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Wednesday
Dec072016

The Cacophonous Society

Today we live amidst a cacophony of opinions, many of them expressed with strident conviction, often containing damning accusations against those who hold opposite opinions. Led perhaps by the tone of views expressed through  internet social media, name-calling has become the method of conversing with those with whom we disagree. Because the sources of information that are at everyone’s fingertips via their computers, Smart Phones and TV sets are so varied and, for the last decade or so, highly opinionated and biased in what they present, even when it is presented as “news,” people have the opportunity to listen selectively to only what they want to hear. As a consequence, we live in a nation of silos—the current term being used is “bubbles”— which restricts the information each of us hears to those sources most likely to agree with our preconceptions.

The upshot of living in these echo chambers of opinion is that many people have the impression that all other “decent” people share the same values and the same opinions. When other ideas intrude from the outside, as during our recent election, when it was impossible not to hear at least some of both sides of many issues, those ideas and the people who hold them seem foreign, ill-informed, and prejudiced against the truth. The ideas of those we disagree with are seen not just as different, but also dangerous. The result is that, from the right, we hear threats of closing the airwaves, of mounting lawsuits and of even sentencing to jail or  revoking the citizenship  of those who express the “wrong” beliefs or do so in an inappropriate manner. From the left, we hear pleas to prevent speakers from speaking, particularly on college campuses, or to “shut down” the speeches of those who express views that are deemed “hateful,” or prejudiced. We are warned about the danger of  “normalizing” racist, sexist, or xenophobic attitudes by allowing those who espouse them a platform in our media or at our universities. Neither side of any debate feels that its opponent has any legitimacy in the expressing the views that it expresses.

The whole point of a democracy is that people don’t always agree with one another on very basic issues related to society and how a country should be run. In a multicultural democracy, the differences in underlying values and points of view will be even more divergent than in an environment in which all the members share the same cultural background. Western democracies, including the United States, have become more multicultural in recent years because of immigration, because of globalization of media via the internet, and because most of them had made “multiculturalism” a deliberate goal. People from different cultures were encouraged to express or even celebrate their differences, to preserve their cultural practices or to rediscover those that had been lost due to assimilation into the larger culture. Now we are seeing a counter reaction to multiculturalism, highlighted by the majorities in many Western democracies feeling threatened by the “strangers” within their midst. The majorities’  reactions have raised the fear of both the minorities and their supporters that the persecutions of the past are being reinstated with both new targets (Muslims, non-white immigrants, LGBT citizens) and old targets (Jews, Blacks, women) as their intended victims.

The fears of the present are threatening our democratic institutions, which are the sources of our freedom. These fears grow as much because of the failure of people to try to understand each other’s points of view as from the words and actions that divide them. Self-righteousness about one’s opinions has taken the place of tolerance for listening. Listening is treated as though it is tacit acceptance of another’s point of view. This is a climate in which consensus is almost impossible to achieve.

There are major problems confronting our country. These include climate change, massive income and wealth inequality, a crisis in policing, slow economic growth, terrorist attacks and an unstable Middle East and Eastern Europe, among many other problems. There is simply no way that a fractured national consciousness is capable of addressing these issues in  constructive way. Continued distancing ourselves from one another is a no-win situation. The only option is to listen to each other, to try to understand one another and to aim for some common ground upon which to build a consensus on how to meet the challenges that we face. 

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Reader Comments (2)

Honestly...I've turned it off. And for me, that is huge. I am just getting tired of it all...and am hoping that everyone else will as well. Wishing that we can get back to just moving forward. I am hoping the holidays will settle the strident unrest..or the cold weather will kick in. Either way, I welcome it.

December 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Torphy

I don't watch news much these days, but in a nation with a racially and culturally diverse population, and a history of intolerance and inequality, we have to keep alert about people being marginalized. For me personally, I try to be respectful to everyone, and stand up for others when it seems like they're being disrespected. A little goes a long way when it comes to maintaining honor in social situations.

December 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

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