Public discourse rots when humility dies

in politics •  3 months ago  (edited)

It may be an age-related perception, but with each passing day I recognize the world in which I grew up less and less. And no, I’m not talking about advancements in science and technology, the liberalizing of societal attitudes (to love, sex, and family), nor am I jabbing a gnarled old finger of resentment at those darn kids these days with their so-called “music”. (Au contraire, much my favorite music is so-called.)

No, this changed and unrecognizable world I’m describing is in our collective mental environment, a world consisting of the confused sum total of our individual filter bubbles (our preferred information sources, and those Big Tech conditions us to prefer) as well as whatever meta-level filter bubble is placed over us as a whole (government- and industry-compromised news coverage, speech codes, and, in Canada at least, compelled speech).

The tangible evidence of this new paradigm can be found in the absolutist nature of so much of the discourse to be found online, as well as out there in meatspace, and can be recognized in what seems to be a growing unwillingness of some to even hear opposing viewpoints, or even allow such viewpoints to be aired publicly.

The argument I’ve seen repeatedly is that by “platforming” people or groups who engage in wrongthink, you’re engaging in “othersidism”, a concept implying that there is no conscionable “other side” worth debating on certain issues, usually in the realm of rights and equality for ______. (Fill in the blank with whichever group’s equality and rights are in question.) The problem with this line of thinking is that it presumes a binary nature to the disagreement in question, and that those who wish to have a debate about any aspect whatsoever regarding equality and rights for ______ is deemed to be simply against any equality and rights for ______, or even against ______ altogether. (To be clear, I have nothing against ______.)

This paradigm is a ‘woke’ variation on George W. Bush’s famous bit of War on Terror gaslighting, “You are either with us, or with the terrorists.” (Bush wasn’t explicitly citing ‘othersidism’, but he was certainly evoking what amounted to that concept in order to squelch even modest opposition to his ambitions for nation-building in the Middle East.)

Completely missing from accusations of “Othersidism!” is the possibility that the opposing view is more likely a modest deviation, rather than an opposite, and may in fact contain some overlap with the views of the pearl-clutcher in question. Even more to the point, the opposing view may be centered around one tiny aspect of the issue, and that otherwise the parties may be more or less on the same page, and would actually get along famously if only they could more objectively understand each other. I vaguely remember a time when politicians were good at this sort of thing, rather than the dumpster fire of partisan absolutism that now defines our political landscape.

I think the defining factor of the above malaise is an absence of humility, the one quality that seems antithetical to life in this atomized, winner-take-all culture of ours. Better to shout down your neighbor than take the time to stop and consider where they are coming from, and risk exercising humility.

(For the purpose of my own spiritual compass, I have embraced my priest’s working definition of humility, which is simply knowing your place in the community, but in a manner that cuts both ways. In other words, it means not having delusions of grandeur about yourself, but also not thinking too lowly of yourself, or being excessively self-critical. Put even more simply, you may not be above your neighbors, but you have dignity and worth nonetheless.)

And so, as part of my own objective of maintaining a sense of humility, and being on guard in those moments when humility is a struggle, I have tried to refine how I approach other people’s points of view, particularly when they clash with my own, and that is simply to open myself up to the possibility that we’re both right, and, very likely, we’re both wrong, factual or logical errors in either side’s argument notwithstanding. (This piece doesn’t concern itself those who are knowingly hateful or hurtful, but rather those who run the risk of such accusations simply for expressing an unpopular idea from those who may not be listening closely enough to know the difference.)

Allow me to expand on that idea.

Each person perceives their world from within a particular frame of reference — the sum of their lived experiences, education, the influence of family and friends, and life events. And so when two people are viewing a given issue from radically different frames of reference, there is a very good chance that they can’t agree on what the issue looks like, or even on which aspect of the issue is in question.

All too often these days, one or both parties in a disagreement (especially on social media) are too engaged in some sort of culture war, and are simply using an issue of rights and equality as a pretext for marginalizing a given group, or even imply that their very frame of reference makes them an object of contempt. Any straight, white males reading this may know what I’m talking about, whereas those who are minorities likely understand what I’m saying in ways that I myself will never fully appreciate.

How hard can it be to simply assume the best in a person for where they’ve been in life? Is it possible that their opposing (or even offending) view is correct when viewed through the lens of their frame of reference, and that likewise, the opinion you’re expressing may genuinely ring false given what they have been through?

The way I look at it, if I don’t have enough humility to consider what is behind another person’s point of view, or even how a given issue looks from where they’re standing, then I’m that arena for the sake of trolling rather than actual discussion. And if that is indeed the case, I am simply in no position to judge the factual or logical correctness of what that person is saying.

The problem these days is that drive-by social media platforms such as Twitter lend themselves to snap judgements and name-calling, and may provide a sort of high for those who simply love a good takedown in 280 characters or less. (Even when you’re trying to be objective and unassuming, simply being concise — a necessity on Twitter — can convey an unintended tone of abruptness, and cause someone else to misread your point altogether. I’ve stepped on that rake many times.)

When entitlement and “social justice” (the presumption of guilt based on group affiliation) are exhalted over humility and natural justice (the presumption of innocence, due process), then public discourse is sure to be found rotting on the vine.

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Very eloquently put and the example of Bush was apt. As the internet gives us the opportunity to connect with so much more of the world, learn about so many other ways of doing things and so many other cultures, you'd think it would offer us the opportunity to become more open minded and less judgemental, yet it seems to be splintering us all the more. It's easier to condemn anyone who doesn't think exactly as you do, especially if they're someone you don't personally know. When you know them, you are filly aware of all their views and can have a reasonable discussion about where you differ, but on social media they can become abrupt and you wonder where that person went.