and powerful men—and rich and powerful men are willing to let them do so even if one or both parties are married—still somehow manages to shock journalists, who apparently are all themselves paragons of rectitude. Of course, what truly turbocharges today’s Trump scandals is that they both provide a cudgel for the mass media outlets that loathe him and crash headlong into a moment in our cultural history when issues of sexual consent are paramount in the minds of many. The distance from Harvey Weinstein masturbating into a potted plant in front of an actress to President Kennedy giving the actress Angie Dickinson what she later described as “the best 20 seconds of my life” is perhaps not so vast as we would like to believe.

There are two facets to the accusations of impropriety now swirling around President Trump. The first is that he seems to have broken his marriage vows—more than once. The second is that he had his lovers sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for large cash payments that were arranged through third parties, which sets all sorts of alarm bells ringing when the #MeToo movement is now highlighting the many women who have been compelled to remain silent in the past about sexual abuse and assault.

All of this, of course, is taking place against a background of President Trump’s documented boorishness regarding women. The infamous “grab them by the pussy” comments on the Access Hollywood recording and accusations of unwelcome advances elsewhere have been widely reported, but it seems all the extramarital sexual encounters that have so far come to light are entirely consensual.

We do not know—nor do I believe it is our business to know—the details of Donald and Melania Trump’s marriage. Whether they have a private understanding that permits liaisons outside of their marriage or Mr. Trump is simply making the same mistake that so many men make—believing that marriage and dating are entirely compatible—I do not know. Although I understand it is all but impossible for public figures to keep any aspect of their lives private in our tell-all and scandal-driven media landscape, I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the privacy of married life should be respected.

However, now that the much-hyped expectations for actual evidence of Russian collusion during the 2016 election seem increasingly elusive, we can expect that President Trump’s personal and political enemies will be wielding women who claim to have slept with him like an enchanted sword they hope to use to slay the Donald Dragon. Adultery is not an impeachable offense, but it is embarrassing and uncomfortable. Democrats obviously hope keeping it continually and loudly in the news will erode the support that put Mr. Trump into the White House and further stoke the hatreds of his detractors—thus driving them to the ballot box come November. Reality will, of course, take a backseat to hyperbolic and salacious speculation from those with an axe to grind, and the media will be only too glad to spread the seediest and silliest theories far and wide with terrier-like tenacity and great glee.

How much of a teachable moment this will turn out to be remains to be seen. Unlike Thomas Jefferson having sex with a slave whom he owned or Bill Clinton using his charisma and power to hit on a baby-faced intern, President Trump seems to have confined his pre-Presidential affections to adult women who were experienced enough to know just what to expect from a philandering billionaire in search of some recreational nookie. As much as the media would like to paint these women as fair flowers defiled by a cad, porn stars and Playboy Bunnies seem the least likely of candidates for the fainting couch if approached by a man with lust in his heart.

None of this, sadly, is of any consequence to those political opponents who want to drive a duly-elected President from office because he is intent on shrinking the role of government, deporting illegal immigrants, reducing regulations, and cutting taxes—all of which are existential threats to their own policy ambitions. One should never shun a debate concerning the merits and cost-effectiveness of differing approaches to our nation’s problems, but the relentless spew of raw anger flung at those who want to change the direction of our country is unseemly and unhelpful. Government by insult, for which President Trump is equally guilty, makes it extraordinarily difficult to create the coalitions necessary to govern effectively, and relying on partisan judges and lawyers rather than elected legislators to form and implement policies will quickly erode the legitimacy of government as a whole.

If the end game here is to run the same playbook used to disable the Clinton presidency, endless innuendo capped by an obstruction of justice charge born of an understandable presidential reluctance to be forthcoming about every nasty detail of an extramarital affair, the true intent of Special Counsel Mueller and his supporters will be blindingly obvious. If this does turn out to be the case, we can expect our already insane partisan divisions to glow white hot, and Washington and the mass media that counts upon it for sustenance will spend many months (or perhaps years) screeching like monkeys and ignoring the needs of everyone outside of the Beltway Bubble while they jockey for political advantage—and the money sure to follow.

There is so much that we need to do and so many conversations we need to have. It makes no sense at all to waste our energies on this, but I have a sick, sinking feeling that improving our nation will take a backseat to breathless gossip for quite some time to come. It’s really too bad.

Me Hate You

Another day, another mass shooting. Another day, another sexual abuse scandal. Another day, another corruption scandal. Another day, another random outrage.

As much as we try to avert our eyes and focus on feel-good stories and videos of adorably cavorting puppies, it is sometimes difficult to avoid the frightening suspicion that a great many facets of our society are breaking down and raining catastrophe upon our heads. As we grope for answers to our problems, the cacophony of competing solutions is enough to make one’s head spin, and most boil down to either exponentially expanding our personal freedoms or rashly restricting them. Therefore, during any given week we will be excoriated for being either intolerant or too tolerant—and those who hold contrary views will present their disagreements in the most derisive and wounding terms possible.

Just this past week we were treated to multiple loud fights. A morning television host compared the religious beliefs of Vice President Pence to a mental illness. Another school mass shooting—this time in Florida—prompted some to liken gun control opponents to child murderers. We were asked to simultaneously celebrate the athletic achievements an Olympic athlete and condemn him for a documented instance of sexual harassment. These and so many other angry and injurious debates are the non-stop, jack-hammering background noise of our daily lives.

The frothing rage generated by President Trump’s proposal to reform the federal food assistance program, still generally referred to by many as “food stamps”, is a useful example of all that ails us today. The program is currently rife with bureaucratic red tape, exceedingly expensive to operate, and does not even meet the basic requirement of ensuring that those who need assistance are receiving the help that they actually need. Today the single largest category of “food” purchased with food stamps is soft drinks. Racing right behind are candies, cookies, chips, and other junk food.

It seems, therefore, completely reasonable to propose providing boxes of nutritious, domestically grown, shelf stable food—real food—to those who cannot provide for themselves or their families. After all, no one is going to be able to live a healthful and happy life on a diet of Pepsi and Doritos, which are food purchase choices supported by the current program. Although some would argue that the poor should have the same opportunity to cram their faces full of empty calories as do the affluent, this seems a perverse twisting of our idea of freedom in order to put hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of grocers and junk food manufacturers that are profiting from a system that actually causes great physical harm to those whom it was meant to help.

However, those who believe that the current program is too tolerant—providing the minimum nutrition at the maximum cost—find themselves hotly criticized by those who feel that insisting food assistance provide actual food is an intolerant restriction of a seemingly fundamental American freedom, the right to eat junk food. That we even find ourselves at loggerheads over common sense reforms meant to both reduce costs and improve nutritional outcomes is a sign of just how destructively—some might say self-destructively—partisan and toxic our political processes have become.

To provide high quality food to the needy seems a no-brainer, but it apparently is not. When reality itself is captive to one political or moral viewpoint or another, there seems little hope for solving many more pressing problems. Moreover, the inevitable result of spinning every bit of information to suit one agenda or another is the echo chamber of insults that we now occupy. It seems there are no longer two legitimate sides to any issue. Today it is that I’m 100% correct and you’re an idiot—who is ugly as well.

These corrosive—and fundamentally intolerant—interactions between those who hold differing views should be a red flag that we are careening toward a final breakdown of our democratic processes. If the word most commonly associated with government over a long period of time by the vast majority of Americans is “failure”, which poll after poll shows to be the case, that is a clear sign that our faith in the system has dissipated to a point that goes beyond worry—panic might be a more apt descriptor.

The collapse of our political and social discourse is not a “canary in a coal mine”. That canary fell of its perch quite a number of years ago and is stiff and cold on the ground. We are no longer disagreeing; everyone is in full attack mode 24/7 and prepared to do whatever is necessary to destroy those with the temerity to hold fast to values or ideas that differ from their own.

The core questions are really no longer ones regarding tolerance or intolerance for others or their ideas. Many of us simply need to look in the mirror and ask what is wrong with ourselves. Why are we so comfortable with denigrating those whose values, experiences, and judgments are different from our own? This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves if we are guilty of attacking when we might be more helpful by listening.

This problem has been growing worse for decades, and there is plenty of blame to spread around across the political spectrum. Those who are old enough to remember the Clinton presidency might recall the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster in 1993, a man who was widely considered an honest and decent person—perhaps too honest and decent for Washington. A line from his torn-up suicide note perhaps provided a terribly accurately foreshadowing of where we are today: “Here ruining people is considered sport.”

When we reach this point personally and politically, there is no place to go but further down into the muck and slime of personal attacks and sleazy innuendos masquerading as policy debates. We have many huge, difficult, and complex challenges ahead of us as a nation—none of which will be solved by continuing to throw mud balls at one another.

I am not optimistic, but I try my best to remain so. Perhaps our very human tendency to seek hope where there seems none will be what finally saves us from ourselves. Maybe.

In the meantime, enjoy your Pepsi and Doritos . . .

Let Our People Tweet!

In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.

The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?

Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.

As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.

However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.

Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.

The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.

We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.

The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.

No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.