Monday, October 5, 2009

Amster: Incivilities aside, can we all get along?

Randall, always the diplomat, says, "Spirited debate and vigorous dialogue are healthy things for any society, ...." Any sensible person must agree, but I have to add a caveat: the spirited debate must be over real issues and based in the best facts available, and the vigorous dialogue must be handled with respect and without fear. Without those conditions, you get the what we are experiencing, a food fight in a burning house.

OK, I'm gonna go off for a bit here.

However civil, dialogue does us no good if we're talking about the wrong things. The great power of Madison Avenue is making us think about things that don't matter in order to sell stuff. Advertising strategists long ago realized that this tactic works far better on people who are already insecure. It was no stretch at all to apply these principles for political purposes, and it's no surprise that they are most often employed by corporate interests, which have the most practice at it.

Two fundamental forces shape every society, and the character of a society is largely determined by the balance struck between them. The dynamic force looks outward, for instance seeking food in a previously unknown valley. The static force looks inward, protecting the old hunting grounds and relying on the knowledge that what was successful before will be again. Both are correct and useful, and neither alone is healthy. The basic expression of dynamism is curiosity. The basic expression of stasis is fear. This is why reactionaries are more easily distracted by fear-based propaganda.

Try talking to someone who's in fear, and you'll generally get the same result: you wind up talking about what scares them, not about what really matters.

I'm afraid we can't look forward to a less scary future in which reactionaries will be more comfortable and therefore more reasonable. As Alvin and Heidi Toffler so adroitly pointed out decades ago, change is inevitable and happening with increasing speed. It fundamentally frightens people, and it is causing predictable societal backlash everywhere. We see it in the spread of religious fundamentalism and rising nativism as people try to make sense of the world with ancient, blunt intellectual tools, trying to do surgery with stone axes. Most people want simple answers, even as the problems grow increasingly complex. Their answer to this tidal wave of change is to try to hold fast to the pier, when they should be thinking in terms of surfing.

What's biting reactionaries in the ass is that they're so easily manipulated with fear, and they stampede over the intellectual cliffs. What's biting progressives in the ass is disdain for fearfulness and blaming people for being who they are, when the real villains are the manipulators. We need each other to address huge challenges from change that we cannot even begin to slow down, and the stakes are existential and rising. But we wind up talking past one another over trivialities.

So how to break this impasse? Easy. Have more parties. Invite everyone.

I'm serious. People don't yell at (hate, kill, insult, deprive, conquer) each other as much when they recognize each other as members of a shared society, real people with real lives and a dish to share. Build trust and you build understanding and cooperation. It's not coincidence that public discourse has deteriorated as Americans have become increasingly isolated from one another, reducing social activities and community involvement in favor of home activities, personal demons and teevee.

So Randall, rather than farble on stating the problem, how about offering some solutions? You're a Professor of Peace Studies, fergadsake - how about using your column space to teach?