Diversity And Its Discontents

One of the main insights of Sigmund Freud’s classic of modern psychology, Civilization and its Discontents, is that a major tension—and source of dissatisfaction—with our modern world is that the will of the individual must be restricted by communal norms in order to create a harmonious society. Therefore, we are trained from infancy to obey authority, restrain our impulses, and look out for others before we attend to our own needs.

This process, which sounds rather dark and unnatural when described by Freud, sounds suspiciously like the normal development of maturity and empathy as we proceed from child to adult, but we know many have now decided that the key to their personal happiness is to not give a hoot about what others think or need. It could, in fact, be persuasively argued that the signal feature of life in much of the developed world today is that many people have decided that to do and say whatever you want is the key to happiness. Communal norms have likely never been so weak and ineffectual, and many laws are, in fact, now written with the express intent of denying any effort to reassert past controls over behavior or attitudes.

However, communal control is still exercised, although in a distorted and unfortunate manner, through the ruthless and regular public attacks on those whose viewpoints or ideas suggest a distinction between that which is right and that which is wrong. Given our prevailing cultural milieu and desire for absolute individuality, to make a judgement of any kind for any reason is, by definition, to be hateful and intolerant—so you must be punished by the herd.

It, of course, makes perfect sense that increasingly diverse nations would admonish—or actually sanction—those who express disapproval of others. One of the reasons that President Trump grates on the nerves of many is that his persona and pronouncements are a clear and unmistakable repudiation of decades of efforts to promote tolerance—and he is, for many, a gigantic trigger warning with a tan. However, the often cruel cudgel of virtue signaling that flies right behind the imperative to be “tolerant” also has a tendency to cause reasonable conversations to spiral down into accusatory personal attacks that are poisonous to discussion and inquiry. Logic and evidence are no longer necessary in the marketplace of “ideas” in our world today. A clever and nasty put down is now considered all that is necessary to “win” an argument.

A misguided attempt to promote social harmony and cultural understanding by adopting an ever more censorious attitude toward individual disagreements and innocent misunderstandings has resulted in a world where every thoughtcrime is a felony. If someone displays a swastika in their living room and builds their life around quotes from Mein Kampf, it is entirely reasonable to question their actions and motives. However, if someone prefers to marry someone who shares their own religious background or avoids certain ethnic foods because they don’t like the taste, it is wrong to accuse that individual of harboring hateful attitudes before immediately launching into an attack. If we insist on punishing people for their natural diversity of opinions or values, we are creating a world where unending anger is the norm.

It is, of course, preferable that individuals be comfortable with a range of people, experiences, and ideas. However, we cannot condemn others simply because they prefer that which is familiar to that which is not. A great many wonderful Americans are still hanging around with the same friends they have had since elementary school, populating their Spotify with the same songs they have been listening to forever, and craving the same casseroles that Grandma cooks for Thanksgiving each year. To insist that those who revel in routine and regularity are racists is more than a little overboard, but it is not unfair to ask everyone to try their best to be open to new ideas, experiences, and people and resist the urge to automatically reject that—and those—which are unfamiliar.

Education, which until World War II was seen primarily as a mechanism for transmitting core academic skills along with a hefty dollop of cultural norms on the side, has been seen—especially since the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960’s—as the mechanism through which progressive educators could create citizens of the world and promote understanding. I still remember the elaborate presentation on the African nation of Zambia I did for my fifth grade classmates and the day we sampled the “cheeses of the world” in my seventh grade Social Studies classroom. Our multicultural experiences were, of course, greatly limited and designed for a much more innocent and parochial era. Today’s technology has opened up a range of possibilities that were simply unavailable in the slide rule and rotary dial telephone days of my youth, and students can now enjoy a range of culturally immersive experiences that can broaden both their perspectives and understanding.

Consequently, our political, educational, entertainment, and business worlds have never been so welcoming to the full richness of humanity. So why are so many convinced that bigotry of all types still runs rampant in America today—and violent and virulent speech is the necessary cure for those hatreds they see all around?

It could be the case that the unyielding dogma of “tolerance” and the messy reality of diversity might be a more combustible combination than we tend to realize, particularly when the 21st century disease of self-interest and self-absorption—turbocharged by the inherent narcissism of much social media usage—is added to the equation. If one believes that happiness depends upon acting with as little restraint as possible—“Hey, don’t oppress me!”—and we can now instantly lash out to either our circle of friends (or a worldwide audience) when we feel our experiences or opinions are not granted sufficient deference or respect, the end result is going to be a lot of outrage driving yet more outrage in return. If one is determined to create a world that respects diversity, it could be the case that we all must learn to be comfortable with the inevitable outcome: a diverse society that will have to accommodate a diverse—and sometimes judgmental—range of opinions.

Humans have always—and will always—disagree about every aspect of life. We cannot long survive if we insist that ideas that differ from our own must be attacked, suppressed, or outlawed altogether. Were Sigmund Freud alive to update Civilization and its Discontents for the Age of the Internet, I wonder what he would identify as our main source of discontent and where he might see civilization going in the years ahead. Can any civilization long survive if our passions are powered by the most powerful technology ever made available, and we are ready to use that power to defeat the “enemies” so many now seem to see all around them? This is an uncomfortable question for an uncomfortable age, and we are still groping toward personal and communal mechanisms for balancing our desires to express with our urges to attack.

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Our Celebrity Culture Does Great Harm

Two recent incidentsthe Jussie Smollett street attackand the D.C. confrontation involving high school students from Covington, KYwere disturbing in and of themselves.  In the case of Mr. Smollett, it now appears that he contrived an elaborate racist/homophobic attack on himself and filed a fake police report, but we will have to wait for the final adjudication of his case.  In the case of the Kentucky high school students, a racist narrative regarding the incident that was later proved to be false was spread by news organizations and millions of social media posts, and this resulted in these adolescents, their school, and their families being targeted for frightening abuse by total strangers. The New York Minute from first notice to outrage (prior to a thorough investigation in each of these cases)certainly points to the necessity for restraint and reflection before going nuclear regarding what you read or hear.  It typically takes only a few days to sort out the facts, and reasonable people can be expected to wait before reactingor at least control their reflex to viciously attack at first sight.

However, each of these situations also highlights the role that celebrities and our celebrity-driven culture now play in creating a rush to judgment and inflaming public discourse.  To wait is to left behind by the howling pack, and celebritiessome of who are nominally journalists or politicianscan ill afford to fall behind in the mad dash to amass more clicks and views.

Never in human history have so many pursued fame with such unmitigated lustand never have our standards been so crushingly low.  Notorietynot actual accomplishmentis what matters in America today.  If this fame can somehow be amplified by the suggestion of the grotesque, the hint of the salacious, or a soupçon of victimization, you have hit the Trifecta of 21st century click bait.  As a result, it is likely that more Americans know the name of Lorena Bobbittwho sliced off the penis of her abusive husbandthan Dr. Jonas Salk, who created one of the first vaccines against polio.  So many of usparticularly the young, the impressionable, and the troublednow feed an unhealthful hunger for the bizarre through social media and newsthat titillates the senses rather than informs the mind.  Like a cat frantically chasing the elusive light from a laser pointer, we race to fill some void in our own psyches by trafficking in raw and disturbing emotion rather than careful analysis.

I suspect the secret fantasy of many who are addicted to social media is to be famous themselves because their daily lives lack the drama they desperately crave.  Perhaps the rewards of honesty, sobriety, and responsibility seem meager compared to the bright, shiny lives of celebrities who apparently race from party to party while dressed in the most fashionable clothes and surrounded by the most beautiful people.  If our souls are empty, it could be the case that that which has a shiny surface can be mistaken for that which sustains us spiritually.  A society that lacks faith in itself or its future is especially susceptible to the lure of living for only the moment without regard for the long term consequences for either ourselves or others.

Celebrity culture is, after all, about nothing other than the here and now.  Planning and introspection are both unnecessary and, quite frankly, a huge and unwanted annoyance when the focus is entirely upon yourself at this very moment.  The sheer wonderfulness of being you is all that matters, and in order to keep the spotlight focused and bright, celebrities of all stripes must continue to engage in increasingly wild and potentially self-destructive behavior.  Because so many other celebrities (and potential celebrities) are now vying for the publics limited attention span, sheer shock value is sometimes needed to cut through the clutterwhich only further degrades our already dismal standards of speech and behavior.

Therefore, moderation in both words and actions are quickly discarded by those seeking fame.  Because celebrities by definition need publicity and attention in order to remain celebrities, they are many times the worst offenders when it comes to posting nasty and snarky comments and rushing to pass judgment before all the facts are available.  Sadly, we also see many political leaders moving in this direction in order to keep their names in front of voters.  It often seems to be the case that political commentary in America today follows a drearily predictable formula: Insults + Innuendo = Eyeballs.

Mean-spirited comments from actors, singers, and wannabes are obviously unhelpful; however, when those who hold or aspire to elective office go on the attack to garner attention, they call the basic fairness of our governmental processes into question and further corrode our already shaky faith in our political leaders, which is currently bumping along at historic lows if polling data is to be believed.  We should be able to expect more from a Senator or President than we do from someone who once acted in a sitcom or had a hit song.  Although it may be true that, as the saying goes, there is no bad publicityon an individual level, our nation suffers terrible harm when a politician decides to be a clever little quote machine.  Those who want to lead our nation should be able to demonstrate more restraint than an eleven year old.

This being said, it must be pointed out that sane and fact-basedcommentary posted on social media platforms often provides a forum for discussions that avoid the politicized myopia that has become so prevalent in the mainstream media today.  Given that we cannot expect MSNBC or Fox News to soon escape from the ideological straitjackets that stifle open and honest discussions of the many pressing issues facing our nation, thoughtful debate and discussion often falls to citizen bloggers who do not need to worry overly much about the disapproval of their peers or the annoyance of advertisers.  This unique opportunity for those who live outside the hyper-partisan media bubble to inject some sanity into our national debates, which is possible only because of the internet and social media, offers the clearest possible proof that the problem is not the existence of social media itselfwe simply need to learn how to use it to inform rather than inflame.

Will the downward spiral of celebrity slams ever end?  Although I would like to believe that maturity inevitably triumphs over immaturity, too many have now learned to define themselves by the insults they automatically heap upon others.  It could just be that lawsuitsand the massive financial awards that can followwill be the awful chemotherapy that finally cures the vile cancer of hate that infects our online discourse and daily media commentary.  Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky high school student most prominently featured in the recent online and media persecution concerning completely fake charges of racist behavior earlier this year, has filed a $250 million libel lawsuit against The Washington Post over their unsupported and insulting coverageand other lawsuits are soon to follow.  

Will Mr. Sandmann prevail in court?  This is obviously yet to be determined, but it might be the case that fear of grievous financial harmrather than a return of basic human decencywill be what finally tempers our outraged and outrageous urges to shock, snark, and smear rather than simply converse when the next topic of national debate presents itself for our evaluation and reaction.  I am certain this will be a terrible disappointment for the many who now heighten their celebritystatus by denigrating others, but it could be the best possible outcome for both our nation and our people.

When it comes to any of the issues and problems facing our nation today, creating a meme must not be more important that discussing a sensible solution.

Bombs Away?

The recent spate of mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats was abhorrent. Sadly, those who are angry—and likely isolated and delusional—can terrorize us in a variety of ways, but attempting to murder others with anonymous bombs is particularly cowardly and awful.

Thankfully, law enforcement has already identified and arrested a suspect, and one can only applaud the incredible work of the FBI and others who worked so skillfully and quickly to apprehend him. We are lucky indeed that no injuries resulted from these explosive devices, and continued investigation will discover whether others were involved with these criminal actions.

Now let us take a step back, count to ten, and watch the actions of a dangerous and disaffected looney become immediately tangential to the political blame game that will blaze through the media between now and the midterm elections—and likely far beyond.

This is the sad and divided nation that we live in today. Rather than simply be grateful that an obviously crazy individual was captured and no one was hurt, we are going to have to portion out the blame for a crazed bomber to one party or politician based upon our own blame-filled political beliefs. How fortunate we are that the period between now and the midterm elections can be packed with some extra bitterness and bile beyond that which already is poisoning our national dialogue.

For the record, it is my belief that trying to find a logical reason to explain the actions of those who are clearly mentally unstable is itself just a bit crazy. Keep in mind that President Reagan was nearly killed in 1981 by a cuckoo who believed that political assassination was the ideal way to impress a famous actress—these oddballs aren’t renowned for their logical and linear thinking. The history of political violence throughout our world’s history is basically a parade of lonely losers who were deluded enough to believe that killing a leader would somehow redeem their miserable and empty lives.

It would certainly be for the best if all our pundits and politicians could refrain from riling up their viewers and supporters in their eternal quest for ratings and votes, but this will never happen. Conflict is, perversely enough, a winning strategy; to pretend otherwise would be both foolish and naive.

Moreover, because we quite naturally revel in hearing that the viewpoints and actions of others prove our own moral and intellectual superiority, our increasingly partisan news and information systems have ready and credulous audiences. More and more hearing and reading no thoughts other than those that match our own, daily tailoring what we hear and read to match our preconceived notions about the “reality” of the world around us and those who inhabit it, creates an intellectual echo chamber that only further narrows our already narrow minds and hardens our hardened hearts.

The word bombs that destroy our tattered unity will only become worse if we do not take action. Therefore, I suggest that we consider reviving an updated version of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy that we heedlessly and needlessly discarded in 1987 which required news and information programs to present contrasting viewpoints regarding the issues of the day. This policy was not a perfect solution—and discussions about implementing any similar policy will crash into today’s enormously complex and interconnected digital world—but it did provide for some welcome and necessary measure of balance regarding the presentation of news and opinion.

Our nation and its citizens are poorly served by the hyper-partisanship of our media today. The very existence of, for example, a super conservative Fox News and an abundantly liberal MSNBC—both sneering at the sheer stupidity of the other side—contributes little to creating the bipartisan consensus that is necessary to govern a country as diverse as our own. Each monocular and insular side of our national dialogue is equally culpable for creating the anger and divisions within what is perhaps now ironically called The United States of America. We are anything but united at the present time, and it will be a long and difficult road back from the chasm where we now stand—suspiciously staring at one another.

For any improvements to occur, we will also need to surrender that which is so precious to so many: a smug and intellectually lazy sense of our own correctness. As hard as it might be, admitting we can be wrong is the necessary first step to national reconciliation and unity.

More Adventures In The Court Of Public Opinion

With the new charges of sexual assault now being belatedly hurled at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, we are sailing once more into well-charted and exceedingly choppy waters. Allegations are publicized, advocates for both parties line up to assert guilt or innocence based on both their political beliefs and “gut feelings” derived from their own life experiences, and the process quickly degenerates into name-calling and recriminations. We all know the script by now.

Neither side, in fact, has all that much interest in the truth, which is sadly sometimes elusive due to the passage of time, the unreliability of memories, or the consumption of drugs and alcohol at the time of the alleged incident. Given that definitive proof is likely lacking, the battle lines are drawn yet more sharply, the one-liners grow more caustic, and the episode becomes yet one more damaging facet of culture wars that continue to fray the fabric of our society.

It is, of course, the case that a good fight attracts a crowd. Just think back to everyone racing toward the latest punch-fest in your middle school lunchroom. Not much changes with the advent of adulthood; the fights just don’t involve actual fisticuffs. Those who are now carrying their own lifetimes of pain or a sense of injustice can now, thanks to 24/7 news coverage and social media, vicariously seek vindication—but never closure—by taking sides. Often driven by their own anger and sense of betrayal, the many voices add deafening noise—but no clarity—until the bitterness and bile on each side of the issue finally chokes off any possibility of reasonable or respectful dialogue. The accusations will instead grow wilder and more conspiratorial, and the damage to all concerned will be both deep and lasting.

A good deal of our outrage is driven by our crushing lack of faith in both our traditional social institutions and our government. Having little or no faith that justice is readily available in the public sphere, private retribution becomes the focus of our attention—and we gain whatever meager satisfaction we can from adding our own words to the toxic mix.

Moreover, given that many now identify so strongly with total strangers as an antidote to their own loneliness and social isolation, the shouts of others are an irresistible temptation for some semblance of personal engagement. We may be physically and psychologically alone, but we can gain an illusory sense of community and comradeship by sharing in the rage and frustrations of others, which is a poor substitute for personal relationships but is perhaps all that is available. We would certainly be far better off simply learning the names of our next-door neighbors or joining a softball league, but the ease of ranting through our iPhones makes the choice obvious for many.

Ironically, by seeming to make connections we facilitate the many disconnections that now afflict our nation. Angry words do not evaporate like the morning dew. They hurt actual humans, and we all know the hurt of words lingers for a very long time. The anonymity that comes with posting on social media disinhibits whatever sense of propriety regarding our interactions with others we still retain, and we are often further encouraged to savagely attack by reading the clever ripostes of others. The results are words that we would typically not say straight to the faces of our worst enemies—but which we are perfectly content to inflict on total strangers through the keypads on our handheld devices.

Perhaps we need to revisit our libel laws in order to create some consequence for those who rejoice in inflicting wounds and the online media that enable their fact-deficient—or entirely baseless—attacks. Perhaps we need to require that all online comments feature the name, address, and workplace of the senders in order to create some accountability for engaging in egregious personal insults because of differences of opinion or judgment. Perhaps we simply need to remember that our own anger or pain does not excuse defiling the ideas or reputations of others.

It has been announced that both Judge Kavanaugh and his accuser, Professor Ford, plan to publicly testify regarding the details of their high school encounter. This will solve nothing, harm many, and satisfy few—but you will be able to watch it all on CNN and immediately post your comments online.

Please carefully consider the content of what you write.

Divided We Fall

The late United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” This perfectly reasonable bit of wisdom seems lost upon our perfectly unreasonable age. Those with opposing beliefs see no event the same, so we are now defined by our disagreements and revel in the different and—as far as we are concerned—superior nature of both our own opinions and the sometimes questionable facts that inform them.

My worry is not only about our degree of political atomization, which is now so abundantly visible that it has almost descended to cliché. I also worry about the regional divides that have been building for many years—and which were starkly revealed on Election Night in 2016. Today’s Democratic coalition is mostly located on the coasts, college towns, and urban areas—elsewhere it is largely a sea of red.

This harsh reality explains a good deal of the unreality of the expert predictions leading up to Donald Trump’s thoroughly unexpected election victory. Pundits always live in big cities filled with like-minded Democrats on the east and west coasts—a scant 4% of voters in Washington, D.C., for example, cast their votes for Trump—so they were stunned down to their socks by the outcome. Call it the revenge of “flyover country” if you will, but the slack-jawed and occasionally tearful shock of the talking heads on network television spoke clearly and loudly on Election Night. We are, unfortunately, two nations living in two entirely separate worlds.

These divisions are exacerbated by media coverage that demonizes and denigrates those who hold opposing opinions. I am rather exhausted from reading articles that entirely skip reasoned analysis and instead focus on how someone has (these are, by the way, just from a quick browse of today’s online articles) “attacked, burned, scorched, destroyed, clapped back at, called out, or fired back at” another human being because they are a “kook, crook, dupe, hater, fascist, criminal, Nazi, fool, or idiot.” No wonder so many people now shudder when they see the front pages. Hurtful and harmful invective is now so thoroughly woven into our daily conversations that it is remarkable when we encounter grace and consideration, which is as about as sad an observation about the state of our nation as I can possibly imagine.

Inflammatory headlines and copy, sad to say, attract viewers and readers, so there is a built-in economic incentive that benefits media that are routinely rude, insulting, and unfair. In addition, the political interests of the most extreme are well-served by dehumanizing their opponents in order to attract equally outraged donors and followers. The unfortunate synergy that consequently arises between hungry media and angry partisans reinforces the worst in each, and those who adopt more moderate positions can expect to be ruthlessly and endlessly attacked by those at both fringes of the political spectrum—which serves only to squeeze the moderation right out of them.

My concerns have been increased by hearing accounts of people ditching social media because they simply cannot stand the levels of venom and vindictiveness that so many routinely display in their posts. The net result is to leave the dialogue to those who have the least interest in actual dialogue. What we see today is that famous couplet from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming, in real life: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

We are lost if thoughtful and fair-minded Americans, who are those most likely to forge and support the consensus solutions our nation needs to survive, retreat from our public forums. The grim solitary comfort to be found in growling at our glowing televisions pales in comparison to taking part in a national conversation that involves listening intently, speaking respectfully, and caring intensely. As much as we may sometimes be discouraged by the wild anger of others, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven to the political sidelines by those who care for little beside the sound of their own brittle voices. A chorus is most robust when everyone sings their parts together, and we should not be afraid to raise our own voices to create America’s song.

For those who frown upon such foolishness, please forgive my little flight of poetry. It is an outcome of my fears regarding the foreboding path ahead if we do not—I hope—find it within ourselves to remember that we are all Americans.