By John Zada
With the Internet and social media offering everyone an instant voice and platform, it sometimes feels as if we’ve all become standard bearers of a cause, or a medley of them. The ease with which we can publicly air our viewpoints everyday, even many times a day, has created a ruckus of opposing perspectives that is staggering in its intensity and breadth. We are exposed to many different ideas and points of view, which is a good thing. But what we fail to see in all the exciting rabble-rousing is that we’re also engendering a toxic culture of disputation that is seeping into all areas of life.
For all its often informative and sometimes humorous fits and spurts, Twitter, for example, has also become a forum for emotionality and opinion-mongering. A place where the digital free radicals of doctrine — “trolls” — ply their special form of harassment, and where any of us reacting angrily or cynically to what we deem wrong or ridiculous, can and do become members of a virtual mob. It’s reminiscent of the blood sport of the Roman coliseum, but where we the audience can also be participants — and vice versa — reveling in the thrill of the fight.
To be sure, our lust for debate in Western culture is nothing new. Linguist Deborah Tannen describes Western society, particularly North America, as an “argument culture” — one conditioned to its core by notions of dichotomy, dispute and ritualistic opposition. Even the quickest glance at our media, politics and legal systems reveals them to be hobbled by approaches that are black-and-white and deeply adversarial. Think: Super Bowl, filibusters, the lawsuit industry, and Jerry Springer.
Part of the issue is that we’ve inherited a mode of thinking deeply rooted in analysis and criticism. Indeed, the capacity for critical thinking which saved us from the magical and superstitious mind of the Middle Ages may now have become our worst enemy. This mental posture placed a heavy emphasis on either/or thinking and instilled in us an obsession with argument at the expense of cooperation and problem solving — a less automatic and thus more difficult modes of thinking. The blinders of high emotion and cult-thinking further confine us to our two-toned world.
Social media activity can deepen these ruts, sometimes elevating our pet peeves and paradigms, our concerns and cares, to compulsive fetishes. The result is a cacophonous Tower of Babel, where we air our fixations about everything under the sun: race, religion, politics, gender, identity, the environment, science, Donald Trump, conspiracy theory — anything will do. Everyone is vying to out-shout and out-clever the other. And if you get a million “likes” in the process, then all the better.
Irrespective of what else may define our current epoch, we are without doubt living in what we might describe as an “Age of Polarity.”