I can’t stop thinking about a poster I saw on social media a few weeks ago, held aloft by an African American woman standing on what looks like her front lawn. It read, “Not all blacks are criminals. Not all whites are racist. Not all cops are bad. Ignorance comes in all colors.”
In a crisp 20 words, her sign crystallized something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: the decline of nuance.
We have forgotten how to hold and process opposing ideas at the same time and forge them into informed opinion we are prepared to revise as the world shifts on its axis.
America has a terrible case of the Screaming Memes. We yell past each other and bellow ill-considered thoughts into the ether, where they spread unfiltered onto our streets. To paraphrase the late, great John Prine, our heads are full of bumblebees.
This is not just about the encroaching incivility many have noted. It’s also about the conditions that feed our burgeoning inability to draw distinctions between degrees and kinds of evil.
The frustrations of lockdown don’t help. When, in the early days of the protests, a brief 1:30 p.m. curfew was imposed in my Santa Monica neighborhood, a very nice, highly intelligent Facebook friend pounced on it as the tyranny of a police state and declared their intention of flouting the order. As friends who grew up in the former Soviet Union mutter darkly when they hear this sort of thing from Americans, “If you think this is a police state, try living in one.”
I’m not sure the curfew was warranted either, but it’s a giant leap of logic to go from “bad move by the constabulary” to “police state.”
Or take the issue of police reform. Read a reputable newspaper, and you’ll find a range of arguments of what that might mean in practice. But venture online and “defund the police” is rapidly devolving into a crude meme advocating total shutdown of police departments. Type in “defend the police,” and you’ll find polar opposite views. And if you dare to suggest in either forum that there may be room for some middle ground that calls for major reforms but not disbandment, someone will denounce you as a milquetoast libtard or a Trump apologist.
Sometimes you have to shout to make yourself heard. The anger in communities of color has simmered off the boil for a long time, and it took the loud and sustained cry generated by the George Floyd killing for the rest of America to finally embrace the urgent need to repair race relations in America.
At least that’s how we react if we’re listening rather than getting mad.
So much of today’s ethos is an unproductive, shoot-from-the-hip fury that runs an ugly streak through our public discourse and deforms our capacity to learn before we speak. I mean the insta-rage that floats free across the media and the internet; that spills into the streets and corrodes us into encamped armies of dueling sloganeers. Public-health officers striving to contain the virus are rewarded with daily death threats. “Black Lives Matter!” is met with redundant cries of “All lives matter!” People claim “rights” for things as disparate as stopping police brutality and gathering in public without masks.
Slogans can channel a protest movement’s unifying power in demonstrations. Slung around the web by shouters, however, they accelerate the impetus to bully, an example set by our vile president with his Twitter finger locked on the campaign-boosting blame trigger.
And it’s not just the internet that prematurely loosens our tongues. The dumbing down of education is also to blame. Anyone who spends time around small children knows that their hunger to learn by self-discovery and experimentation is prodigious. “Do it self!” my toddler used to say, batting me away when I was overdoing the maternal guidance. But self-discovery is only part of the equation.
I’ve taught college for many years, and recently I’ve noticed a growing tendency for students to begin each written or in-class contribution with “I feel that …” Guided by a social media ethos, we are all becoming tech-savvy opinion machines who react on a dime, speak before we are informed and cultivate the attention span of gnats.
Given the chance, however, there’s nothing my students love better than a deep-dish discussion of morality in the movies we study. If it were up to me, I’d reinstate a revamped humanities curriculum — a vanishing breed in our colleges — with an emphasis on moral and social philosophy, the tools of logical reasoning and critical inquiry. And I’d encourage those who left college behind decades ago to continue educating themselves at home. In particular, we need to restore a skill that has deserted us: the ability to hold two or more contrasting or conflicting ideas at the same time until we can shape them into positions from which meaningful action can follow.
By this I don’t mean we should stick to shrugging bromides, giving up on argument or on crafting solutions because it’s all too complex. We can be so open minded that our brains fall out, from which follows an unhelpful, debate-club, both-sideism. Instead we must be equipped to hold our tongues and listen, to localize intellectual debate and sharpen our thinking so that we can achieve moral clarity — and stand ready to revise as needed.