September 8, 2016
You know what I mean. From the presidential election down to what stupid little award our geeky niche genre decides to award itself, we cannot seem to have anything like a polite disagreement anymore. Everyone gets up in arms about everything from who’s using what bathroom, to who’s cast in what part in a movie no one wanted rebooted anyway. It’s reached the point where it’s necessary to write articles like this. WTF happened?
The obvious answer is, “the Internet happened.” So now everyone goes on-line, withdraws into their little confirmation bias bubble, consumes all the news that conforms to their worldview only to pop out of their hole to virtue-signal to their tribe, troll the enemy, and block people on Facebook.
The problem with that hypothesis is, when people actually study the issue, the whole “self-contained political bubble theory” tends to leak a little. According to a Pew Research study:
These cleavages can be overstated. The study also suggests that in America today, it is virtually impossible to live in an ideological bubble. Most Americans rely on an array of outlets – with varying audience profiles – for political news. And many consistent conservatives and liberals hear dissenting political views in their everyday lives.
Frankly, political bubbles are probably a lot more permeable nowadays than they were in the good/bad old days of three networks when a kid had to join the army or go to college to be exposed to a political point of view different from wherever they grew up. So what gives? After all, actually interacting with different folks is supposed to be a good way to promote tolerance.
I have a theory, and the Internet and confirmation bias do play a role, but not due to any bubbling.
In fact, I think the opposite is happening. In days of yore, were you to hear an alien political opinion, chances are the voice of that opinion would have been tested by prior debate, the message honed, practiced and tempered by experience. In the days before instant viral communications, a political message had to pass through many gatekeepers and face many opponents before it reached you, either on the campaign stump, via the printed word, or over a broadcast network. Ideas from the crackpots, the insane, and the stupid rarely reached beyond their own street corner, and when they did, it was after their message had been polished so shiny that people couldn’t see the crazy for the gleam.
This is no longer the case.
Everyone has a political opinion, and almost everyone feels obligated to share it. Today they all can. Nowadays, when someone wishes to rail against conservatives, their opponent isn’t a William F. Buckley Jr. or a William Safire or even their local alderman— it’s “RedneckJesus66” on some YouTube comment thread. Someone trashes liberals, they aren’t arguing with Adlai Stevenson or John Maynard Keynes— it’s “MoonshineUnicorn37” on Tumblr.
The great evil of the Internet is the unleashing of an army of actual living, breathing straw-men to feed the fires of all political debate. Everyone’s core conviction that they’re the smart ones and all their political opponents are stupid is now fueled by the fact that any idiot can now publish any screwball idea, and have it carry the same weight as the New York Times. This means that no one needs a coherent argument anymore, because there’s always some poor sod on the other side that’s published something stupider than they ever will. Nowadays on the Internet, and increasingly in real life, political discourse is always punching down. Everyone now eschews the engagement of ideas, preferring instead, the easy fight against the most idiotic comments from the opposition.
That’s why we can’t have nice things anymore.