We Americans love to hold up the constitutional right to free speech with a sense of righteous piety. “Look at us,” we say. “We are so awesome because we can criticize our own government and not go to prison. Yea us!” And then on Facebook or cable news, we are quick to vilify anyone whose viewpoints vary from our own. As in, “you are evil because you believe X. I will use any means at my disposal to undermine, ridicule and belittle you and your offspring to the end of time.” It’s become a national pass-time to watch “the correct” network/website/political party rant about the demons on the other side.
Our media today, social or otherwise, has become our town square. We hastily evaluate the whole of a person’s value within tiny little squares of time, text and sound bits. And it seems that our politicians who move into positions of power do so because they manage to craft tiny squares of themselves that the masses can glom onto and “like.” On the flip side is the launch of tiny vitriolic squares out into the virtual universe to attack the “other guy” for his soundbitten, evil opposing views.
One of the best things I learned in law school was the importance of understanding perspectives other than your own. We were trained to be zealous advocates, and the basis for an effective negotiation or litigation strategy was to understand the views and motivations of the other interested parties. As Sun Tsu in the Art of War said: “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” But how can we know our enemy (or the guy whose viewpoint is so clearly “wrong”) if we are not open to discussing more than what we can hashtag? For that matter, how can we establish a sound belief system of our own if we aren’t willing to research and test our position, in part by bumping it up against those who disagree?
“Coffeegate” was just the latest example of our devolution toward low effort discourse. Why, when the greater looming issues of global health crises, peace and war, hunger and plenty deserve our thoughtful attention, was so much energy placed on the President’s really dumb move. Because some who disagree with his politics have labeled him an evil, bad person. Therefore anything that he does to reinforce that persona will be tweeted and posted, ranted and raved, for all the world to focus on just how horrible he must be. “Look, Look! He disrespected everything our country stands for just now. He is SO EVIL. Let’s rerun that clip another hundred times and express our shock and outrage a few more thousand times.” Ugh. How did we get here?
Let’s talk about policies by using more than 160 characters or a 15 second clip, and let’s not make sweeping designations of good and evil based on whether someone agrees with us or not.
There is evil in this world, and there are evil people. But just because someone takes the con to your pro, or the pro to your con, does not, necessarily, make that person evil.