A quick snapshot of political discourse in 2017:
- “Fake News”
- Far Left
- Right-Wing Extremism
It’s no surprise that political discourse is as toxic was as toxic as it was in 2017. Many blame it on one of the items listed above. Those who do wouldn’t be wrong - but they would be over-simplifying. The real culprit behind America’s divided and toxic discourse is this:
The inability to not launch into a knee-jerk jeer or cheer reaction at every single utterance labeled as “news” that gets published online, in print, or on the back of your neighbor’s 1998 honda civic.
Instead, one knee-jerk reaction triggers one thousand more. Millions of personal (and biased) diatribes flood the ether, determined to smash opposing viewpoints. It’s the Gremlins of misinformation - one ill-informed response pops out a trail of misinformed responses behind it.
The Forces Behind Ignorant Discourse
These baseless rants are the result of the cyclic division our country has been undergoing for ages. There are powerful forces driving this conversational unrest and toxicity and each contributes to the fractured state of discourse in America today. Some of the most potent are listed below.
A Radicalized Two-Party System
The extremist factions on both the left and the right have been marinating for centuries. The tips of both these wings aim to oppress the people on the opposing side. These poles are often where misinformation originates and gets passed along the lines through to the center, where it gets stamped as factual information. It’s a game of telephone with the majority of Americans getting the final, mangled message at the end of the line. Since our busy bee culture doesn’t leave much time for people to do their own research, they trust the divided powers that be and take party representatives and mouthpieces at their word. The lack of middle ground - both in political parties and in ideologies - makes rational discourse a struggle for the average person.
FUN FACT: In a psychological study where participants were offered the option to read and answer questions for entry into a raffle pool. If they chose to read about an opinion they agreed with, they had a chance at winning $7 or they could read the opposing viewpoint for a chance to win $10. Of all the participants, 63% chose to stick with the opinion they agreed with.
Blurred Lines Between News & Entertainment
As a result of the two-party telephone system above, misinformation easily makes its way to everyday Americans through every channel and medium available. Add to that the convergence of media and entertainment, and things are as confusing as ever.
It can be difficult to turn on the news or flip through a local paper without knowing for sure whether what you’re digesting is opinion or fact, OpEd or Breaking News. A limited number of voices get unique access to platforms from which they can amplify their narratives. On the other side of the coin, any unfounded opinion can go viral if the right number of people and influencers bite (and share). This dissonance makes drilling down to facts difficult. Storylines and narratives are woven across T.V., social media, radio, and print like rich tapestries, but no one has the time to untangle truth from conjecture.
Combined with the two realities above, social media propagates misinformation at lightning speed. What’s more, it feeds misinformation to younger generations, priming impressionable minds to think a certain way about our political system, political parties, the media, and America as a nation. Aided by the peer pressure behind social media, misinformation is touted as factual headline by those who don’t want to appear out-of-the-know by friends, family, and coworkers. This trickle-down tricked-out news cycle often becomes news itself as lies spread like wildfire and hashtag headlines grip the nation with bold untruths. Just ask any celebrity who’s been killed off on Twitter.
#StopThink Movement: Breathing Facts Into Media Maelstrom
Discourse without facts is as useful as a dog barking at a cat. If we don’t stop and think to consider the facts - and the opposing viewpoints - we are not doing any debate or discussion justice. We’re also not using our heads to facilitate meaningful discourse on important topics.
I don’t believe there’s one right answer to improving the state of political discourse in this country. I do know this: it's not screaming louder and it’s certainly not silence. The only way to course correct is to Stop and Think. The goal should be to contribute opinions grounded in fact. Eliminating bias is nearly impossible and, frankly, unnecessary. What we need instead is a way to sieve the information we take in until we have the granular truth. Then we need to adjust our motives from opposition-smashing to truth-promoting.
This two-part recipe can aid a more fruitful discourse within our nation. By stopping, we can cut down on emotion-driven reactions and instead focus on finding facts. By thinking, we can use the data and tools at our fingertips to gather fact-based and rational information. The result can be conversation geared towards true education rather than slander and mudslinging. When we #StopThink before responding, we have a shot at creating discourse that can make a positive difference - a change that impacts everyone.