Political Hot Dog-Making and How to Move Society Towards Ethical and Civil Discourse (Part 2 of 2)

“Civility is not not saying negative or harsh things. It is not the absence of critical analysis. It is the manner in which we are sharing this territorial freedom of political discussion. If our discourse is yelled and screamed and interrupted and patronized, that’s uncivil.”

– Richard Dreyfuss

Ethical Arguments

It’s a pretty safe bet that few people would consider the current state of our political and social landscape in the U.S. as a role model for civil and ethical discourse, unless we’re using it as an illustration of what not to do. But what do we really mean when we talk about a “civil and ethical argument”, and how can we take steps to move in the direction? That will be the focus of today’s blog.

When we talk about “civility” in the context of an argument, we’re not just talking about being polite. That should be a no brainer. Instead, we strive to present our needs and beliefs without degrading the needs and beliefs of others.

I recently attended a lecture series hosted by The University of Notre Dame (my alma mater) called “Bridging the Divide“, that expanded nicely on this concept. In one of the lectures, Dr. John Duffy (Professor of English, specializing in ethics, rhetoric, literacy, and writing pedagogy) started the conversation by defining what we mean by an “argument.” He defined an argument as a set of reasons given to critique or defend a proposition that is uncertain. Professor Duffy also pointed out that interruptions, insults, personal attacks, and contradictions are NOT arguments. For an argument to be considered “ethical”, it must be grounded in principles such as truthfulness, trust, accountability, integrity, intellectual generosity, and open-mindedness. Those aren’t exactly the adjectives that come to my mind when I think of recent events in politics and the corresponding coverage in news and social media.

How did things get so bad?

I’m sure there are many reasons that have contributed to where we find ourselves today, but I’ve narrowed it down to just two big issues for this post.

Issue #1: Living in Our Customized Cocoon

Today, we have an unprecedented ability to choose the information we consume and the types of people we want to include in our life. Not so long ago, we had just a few TV channels, no internet, and no mobile phones. While we still chose our social groups, newspapers, and entertainment, we couldn’t imagine the level of customization that is available to us today.

These technology advances offer us some amazing benefits, but they also have some serious drawbacks. Today, it is easy to limit our exposure to ideas and people who bring us out of our comfort zone. When we do encounter these people, we tend to think they must be from another planet because they approach issues from such a different perspective. Of course, they feel the same way about us. Which brings us to the second major issue that is contributing to our current state of affairs.

Issue #2: The Media Trap

News media and social media are businesses that thrive on divisiveness and polarization. These businesses are competing for our attention, with the goal of generating more money through advertising. News and social media also have the ability to subtly manipulate our behavior, gradually causing us to become more comfortable with certain ideas and less comfortable with others over time. Thus, it’s no surprise that media can be a very powerful ally for politicians, businesses, and others who are seeking to shift the balance of power or market share in their favor. Pop culture adds to this by promoting TV shows, movies, and other entertainment that gets us accustomed to certain behaviors, such as seeing people yell at each other or engage in violence.

In reality, society is not nearly as divided and polarized as the press leads us to believe. When we meet people face-to-face and get to know them as human beings, we quickly learn that the vast majority of people are good, caring, smart, and compassionate. Similarly, we discover that the vast majority of people share the same set of negative traits, such as being insecure, selfish, lazy, and naïve, traits that we attempt to dial down as best we can. Finally, we uncover the fact that we share a lot of common ground on topics such as healthcare, education, national security, racism, infrastructure development, and even controversial topics such as abortion and gun laws.

However, when we look at the news, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that the fabric of our society is falling apart and we’re at the brink of civil war. When those thoughts cross our mind, it’s important to remember that the media attempts to capture more of our attention by fostering feelings of fear, anger, and divisiveness. They fan the flames by showcasing extreme activities on the fringes of both sides of the political spectrum, a place where perhaps 10-20% of our population fall. The left-leaning media outlets highlight the worst, most radical activities of the right, and the right-leaning media outlets highlight the worst and most-radical activities of the left. This is how we end up with a ridiculous perception that anyone who voted Republican is racist and anyone who voted Democrat is a Marxist / Socialist. Yes, there are radical people out there on both sides of the political spectrum, but they do not represent the ~80% of people who fall in between the fringes.

We all know that negative media sells. It sells because it plays to our strong emotions of fear, anger, and insecurity. From a financial perspective, it’s in the “best interest” of media companies to stir things up and whip everyone into a frenzy because this will grab more of our attention, which translates to higher ad revenue for the media company. Elections are a boon for media companies. It’s a primo opportunity to traffic in stories about corruption, scandal, controversy, and crisis. These types of stories attract more viewer attention and therefore more ad revenue. When we hear of the billions of dollars spent in an election, where does the majority of that money go? The Media. Ramping up on negative stories attracts more and more of our attention, which the media views as positive reinforcement that their approach is working. Never mind the collateral damage it causes in the form of society’s negative view of “people in the other political party” and the overall state of the country and the world.

However, after an election, there is a window of time where media outlets on the winning side will start featuring positive stories of how everything is miraculously getting better, now that their politician of choice won the election. Meanwhile, the media on the losing side ramp up on doom and gloom stories about the future of our country. The winning side takes the bait, and then we’re back in our death spiral of negative content that serves to further increase our feelings of fear, anger, insecurity, divisiveness, and polarization.

Social media takes all of this a step further by optimizing their suggestion engines to capture our attention. Social media companies are just like any other company that wants robust growth each year. The way to grow is to generate more ad revenue. The way to generate more ad revenue is to sell us (our attention) to their clients who want us to buy their products and services or modify our behavior in some way.

What is the Path Forward?

Fortunately, there are some strategies that each of us can take to help move our society in the direction of civil and ethical discourse.

Media Literacy: Many of us could benefit from learning more about the inner workings of media. Consider taking a course in media literacy to become more savvy about the world of fake news, media bias, deepfakes, out-of-context photos, and the perils of only reading headlines. If you want to specifically learn more about the inner workings of social media companies, I highly recommend the movie “The Social Dilemma” (Netflix). For a broader understanding of how algorithms are created and used (often with unintended consequences), check out Cathy O’Neil’s book “Weapons of Math Destruction“. I’m sure there are lot of other great resources out there. Those are just two sources that I happen to be familiar with. If you have other recommendations, feel free to send them my way as I’m always eager to learn more.

Get Out of Your Echo Chamber: It’s all too easy for each of us to comfortably settle into our customized echo chamber. Heck, it feels good to see, hear, and read things that make us feel good and intelligent. Keep in mind that there are a lot echo chambers out there with people who feel like they have the right answer, and that answer is very different from yours. Aren’t you curious to learn why others think they have the right answer? Break out of your media cocoon and diversify your news feed. Move beyond the tribal mindset of being a “Democrat” or “Republican”. Rather than accept the party line across the board, learn to think for yourself and form your own opinions. Avoid a “cancel-culture” knee-jerk response, reserving that tactic only for egregious circumstances that truly warrant it … disagreeing with your political party or views doesn’t cut it. We shouldn’t be shouting people down so their voice can’t be heard. We can’t silence people into submission. In order to make any progress, we must engage with others in open, civil, and ethical dialogue. Diversity is not just a skin color, gender, or country of origin. We need diversity of opinions and perspectives in order to help us solidify our ideas and identify the best path forward for our life and for society. Let’s seek out opportunities to establish connections and friendships with people who are different than us and hold different perspectives. We will only grow from the experience.

Get Comfortable With Uncomfortable Conversations: Building on the previous suggestion (Get Out of Your Echo Chamber), attend lectures, conferences, and other forums that that encourage a variety of different perspectives and provide you with an opportunity to practice having ethical and civil discussions with people you disagree with. For example, one organization that does a good job with this for college students is called BridgeUSA. BridgeUSA is a group found on many college campuses today (and even some high schools) that has the “radical” idea to reach out to people on all sides of the political spectrum and host lectures and small-group discussions on a broad range of topics. Each group has a facilitator to help keep things civil. It’s a great alternative to the “us vs. them” mindset commonly found in Democrat and Republican organizations and it’s a great way to help you solidify your own position on the issues. In the words of the BridgeUSA:

“Political polarization is damaging to the health of American democracy. For most in our generation, a broken democracy is the norm. Young people are forced to choose between disengaging from politics or fitting a partisan mold. Democracy is in danger if the next generation is disengaged and polarized because young people are the future of our country.  BridgeUSA empowers young people to solve problems. BridgeUSA is developing the next generation of engaged, informed, and constructive citizens. Our movement catalyzes the passion of the next generation to invest in the future of democracy. The BridgeMindset defines our work. We champion ideological diversity, promote a solution-oriented political culture, and teach constructive engagement in order to develop a generation of political leaders that value empathy and common purpose.”

On a side note, if you know of organizations similar to BridgeUSA that cater to adults for whom college is a recent or distant memory, I would be interested in hearing about them!

The Gold and Platinum Rules: When in doubt, let’s always remind ourselves that the vast majority of people in the world are genuinely good, caring, and wonderful people who are doing the best they can based on their unique set of experiences in life. Cut other people some slack. We all have our strengths and flaws. That’s part of what makes life so fun and interesting. As the Golden Rule says, “Treat others as you would like others to treat you”. Better yet, consider the Platinum Rule, “Treat others the way they would like to be treated.” Or perhaps best of all, “Love one another as I have loved you”. Yes that last one is a Bible quote (John 13:34), but placing love as the foundation of our relationships with our nearly 8 billion neighbors on this planet is a good recipe for moving us forward. If Bible quotes raise your hackles, then here’s one from the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”