The digital age has given each of us a megaphone, a claustrophobically tiny room in which to use it, and the ability to disappear into an angry puff of smoke the moment we hear anything we dislike or say something to a stranger we have no interest in vouching for.
In the 1990s, we often spoke of presidential elections in binary terms: This election, one of the early television pundits might say, is “about the economy.” Of the next, the same pundit would sagely observe that the “culture wars” were driving national voting trends. At the time, the term “political correctness” was primarily associated with culture-defining policy prescriptions of the liberal variety.
Affirmative action, gays in the military, a willingness to rewrite American history books to emphasize the fatal flaws of our forefathers: All of these were deemed “PC” positions inasmuch as they were the positions held by many liberals. For a policy to be deemed PC, however, it neither needed to be the subject of a present political debate nor, if the subject of debate, a policy on which the liberal viewpoint was generally considered “good politics.” Merely being supported by the left wing of the Democratic Party was enough for a position to be denigrated as PC.
Political correctness means something different now that television is no longer the dominant medium for mass communication. Moreover, the old conventional wisdom, which held all policy debates to occur under the sign of either “culture” or “the economy,” has been replaced by a multipolar political sphere in which we must think of economics, culture and socialization as discrete if interrelated political discourses.
For instance, it is possible today to be populist in one’s economic positions, progressive in one’s cultural ethos, and conservative — which is to say, retiring — in one’s digital socialization.
In the age of television, information exchange was unilateral, prescheduled and mass-produced for often solitary consumption. The internet, meanwhile, is endlessly customized, instantaneous and congregative.
While several generations of Americans spent years muttering at their television sets and perhaps grumbling to co-workers about the daily news in the office lunchroom, political exchanges that happen in the workplace or in the steady silence of our own living rooms are nothing like those of the 21st century.
In the digital age we hear, hour to hour, the political opinions of exponentially more fellow citizens than we ever could have imagined even as late as 1990.
Moreover, these opinions are often directed at us personally, in real time, and with the sort of manic emphasis that’s only possible when participants to a conversation aren’t face-to-face and don’t really know one another personally.
It’s rather banal to observe it, but the digital age has given each of us a megaphone, a claustrophobically tiny room in which to use it, and the ability to disappear into an angry puff of smoke the moment we hear anything we dislike or say something to a stranger we have no interest in vouching for even a moment after we’ve said it.
And the rise of round-the-clock cable news, satellite talk radio, online news outlets and social media-enabled memes ensures that not only are average Americans being daily held in virtual pens in constant violation of their (virtual) personal space, but we’re joined there by increasingly opinionated anchors, smug pundits who nevertheless seem to know little more than we do, radio personalities with no ethical accountability and, most unnerving of all, fellow Americans who seem to be using the internet in place of therapy, caffeine, friendship, hard drugs or the touch of a loved one.
In this ostensibly limitless yet — because of our addiction to it — actually claustrophobic ecosystem, all stimuli are almost unimaginably heightened in intensity.
In contemporary progressive parlance, if someone shushes us, we feel “policed”; if someone blocks or ignores us, we feel “silenced”; if someone rejects a premise that for us is foundational, we feel ourselves hated; and if someone condescends to us or harangues us or insists we should feel ashamed of ourselves, we consider ourselves to have been quite nearly assaulted.
Or else — like many of those who comprise the “alt-right” — we feel none of these things and therefore develop a smoldering contempt for those who do.
Today, what many conservatives are telling progressives online is both easy to understand and, in a certain view, empathize with: stop shouting at me, lecturing me, pretending to know how I think and why I think as I do, shaming me, policing my language, presuming my ignorance and referring with conspicuous self-righteousness to your own open-mindedness when we haven’t yet had a conversation that ended without acrimony. Above all, stop leading with your politics, particularly around strangers — something we all are to one another when we’re online.
Embody your values in real time, a certain segment of Trump voters might well say to we progressives, rather than wearing them like armor or a street corner sandwich board.
There’s more than a kernel of truth in this. We progressives must learn not to talk to strangers as though they were proxies for a race or ethnicity; not to assume bad faith; to lead with our principles rather than our policy prescriptions; to keep our volume appropriate to dealings with strangers; and, above all, not to become incredulous when our views are not instantly compelling to those with whom we have not yet developed a relationship of trust.
In short, we must re-remember what dialogue is: a lot of listening to ideas we don’t like very much, followed by a lot of nuanced feeling-out of areas of disagreement and agreement, followed by an activist’s sense of how even those on opposite sides of an issue can work together — and how old rifts can be transformed by innovative thinking.
Somewhere in all this is the humility of remembering that we’re all human and therefore terminally flawed. We may not be able to convince our conservative friends and neighbors to take this tack as well, but we can at least model a better culture for political discourse.