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How do we reach people on the other side?

by Greg Krehbiel on 23 October 2017

The evidence is everywhere. People are motivated — or at least outraged — by nonsense. By distortions, lies and blatant propaganda. By absurd arguments made by people who often don’t have the foggiest notion what they’re talking about.

Ignorance doesn’t seem to matter. So long as these lies get enough “likes” or retweets or shares or … however it’s said on your platform of choice, it becomes the “truth” of the day. Or the outrage of the day.

Most people who read this page have a decent idea how we got here. Viz., back when there were three TV channels and a couple newspapers vying for the same market — that is, a relatively undifferentiated market — the news had to try to play it decently straight. They had to appeal to broad interests.

As options / channels increased and demographic targeting became more precise, publishers and broadcasters went for niches. If you incline left, you listen to one station, and if you incline right, you listen to another station. Then both sides start to spiral down into their own little ideological worlds to the point that any attempt to go for the middle is doomed to failure.

You can either listen to the station / source that confirms your prejudices and pushes all your buttons just exactly the way you want them to be pushed, or you can listen to the middle-of-the-road guys who (you’ve been trained to believe) are liars, pawns of special interests, closet something-or-others, etc.

We know how we got here. The question is, how do we get out?

I have a friend who believes it’s done by a million small acts of friendship and understanding. E.g., make an effort to show that when somebody demonizes “the left,” he means this particular person over here, whom you actually care for. Or when they make a ridiculous claim about some point, call them out on it and try to bring them closer to the middle.

It’s a valiant effort, but I think it’s doomed to failure. That’s not the way revolutions happen.

Jan Hus was a better reformer than Martin Luther, but Hus was just a man who could easily be silenced. And he was. But Luther wasn’t.

The right pieces were in the right places when Luther came along. E.g., the printing press, a growing middle class, a merchant class that traveled, German national resentment against Rome (and princes who were willing to defend Luther), doubts about the papacy because of the “babylonian captivity” and the times when there were multiple claimants, the abuse of the penitential system, the buying and selling of church offices, etc.

Europe was dry straw and Luther was the match.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point tells some interesting stories about how fads and movements catch on, and we seem to see an example playing out right before our eyes with this Weinstein business. Even though he’s (allegedly) been doing his thing for years, something recent was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Somebody or something was pushed just a little too far. Or a very influential person switched sides, and suddenly it was okay to come out against Weinstein.

Such movements and fads are chaotic.

A lot of people hoped that Trump’s election would be the tipping point in partisanship. People would realize that rhetoric and partisanship and hatred (from many sides!) has gone too far, and we’d all stop and say, “Hey, what the heck is going on? How did we get here?”

It doesn’t appear to be happening. My cynical side wonders if it can.

Let’s say things “tip.” Let’s imagine that some charismatic leader comes along and convinces the influential people — the ones the rest of us generally follow — that it’s time to quit the nonsense and be serious. Quit taking things out of context to make a point. Quit impugning motives. Quit the lies! Check facts, etc.

And let’s imagine that lots and lots of people get on board with this. They check to see if something is fair or accurate before they repeat it. They listen to the other side. They genuinely try to understand before speaking.

(I know. This is getting harder and harder to imagine.)

No matter how popular a movement is, not everybody gets on board. Some miscreants will continue to inflame, to exaggerate, to hype.

Knowing what you know about human nature, which group will win? The people who are promoting moderation and caution, or the people who are grabbing pitch forks and torches?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

And that’s why I’m not very sanguine about the future. I think partisanship and division and inflammatory rhetoric is here to stay — until some greater threat comes along to bring people together.

But we’ll disagree about the threat, too.

2017-10-23  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 5

  1. Robin R.
    23 October 2017 @ 2:55 pm

    Let’s keep making further divisions until there are no “sides” left, only individuals.

  2. Dave Krehbiel Dave Krehbiel
    23 October 2017 @ 3:19 pm

    No doubt, is a big problem.

    I like Robin R.’s idea.

    I think we need more political parties. I would personally like to see a party patterned after the ideas of JFK.

  3. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    23 October 2017 @ 3:37 pm

    @Robin, your comment reminded me of something I read recently from Jonathan Haidt about the purpose of morality. He said some people see the purpose of moral rules as a means of securing the liberty and happiness of individuals, while others see moral rules as a means of solidifying group / communal bonds.

    So, for example, when we think of rules about divorce, are we only worried about the interests of the individuals involved, or are we also worried about the interests of “the marriage,” and of marriage in general?

  4. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    23 October 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    @Dave, I would also like to see more political parties, but I don’t know that much about JFK. What ideas of his would you want to see a party patterned after?

  5. Dave Krehbiel Dave Krehbiel
    23 October 2017 @ 5:09 pm

    @Greg, I am by no means an expert on JFK. But I think that if you want to split something, would take advantage of natural faultlines. I think that JFK was more conservative in economics than the current Democratic Party (e.g. proposing tax cuts). He also was not focused on entitlements or on positioning everyone as a victim, saying, “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” This seems to me to be in contrast to many current Democratic leaders.

    Many Americans have a positive view of JFK, and we have libraries of speeches and comments on lots of things. And you can’t play gotcha politics with JFK, you can ask him impossible questions, because he is dead.

    Of course, I would want to break up the Republican Party a bit as well, maybe along the lines of environmentalism, possibly channeling Teddy Roosevelt.