A Toxic Division

A Toxic Division

 Two things caught my eye on November, 22nd.  The first was a comment by Uber manager Scooty Braun, reacting to the public spat over Taylor Swift’s music : “We live in a time of toxic division and people thinking that social media is the appropriate place to air out on each other and not have conversations.”  The second came  in an address to the Anti Defamation League by the British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen : “Just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.” 

 

Ironically, on the same day 232 years ago in Boston,  James Madison published the tenth of The Federalist Papers  in which he addressed  the question of how to reconcile citizens whose interests were contrary  to the interests of the community as a whole. The nature of man, he suggested, makes factions inevitable— as long as people hold differing opinions, have differing amounts of wealth and own differing amount of property, they will form alliances with those similar to them and will sometimes work against the public interest and infringe upon the rights of others.  Recognizing that the country's wealthiest property owners formed a minority, Madison feared that the unpropertied classes would come together to form a majority faction that gained control of the government.  A century later Karl Marx was to express the same concern but offered a very different solution. 

 

Madison's fear, to steal a phrase from a podcast by Jonah Goldberg,  was too much pluribus and not enough unum.   His solution was a large and diverse republic, in part because it would be difficult to spread dissension over such a vast area.  The U.S. Constitution included mechanisms to slow things down, to let passions cool and to encourage reflection and deliberation by means of elected representatives.  In other words, to bring the ‘crystalized brain’ into play by deliberately and wisely examining issues from a wide variety of life experiences. 

 

Size and distance did not curtail the  passions that led to the Civil War or the resentments of the slave community in the US, to the feelings of injustice among many women or to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914,  but on the western front of the First World War the vulnerability of telegraph lines resulted in the development of wireless communications, from which emerged the radio.  The success of Adolf Hitler is explained in large part by the invention of the microphone and public broadcasting, which meant that his  voice and his message could reach into every home.   Television followed the radio although, unlike sound movies, the production  of TV sets was  halted by the Second World War; nevertheless  by the time President Eisenhower took office about one half of the homes in the United States had sets in their living room. 

 

The point is that radio, television and the movies were expected to make the world more connected, thus engendering greater understanding and awareness which would in turn  be good for democracy.  Certainly public media played a critical role in kindling public support for the Civil Rights movement in the US, in undermining support for America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and in cementing opposition to the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe after the Second World War. 

 

What has been labeled ‘the outrage culture’ can be tracked back to the 1980’s with the increased traction of  cable television and talk radio.  New levels were reached with the appearance of Friendster, Myspace and Facebook between 2002 - 4, each of which was designed to help friends connect, albeit through highly curated versions of themselves.   In 2006 Twitter’s Timeline provided an unending stream of content which unwittingly provided the  spark for contagious outbursts, most of them irate and accusatory.   Facebook followed with the News Feed, the Like button, and in response to Twitter’s Retweet button, the Share button.  The coup de grace came in 2013 with the use of algorithms to find headlines that generated the highest click-through rate. 

 

Thus was created the metric for the popularity, rather than the validity, of content.  Any post by any producer would remain at the top of the feeds as long as it generated engagement - a personal blog appeared  as credible as a story from the New York Times, a car  accident might appear as newsworthy as genocide in Rwanda, and Donald Trump is masterful at using his twitter feed to capture the news cycle.  

 

Social media, besides having become a powerful accelerant for anyone who wants to start a fire,  has the feel of too much communication and too little conversation; of too much connection and profound loneliness. And because we get angry before we think rationally, immediate gratification is no longer fast enough. 

 

Certainly there have been successes, for example the #MeToo movement, but many on-line discussions, often with anonymous strangers, have been shown to be more incensed and less civil.  Networks of partisans create world views that are more extreme, disinformation campaigns spread lies and bigotry,  and violent ideologies lure recruits to some of the most reviled ideologies of the last century - nazism and white supremacy - which have been  given a second life by young people desperate for a sense of belonging. This is the same generation, two thirds of whom have never heard of Auschwitz, which is losing faith in democracy.

 

The Age of Reason, Cohen argues, is ending.  “Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in trouble.  Autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march.”

 

Why is this important to us?  First it feels as if we are living in a perpetual state of fluidity, without the necessary  time to process relentless items in our in-boxes in the light of the accumulated and tested wisdom of humanity. The latest cat picture, scandal, political intrigue or public shaming dominates the headlines without an understanding of the longer term context to provide perspective.  Politics in the US has become particularly acrimonious, the Brexit debate and lead-up to the December 12 election in the UK was acerbic, and in the last month there seems to have been a significant increase in mass shootings to the point that there is one every day somewhere in the world, many of which no longer make the headlines. 

 

The second reason involves another synchronicity.   2006, the year of Twitter’s Timeline, was also the year in which Colony Collapse Disorder hit the headlines, and no doubt the Like and Retweet buttons account in part for the significant public interest in the plight of  honey bees.  Some responded by wanting to keep bees themselves, and those who continued through the initial romantic perceptions discovered, as with many other activities, opportunities for moments of quiet and reflection, of learning age-old skills, of connecting with something that has withstood the toils of time - in the case of honey bees, millions of years - as a counterpoise to the haste and confusion of the post-Reason era.  

 

This, perhaps, is one of the many reasons why Tom Seeley titled his 1998 book, The Wisdom of the Hive. Wisdom is difficult to define because it encompasses so much - we recognize it when we encounter it - but common factors include an understanding of what is right combined with actions based on knowledge, experience, common sense and insight. 

 

That sounds to me a whole lot like a colony of honey bees and not much like our human cyber colony.  Nor are there any obvious solutions; indeed it may be easier to help the bees than it is to recover civility in the public forum. 

 

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