Red, Blue & You: Knowing All, Saying Nothing

We will never heal our deep wounds or solve the nation’s systemic problems until we redevelop basic empathy for one another.
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We live in a world of unlimited information. As recently as the ’90s, you could be at a happy hour with coworkers trying to remember “what was the name of the guy who played the paleontologist in Jurassic Park?” You would all be snapping your fingers as you couldn’t quite summon Sam Neill’s name. If no one figured it out, then you could go days or weeks without finding the information somewhere.

Now, those once-ubiquitous conversations are a novelty. Someone just has to pull out their phone and the answer will be on screen in seconds. The vast majority of us have access to a device in our pocket that holds the near totality of human knowledge and ever-faster means of sharing that knowledge with others. In a perfect world, shared access to information would give us all the ability to talk to each other with the same base of facts.

Instead, the opposite seems to have happened. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the political sphere. According to a Pew Research Center study, 73% of Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on basic facts, a problem which has been exacerbated by social media and the echo chambers that thrive on online platforms. Despite access to unprecedented levels of information, most of us have reduced our media diet to sources we agree with.

Social media companies are incentivized to keep this behavior going as well. Outrage drives engagement and engagement drives revenue.

While not all of the polarization in the country can be attributed to how we obtain a lot of our information, it is clear that the more insular our bubbles have gotten, the worse we have gotten at communicating with one another.

Of course, polarization didn’t begin with social media – we can look back to the rise of talk radio and partisan cable news to see where things really started to go wrong.

From 1949 to 1987, radio and television broadcasts operated under a principle known as the fairness doctrine, requiring holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and do so in a manner that fairly reflected differing viewpoints.

While the policy did have its share of problems, it made it much more difficult for people to live in bubbles of personalized information that reinforced existing biases.

The fairness doctrine may be a relic of a time long past but the ideals with which it was created should not be. Isolating ourselves from opposing viewpoints cripples our critical-thinking abilities and makes it harder to connect with people who look at the world differently. Often, the places we get our information matter more than the information itself. The effects of those decisions on our political system and our ability to relate to one another have been devastating.

More than two-fifths of Americans believe civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years. Only one in four Republican voters felt that most or almost all Democratic voters sincerely believed they were voting in the best interests of the country. Two-fifths of Democrats feel the same way about Republicans. Rather than disagree on matters of policy or preference, we have reached a point where one bloc of citizens feels the vast majority of the other bloc is making decisions based on moral failure. In other words, tens of millions of people believe tens of millions of other people are actively working to undermine this country.

We will never heal our deep wounds or solve the nation’s systemic problems until we redevelop basic empathy for one another. That starts with communication. Neither side is free from blame in how the other has been demonized and the profit-driven models of outrage bear at least as much blame. As long as there are billions of dollars to be made in making us hate each other, these trends will only get worse.

However, even if our leaders are slow to change, the power to be better is in our hands. Every week that I appear on WABE’s Political Breakfast and FOX 5 Atlanta’s The Georgia Gang, I strive to bring more civility and empathy to conversations that so often lack them. As our listeners and viewers know, I don’t always succeed – but I try, which is all any of us can do.

Feel free to tune in and let me know how I’m doing.

Categories: Opinions, Red Blue & You