As an individual it can be hard to see ourselves as an agent of change. So often when we look at the world around us, we see it as something much greater than our personal lives, as something immutable and in some ways inaccessible. However, we are not, in any way, separate from the culture that we are immersed in or the nation and community that we reside in.
Conscious existence is an act of co-creation between the individual, their counterparts, and their environment. We try our best to shape our lives in the ways that we would like, but we tend to have our best intentions curbed by our worst habits.
Initially, this project spawned as a reaction to the sound-byte news culture that has come to dominate the 21st century. It seemed that every single article and talk-show from the vast majority of media barely scratched the surface of the problems that they claimed to cover so thoroughly in their “journalism.” From CNN to ABC to NBC to Fox News (Faux News) to CBS to NPR, the more I diversified the media that I consumed the more I realized that it was just more of the same with a different perspective or a different spin on reality.
For most media organizations, it’s just about the clicks, the advertisement revenue, the traffic, the stocks, and the stockholders. Their 24/7 news cycles fill the air with hollow rhetoric and irrelevant stories in the name of “journalism.” However, more often than not, this constant news cycle does more harm than good. It necessitates immediate reactions in order to satisfy an ever-hungry audience with a continually shrinking attention span.
In part, it became apparent that the “divide” between the so-called Left and the so-called Right of the United States political spectrum was actually a much smaller rift than most average people believe. Most Americans have a very narrow conception of political philosophy, or philosophy in general for that matter. The ideas or platforms that many people in the US tend to call “Liberal” or even “Radical” would be considered “Moderate” in various other countries across the planet.
To try to narrow this issue, or any other, down to one specific cause or origin, is typically folly. History, life, politics, these are not cut and dry topics with easy solutions or quick fixes or simple stories most of the time. If the study of history teaches us anything, it is that the human spirit has endured enormous amounts of suffering at the hands of itself.
Thankfully, the general trend of our historical record is progressive. That is an indisputable fact. However, the nature and degree of that progression has not been equal across every subset of people around the world. We see this in our distinction between the so-called “First World countries” and the so-called “Third World countries.” We see this in socioeconomic disparities between different nations and even between different classes of citizens within individual nations. We see this even more starkly when we look at income inequality, especially in the United States.
According to the Pew Research Center, “Economic inequality, whether measured through the gaps in income or wealth between richer and poorer households, continues to widen.”
Even the story of the conception of these phrases, “First World” and “Third World,” shows us exactly what our political spectrum is truly divided on and why. Some might even argue that the political separation of the Right and the Left in the US is merely illusory or optical. At their foundation they value the same things, power and wealth.
Peoples across the Earth may have different religions, rituals, customs, traditions, values, social norms, diets, delicacies, entertainment, art, and so on. However, all of these differences are just ranges of expression on the human spectrum. We are all just people trying to live our best lives in the ways that bring us the most comfort with the least amount of effort. The vast majority of people are so much more alike than they are different, but this reality seems to be lost on everyone recently, most especially Americans who are victims to the echo chambers of their social media bubbles.
This phenomenon of willful ignorance in the age of information is almost baffling. However, it makes perfect sense when we think about the psychological double-edged sword of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. Political hypocrisy is reinforced by our worst characteristics as human beings.
This route of being and staying ignorant is the easier one, and most people will opt for the easier path when compared to the hard one. Real education, true growth, can only happen when you are (1) challenged by new ideas and data and (2) when you alter your worldviews based on those new ideas and data. One of the most difficult parts of this entire process is trying to get someone to understand that they are wrong, or at the very least, thinking wrongly about a particular topic. The hardest part, is being equally critical of our own pre-conceived notions.
According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2017, nearly two-thirds (63%) of Americans said that the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress. So, when we hear narratives of apathy, or of those who do not vote, it is not because those people are not worried about our shared nation.
In the press release that was published along with the survey it was revealed that: “More than half of Americans (59 percent) said they consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember — a figure spanning every generation, including those who lived through World War II and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.”
If that was the case in 2017, what are we to make of public opinion and the future of our nation in October of 2020?
Bruce Bartlett, an American historian and author who served as a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and as a Treasury official under George H. W. Bush, published a paper in 2015 that described how Fox News undermines a strong Republican Party and spreads misinformation.
In that publication, Bartlett noted, “Studies show that Fox viewers have a distinct set of political attitudes and voting patterns that are as much anti-liberal as they are conservative. Indeed, they have a different perception of political reality than those of all other television news viewers.”
He went on to say, “Fox is part of a conservative universe in which many conservatives now live, getting all of their information from conservatives sources – Fox News, talk radio, conservative publications and web sites. This is often called a “bubble” or “echo chamber” that reinforces marginally held views until they become doctrinaire and imposes false views on those exposed to no other viewpoint. In effect, conservatives engage in self-brainwashing, where certain ideas are repeated so often and with no contrary or alternative point of view that it fulfills the classic definition of brainwashing.”
In a 2015 article, Leonard Pitts Jr. adeptly critiqued both Fox News and our general numbness to their propaganda. “It’s amazing, the things you can get used to, that can come to seem normal.” This adage is exceptionally haunting, as it is a theme that we have seen in dystopian tales time and time again, from George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. When insanity or inverted morality becomes so prevalent that it is the new normal, then being a well-adjusted member to such a sick society is nothing to be proud of.
Although we could and should tackle a number of the things that seem normal to U.S. citizens that should enrage them to their core, it is important for now that we focus on journalism, and in this particular case, Fox News.
Mr. Pitts went on to clarify: “In America, it has come to seem normal that a major news organization functions as the propaganda arm of an extremist political ideology, that it spews a constant stream of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, paranoia and manufactured outrage, and that it does so with brazen disregard for what is factual, what is right, what is fair, what is balanced — virtues that are supposed to be the sine qua non of anything calling itself a newsroom.”
This scathing criticism of Fox News (which should rightly be dubbed “Faux News”) gets to the core of the problem in the United States: our realities are socially constructed and the narratives that they spin are artificial in order to create reactions in us that slowly shift our behavior to favor their interests. They being the owners and operators of the capital that shapes our lives.
Despite the fact that we are all humans co-creating our existence with intertwined lives, so many are actively trying to dehumanize each other because they falsely think that their beliefs are so vastly different and incompatible. At least, this is the narrative on the surface. That right vs. left, red vs. blue, us vs. them, tribalism that we get spoon-fed on a daily basis.
However, the fact is that any two average people on Earth have very similar drives, desires, and goals. We all want to have a place that we can call home, a community in which we can feel accepted, the peace and safety of a civil society, clean water and food, a good life for our family and a better future for our children.
The behavior of critical thinking and self-reflection is actively discouraged by mainstream media and most of our so-called leaders, on both sides of the political spectrum (though admittedly it is more discouraged by one side than the other, but that is the nature of duality). Instead, it has been instilled into people that if someone doesn’t agree with you, then they must be wrong and anything else they say must be discounted or discredited. Not only is this worldview ludicrous, it is absolutely antithetical to a free and open society.
Perhaps that’s the goal after all for the powers that be. Though it seems much more likely that, rather than have a specified plan for a New World Order, the powerful of our society merely need to distract the public to bicker among themselves in order to maintain their hegemony. The mob is good at picking itself apart.
That is not to say that the bigots who have recently found a safe space in the contemporary political atmosphere of the United States hold valid beliefs, they don’t. This is merely a reminder that attacking these people’s egos will only reinforce their ignorant beliefs and cause them to double-down on their already circular logic.
The sunk cost fallacy can also help us to understand why people might be so unwilling to alter their views, even if the new information they encounter is entirely accurate and valid. If novel information and evidence counters the narrative that they have already bought into emotionally and intellectually, it is unlikely to change their views. Rather than try to convince these people that they are wrong, try just giving them the evidence and facts in the most neutral and non-aggressive way possible.
The progressive side of history has always bore the burden of proof and civility. However, let this be an equal warning that we cannot slip into the Paradox of Tolerance in which we allow Neo-Nazis, racists, and fascists any sort of platform of power to spew their abhorrent hate.
We have to take care to separate the people who lead these sorts of political movements from those who ignorantly follow. The demagogues prey on the prejudices of their constituents to gain and hold their power, rather than rely on sound policy positions.
There is no such thing as reasoning with a demagogue. They know exactly what they are doing and it is not a strategy that they will give up or evolve away from. They can be shut down with reason, science, and compassion more often than not.
It is their supporters that need to be sought out. Those are real people, with similar lives to you and me, who simply want to see themselves and their families do well. Unfortunately, they took the bait of a political fisherman who preys on people to gain power. This doesn’t make them bad people. It just means they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
In part, it is a problem of education, but also one of empathy. It is not easy to navigate the way forward when there seems to be so many moving obstacles in our path. Though I cannot help but have hope.