“I’m right, you’re wrong: that gives me the right to denigrate you.” I’m seeing this attitude everywhere. It isn’t constructive. I’ve probably been guilty of it once or twice myself – if I have, I’m sure someone will remind me.
I’m referring predominantly to the political sphere, although I am seeing this behaviour in other areas of life. While such behaviour is not new, it is becoming increasingly normalised in society. Mainstream media has changed over the years, the advent of digital publishing has shortened the news cycle and the click bait wars are a new battle every hour. Social media has arrived giving anyone with an internet connection a voice. Citizen journalists are now a thing. When I was a child an article could take quite some time to reach the media consumers. Now? Not so much. Lack of time leads to lack of quality, whether that be construction, fact checking or context. Living in a post-truth, alternative facts world we now have fake news. Not only that, calling something out as fake news is now a seemingly acceptable defence against unfavourable news reports.
Against that backdrop I see (and if you are honest I think you see it too) an increase in vitriolic attacks. I’ve written about this before, a few years ago: it is my impression it has only gotten worse since then. I am NOT going to reprint specific examples here because I don’t want to give greater exposure to op-eds, tweets, Facebook posts or articles that I feel are far from constructive, even if they illustrate my point. Spend five minutes on Twitter, read an on-line publication or two: it won’t take you long to find your own examples. Be fair – check your own “side” as well as the opponents.
But of course, it is only THEM, the other side, that do it, isn’t it? No, sorry, it isn’t – it is all sides. Not all people, but enough on all fronts, in this battle for the souls of the voters.
If I took everything I read literally, then ALL our politicians are liars and corrupt, the people are ALL either poor leaners, defrauding Centrelink or rich thieves possibly paying no tax, racist and sexist to boot. Some of these descriptions apply to some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. We are not all bad people!
If we are to get along, to improve society, save the environment, and to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots we have to accept the “other side” actually believes in their perspective. Or at least some of them do. I’ll admit I have difficulty swallowing the not infrequent “change of heart” statements that occur from time-to-time: I wonder what was the quid pro quo for that change of belief, or was it a genuine learning? Not all learning is correct, of course.
In my professional life at the moment I am working with two distinct groups of people, both with a very different focus in our work environment. We have to implement a solution that encompasses the operational and reporting needs of both groups. Part of my job has been to convince each side to ACCEPT the requirements of the other side as important. I don’t ask that they embrace the requirements of the “others” as their own, just accept those requirements are necessary and valid. From there we can actually have a conversation.
When I look at our political scene I see no understanding, no acceptance that maybe the other side has a valid requirement, argument or justification. What I see is “I’m right, you’re wrong: that gives me the right to denigrate you.” I’ll admit, there are times when I read something and the less altruistic part of me says to myself, “You know, Mr/Ms X, you kinda deserve that”. But I know it won’t solve anything. Some of those memes, articles, tweets are pretty damn vicious. I’ve also read some pretty stupid stuff – one example did the social media rounds yesterday. There is little doubt some will say I am writing pretty stupid stuff.
Why do we do this to “the other side” (bearing in mind we have several “sides” at the moment, some of which seem to be fracturing). We know most of us in our day-to-day life react negatively to being verbally abused. If I was in a hardware store and asked a question and the response implied I was “a bloody stupid idiot” would I be likely to spend my money there? Nope. If you came to me with an Excel question and my response was “What, are you kidding me, you really don’t know that?” in a derogatory tone, my guess is you’d find someone more sympathetic to your plight to assist you. I’ve helped a doctor with her printer – doesn’t mean my doctor is stupid or that I am brilliant: we simply have different professions. Just as we all have different political affiliations – or some of us have none and swing to our hearts content.
Our politicians are all to some extent driven by short term objectives, it is the nature of our political system. They get elected, they have a job for four years – after that who knows? We, the voters, want a long term focus by our government, but we rarely get it. If we had a more bipartisan approach to more issues we might all be better off. To achieve that we need to listen, to understand and to accept the points of view of others. Ensure all are heard. This is not achieved by screaming insults across the lower house floor or political followers hurling vitriolic insults in the media (whether that be on Twitter or in comments on mainstream media articles).
In many cases I am left wondering if the same person would use the same language used in tweets and comments (or articles) if they were standing face-to-face with their target.
The opponents believe, whatever their reasons, they are right. The truth is the people on Centrelink aren’t all defrauding the system or are all leaners, the rich aren’t all environmental vandals intent on pushing the tax burden down the food chain. Everyone wants (at least I hope so) a stable, secure future for their children and equitable opportunities. We seem to be focusing on our differences rather than our similarities. The aim seems to be to beat the other side (or sides) at any cost, even if that cost is high in the long term.
Our personal values and beliefs, many of which are formed during our upbringing, mean our individual understanding of terms such as equitable are different. The less well off want their children to be able to receive a quality education, for example, or aspire to become Prime Minister. The rich simply see that education as the norm and are likely to view becoming PM as part of their “responsibility”. I remember during my time at a private boarding school being told I didn’t belong there because Dad’s farm “wasn’t big enough”. I should have stayed in my place, on the appropriate lower rung of the social ladder as perceived by the speakers. Where did those kids learn that attitude? Yet “toffy” kids have similar insults thrown at them if they stray to the wrong side of the tracks. There is talk of late of the culture wars. It all ties into together: we are building walls. Walls of words. Words of hate. That’s before we even consider racism, sexism and religious differences.
Telling others they are stupid, don’t understand, are crooks, liars (without proof) etc is not going to encourage them to communicate. Part of the problem is the speed at which any of us can now react. Think back to the days when the only way a reader could register a comment for all to see was by writing a letter to the editor and hoping it got published. This took time. The letter author thought about the letter before writing, had somewhat cooled down by the time the letter was written, posted it (in an envelop with a stamp!), the editorial staff reviewed it, may or may not have edited it, may or may not publish it some days after the original article.
Today we can comment instantly. Yes, some sites are moderated, but the moderators then face charges of silencing free speech if they shut down inappropriate comments. It is a minefield. Any of us, right wing nut jobs, lefty loonies and PHONys, can fire off angry missives within ten seconds and as few as 140 characters. Often this is almost troll-like, although many would never consider themselves trolls (that’s everyone else, right?). Dig, stir, fuel the fire. There is safety in numbers, so those of like mind collude. This isn’t premeditated collusion, it happens on the fly, like the little bubbles of mercury joining together.
I know I have a tendency to draw together/link aspects of human life that others see as disparate. My article about possibly hating ourselves into oblivion was one such article. While I understand my perspective may be different, my objective is to encourage people to see the many threads converging. Before it is too late.
I once worked for a boss who was adamant a supplier could offer a cheaper price. I asked how, realistically, was the supplier going to achieve that given the supplier was also entitled to make a profit. The response? “That’s his problem”. No, it isn’t. Simplified, it is the problem of the whole supply chain. Supplier A pushes Supplier B (to Supplier A) for a cheaper price and so on down the line. Where, exactly does it stop? When the suppliers go out of business. I have worked for completely different bosses, that recognise our business is better served if the suppliers to our business actually stay in business. I suggest the first boss thinks only of the now and his ability to present himself well to his boss. The others take a longer term and broader view, wanting to benefit the many, not the one. I’ll leave you to work out which boss I did not respect. This is not the attitude we need in our representatives. Coal is the first boss, renewables the other bosses, if you like.
We must start to listen, to communicate in valid and meaningful conversations about the things that matter. We must elect leaders and representatives who can work together, not fight a constant blame game and drive us all to distraction in the process. They must be open to taking advice from qualified and experienced experts such as scientists. The media have a vital role to play in informing the voters and holding our representative accountable. In today’s advertising revenue driven world the media are often between a rock and a hard place – excellence takes time and skill. Time is a commodity we, well, we don’t have time for any more. Not, it seems, in the news cycle. I’ve read some articles lately that I actually have no idea what the article was trying to tell me – a visual soundbite with little substance at all.
Our representatives must also be willing, or to put it more bluntly, have the balls, to hold their colleagues accountable.
The punishment meted out to those in positions of power who transgress is not seen to be equitable, another thread that intertwines with all the others. In some cases these transgressions may quite legitimately be a case of simply forgetting a form or using the wrong card by accident (I have three cards in my wallet, two are black in colour and I’ve certainly forgotten the odd form or two in my life), in other cases there may be deliberate attempts to be dishonest. The vitriol that flies across the inter-webs is horrific, irrespective of intent, evidence, restitution or any other factors. We need to see fairness and accountability uniform in order to reduce the vitriol. If there were confidence in the systems, the outcries would hopefully decrease. I do fear one day a perfectly nice person who legitimately made a mistake is likely to be driven to self-harm. Not everyone copes with being attacked relentlessly. Perhaps people who would be valuable in our government will never take the risk.
Despite what I say here, there are aspects of being nice and engaging I find extremely difficult. The best I can do is try to “do unto others as I would they should do unto me”. People ignoring science, for example. How do we engage such people to expand their knowledge and understanding? Calling them morons is probably not the way to go, although I’ll admit to often wanting to scream “How can you be so bloody stupid?”
I’m an atheist, so the sort of theocracy espoused by Mike Pence horrifies me. Again, I want to scream “How can you be so bloody stupid?” But Mike Pence clearly fervently believes what he believes – telling him he is bloody stupid will only reinforce his view of atheists as the enemy, it certainly won’t encourage him to want to allow the non-religious any meaningful place in society because he is ultimately lead to believe we have value – and rights.
Equally, I have to accept he believes, may always believe, I am an evil non-believer who will go to hell. We both have a right to exist on this planet.
Hopefully we can co-exist.