What is Wrong With How We Talk About Issues?
Some time ago I was reading an article online about a shooting that took place just outside of my Alma Mater. This incident was particularly troubling to me because I still had friends there at the time. No one I knew was injured in the event but unfortunately three people were killed during the shooting including a police officer, a civilian, and the gunman. Four others were also injured in the attack. Once I finished the article I started looking through the comments section.
There were some condolences, prayers, and heartfelt messages of sadness over the event. There was some discussion over gun control and whether or not it needed to be more strict. However, overwhelmingly the comments consisted of name calling, political mudslinging, defamatory comments, and other rhetoric. One commentator wrote, “Obama is the Dr. Kevorkian of job creation”. Someone else wrote “Perhaps he [referring to the gunman] was mad that Mitt Romney didn't choose him”. At the time, the 2012 presidential election was underway and Mitt Romney had just selected Paul Ryan as a running mate. These comments were both fairly tame compared to other comments belittling different groups of people by linking opinions and views to sexuality, mental capacities, ethnicity, and whatever else could get a rise. The article was about a shooting where people were hurt and killed but this was what the dialogue was reduced to. I got angry and wanted to write a comment of my own from my cyber soap box but I didn't. I was mad and nothing I would write then would be intelligent and realistically it would not be of much of value. Maybe one or two people would have "liked" what I said. I think about that article a lot and the countless others where the dialogue in the comments devolves so quickly.
At first, I boiled it down to the internet. Now more than ever, anyone with access to internet can reach a tremendous network of people with very little effort applied. Because we can say whatever we want with such ease and in many cases anonymity, we forget that while it is a right it is also a privilege. Words have power. They uplift, they tear down, they unite, and ignite. While they can still wield the same power, they had cheapened with our keystrokes is what I felt.
However, to blame the internet was not particularly fair either. To be frank, it has allowed for us to obtain a tremendous amount of information and opened up isolated pockets of the globe and in some cases started revolutions and given voice to the once voiceless. Plus, to be honest, I have heard countless politicians and news syndicates and pundits sling mud and attack others on opposing sides trying to prove that they are right and their opponent is the devil incarnate. While we can speculate that things have gotten worse with the 112th and 113th Congress, political mudslinging and divisiveness is not particularly new. However, that does not mean it is beneficial either.
When we take a problem and move it from a discussion to an argument we move from dialogue and collaboration and the collective "we" to an attack and defense or us versus them approach. This can be explained by the Karpman Drama Triangle, which is a psychological and social model of human interaction characterized by the persecutor, victim, and rescuer. To the right is a video that explains this model. At a high level, when we devolve into arguments it forces people to polarize and pick sides and move to roles where tensions can escalate and the root problems can go unsolved.
One area where inflated or caustic speech is evident is in regards to health care. Overall, we are tasked with the problem of determining the most effective means of bolstering the health of our citizens while minimizing burdens incurred by individuals and the government as a whole. I think regardless of political affiliation most people can align to that being a problem and something worth solving. Furthermore, there are ways to measure to what extent it is an issue. This can include but is not limited to the infant mortality rate, life expectancy, federal budget, average health care cost per individual, preventable fatalities of the insured/uninsured, as well as countless other metrics or indicators.
However, very rarely do I hear this talked about in these terms in the news or in cyber debates. More often it is in terms of "Obamacare" and whether one is for or against it and if they are going to repeal or uphold it. For example, the current governor of the state I live, ran on a partial platform of repealing "Obamacare", however, nowhere on his campaign page did he state what he was a proponent for instead. This is an issue for me, not because I am a supporter of the Affordable Care Act which has its flaws and merits but because I see this as missing the boat because it does not aim to solve the underlining problem. In some extremes individuals expressed their hope for its failure which entirely baffles me, because at that point you are hoping health outcomes don't improve for Americans or the costs are exorbitant to prove one is right. Conversely, when aims have been made to amend the bill by the opposition they have been expressed as an affront to health care or the poor which also further personifies the persecutor/victim mentality widening the divide.
In a broader example, we can and have taken a few ideologies, which in reality are not all that different in regards to political and religious spectrum and rather than utilize them both to reach a solution, we fall into defending one and defaming the other. We at times can fail to respect the differences while celebrating the common ground we share. In these instances to some extent our cognitive dissonance is to blame. In layman's terms, when we are a member of a particular group or party regardless of whether it is ethnic, geographical, religious, or political we at face value can begin to dismiss the views of others. It's why Chicago Cubs fans suck. Furthermore, because of our bias we look for primarily information to bolster our views. It's why conservatives prefer Fox News and liberals prefer MSNBC. Taken to an extreme, this enables us to limit our views and commit atrocities that otherwise would seem unfathomable such as slavery, internment camps, or genocide.
How we express ourselves and view issues matter. Failure to discuss issues and find a shared understanding of the underlying problems will inevitably end in lack of resolution and sustainability. Furthermore it puts the focus on defeating versus solving which is destructive as a whole.
Overall, it matters how we talk to each other about issues along with the expectations we set for those that represent us. We must make it safe to talk about issues and build a shared understanding of the opportunities and the issues so some form of consensus and resolution can be made. In the end, if we get fired up over a tree we are liable to burn down the whole forest in the process.