Lately my motivation for writing has been at a low ebb. Even posting more than occasional “Daily Reads” has been an effort. It’s not because I’m not reading anything worth sharing; it’s more that I’ve started to feel overwhelmed with how much there is to share. I use the media aggregator site Feedly to gather all my news sources in one place, and if I fail to check it before the end of the day I’ll often have more than 200 headlines tempting me to click – and I’m only gathering feeds from 14 sites (ranging from NPR to Jezebel, with some blogs thrown into the mix as well). I end up feeling exhausted by it all, even though I end up bypassing many of the articles. Often I will click on a promising headline only to find the article wasn’t worth it; or even worse, give in to the temptation to click on something that is more titillating than thought-provoking (Jezebel does this to me all the time – although the site posts many worthwhile and thoughtful articles, they are also awash in cute animal videos and celebrity gossip). But I’ve decided that the most exhausting part of this whole exercise is cutting through the ideological mud-slinging and self-righteous preening I encounter in much of what I read.
I am so. tired. of people burying what are otherwise worthwhile arguments about important issues in a heap of hyperbole about how people who have a different point of view are worthless pieces of shit. I am sick of seeing headlines in publications like Salon that describe conservatives as “unhinged,” “foaming at the mouth,” and “lunatic.” I am so over reading descriptions of dissent as “blistering” or “harsh” or “scathing” when the opinions themselves turn out to be reasonable and well-founded critiques. Why does everything have to be described using the most over the top adjectives possible? And more importantly, why is it that having a different opinion makes a person mentally ill?
This is really the crux of my problem. When you dismiss an opponent as insane, that means that you are not engaging with the meat of their argument. Publications that trade in hyperbolic descriptions and headlines are engaging in click-bait tactics, and it is to the detriment of the carefully considered arguments and opinions that the articles themselves often contain. I realize that these publications need to make money, and page-views are critical to the bottom line… but we as readers are being done a disservice. Moreover, the arguments and opinions themselves are also being ill-served. Believe me, I have my visceral reactions to some of the points of view of people with whom I strenuously disagree; Ann Coulter, for example, makes my blood boil (and not incidentally, she is a good example of a person who cynically leverages hyperbolic and vitriolic attacks into a scheme to separate a certain segment of the population from their money). But in the end, trading in ad hominem attacks and ridiculously over the top exaggerations does no service to reasonable and intelligent debate.
This is a paradox I have long pondered: the person whose views you find so objectionable finds your views to be equally objectionable. A person who is opposed to gay marriage feels just as strongly about the rightness of their take on this issue as I feel right about my view that marriage should be available to all. This does not make the person who disagrees with me unhinged. People who embrace conservative views genuinely believe that their approach is what is best for the country (and the world), just like I genuinely believe that progressive principles are what is best. How are we ever supposed to have any sort of constructive conversation about our differences when we – and the media we are exposed to – label those with different views as crazy? Why do we take the easy way out by calling names and thus ignoring the substance of what a person believes? By doing that, we run the risk of overlooking sincerely held – and potentially damaging or dangerous – beliefs; that is, if we can arrogantly dismiss someone as crazy (or ignorant or stupid), then we are missing the opportunity to spell out, with rationality and reason, why we believe that person to be wrong.
When someone defends the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of Southern culture and history, rather than as a symbol of racism, how likely are you to get that person to listen to and acknowledge the deeply rooted and horrifying history of chattel slavery associated with the flag if you start the conversation by calling that person a racist? (If you have any doubt whatsoever that the Confederate battle flag was flown in the cause of defending slavery, I implore you to click that link.) When a person states that their religion prohibits them from acknowledging marriage as anything other than one man and one woman, what are the chances they’ll engage with you in a productive conversation if you tell them they are a bigot? Is an anti-vaxer suddenly going to start vaccinating his kids because you tell him that he is a bad parent who is putting others in danger? Is it possible for us to acknowledge that people can have strongly held beliefs about things that we may consider to be wrong without assuming that those people are 100%, irredeemably bad? The world is not that simple.
I want to be very clear here: I am not making an argument for excusing racism, prejudice, intolerance, irrationality, or bigotry. I am making an argument for engaging with people respectfully, even if we don’t respect the basis of the opinions they hold (although, to be sure, there are some opinions and ideologies that don’t deserve to be engaged with at all because they are so extreme, e.g. Holocaust denial or the Westboro Baptist Church. In that case, I think the best approach is to not give those people a platform). As I said above, the person you disagree with feels just as strongly about her opinion as you do about yours. Would you be willing to listen to what she has to say if she leads off by telling you that you are crazy for having your opinion? Nobody’s mind has ever been changed by insults; if anything, minds are solidified when faced with personal attacks and vitriol. Sadly, in this new media world of clicks, ads, and anonymity, I’m afraid that the attacks will win, and debate, rationality, and respect will continue to lose.