Insert Your Outrage Here: Learning to Argue in a Digitally Fractured World

Despite my verbal diahrrea of “analysis” as I tortured myself watching the RNC Monday night, I’ve actually tried to keep this blog apolitical.  All my homies IRL know that I watch politics like a junky with a monkey.  Hell, I’ll DVR Meet the Press just so I can yell at Chuck Todd at my leisure after sunday morning Yoga class.  But this blog?  I’ve tried to stay out of the fray.  Let’s be frank: people can easily turn into self-righteous jerks when they discuss politics online, (myself included) and they also attract similar self-righteousness from those who disagree.  While maybe being politically controversial might garner a few more readers, it’s not really the vibe I’ve been looking for.

That said, it’s been really hard to keep my mouth shut with all that seems to be going on in the news.  Por ejemplo, last week I was working on a post about introducing nature in classrooms when two more police shootings went viral.  Then there was shooting of officers in Dallas and then Baton Rouge.  All of this was set in the backdrop of the most bizarre political season in my lifetime.  Suddenly, a blogpost about paddling my little kayak down a little river and those subsequent meditations seemed…well…little.

Usually, I have one of two reactions when the world of social media gets hot with rage over politics and current events.  One is to jump into the fray with both feet, posting articles I support and arguing against those I don’t, often devolving into quibbles that drag for days.  The other reaction is to completely disengage.  Take a Facebook vacation.  The last few years have seen me lean much more to the second option as a salve for my mental health.  While I still think it’s a civic duty to stay relatively informed about what is going on in the world, I’m not sure arguing on social media qualifies, and it sure as hell doesn’t help my peace of mind.

But there’s one trend I can’t ignore any longer.  I know it because every time we have a major tragedy in this country, every time a major political story breaks, I keep coming up with this observation: people respond to the events of the world in very predictable ways.  Think about it.  You know which of your friends will post the liberal spin.  You know which ones will post the conservative spin.  You know which ones will react to the emotional tragedy.  You know which ones will cry for peace.  You know which ones will say, “I don’t usually talk about this, but I’m about to speak my mind.”  And you know which ones will write long, boring blogposts acting like they’re watching it all from above, like some half-enlightened jackass who sees what others doesn’t.

But–as always I digress.  I keep seeing this pattern over and over.  I’ve had the idea for this post for a year, and it keeps coming back.  Benghazi.  The Paris Shootings.  The lack of attention on Turkey after the Paris shootings.  The entire Presidential campaign.  Black Lives Matter.  Every mass shooting in America ever.  And most recently, the police killings.  There’s always something shocking in the news, and this is not to belittle the importance of any of these events.  But what never shocks is the predictability of our online reactions.  Tragedy strikes.  Insert your outrage here.

As a result, people can come off like real assholes on the internet.  There, I said it.  The intransigence we revile in our politicians is complete child’s play next to the vituperative arguments that occur online.  In the world of the internet, we don’t have to look at people when we argue which makes us gauge reactions from others less, and in many ways technology encourages us to look at people who disagree with us as uninformed rubes worthy of scorn and contempt.  Indeed, this is not always a problem with human nature.  At times it is the nature of the internet itself.  Consider the TED talk below (one of my favorites to show my classes)  It poses that the way that many search engines and social media algorithms are created, you are more likely to get information that confirms your bias than information that contradicts it.  So, if you’ve been reading that Hillary kicks puppies every day for six weeks (or as Ben Carson just suggested, she worships Satan), you’re likely to decry an attempt to show her in a more flattering, humanitarian light as being a hoax perpetrated by the “librul media.” Or if you’ve been reading lots of “little hand” jokes about Trump, you’re less likely to believe he can handle foreign policy.

 

The result?  We end up arguing as teams.  We see winning the argument as more important the solving the problem about which we are arguing.  We increase the possibility of confirmation bias.  We become as politically divided as ever.

Never fear, fellow citizens.  I’m a professional.  This is, after all, why you’ve read this far.  Most of my days are spent teaching teenagers how to argue, and by proxy how not to argue.  Amazingly, as I pondered the weight of this problem, I realized that the tools with which I equip my students are the same tools that can help us navigate our way out of this swamp.  The list below is by no means a comprehensive tool box, but merely a starter kit to improve your online arguing experience.

 

USE QUALIFICATION

Surprisingly, this shows up on the ACT writing rubric, yet few adults know how to use this handy tool.  Qualification means you make a claim, but acknowledge the limits to it being true.  Consider the difference between the following claims:

Donald Trump is a divisive and dangerous candidate.

While Donald Trump is a divisive and dangerous candidate, many of his positions on international trade deals have merit.

The statement in bold is the qualifier.  It states that though the main thrust is a dislike of Trump, there are qualities of his agenda that are agreeable.  I borrowed this from a video posted below (it’s 23:00 minutes, but I found it both enlightening and encouraging).  In it, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, two political commentators who often butt heads, spoke in tandem after the Dallas Police shootings.  Both talked extensively of how after this period of turmoil in our nation, people of all political persuasions will need to work together to move forward.  Jones, usually liberal, talked about how he often feels cognitive dissonance over Trump: he finds him to be racist and offensive, yet Trump’s economic ideas mirror some that Jones has held his entire life, using this example to show that though we disagree on somethings, we can find common ground on others.  Qualification demands that we see the limits of our own claims and also demands that we see the validity of claims of others where they exist.

 

UNDERSTAND THE GLUT OF SOURCES

The internet has put information at our fingertips that our parents’ generation could never have imagined.  But as Eli Pariser claimed above, the internet often conforms to fit our own personal biases.  Often times, we must remember that for every article we read that fits the narrative we hold about the world, there is one that will spin it the exact opposite way.  Sadly, it becomes our responsibility to wade through the bullshit of the political class to actually find the truth.  Perhaps that has always been the case.

Consider the following video, which came out before the RNC started.  In it CNN anchor Don Lemon interviews Millwaukee Sheriff David Clarke.  In the span of a few hours, I saw friends re-post interview, either saying that Clarke owned Lemon or Lemon owned Clarke…as if who “won” this argument–as opposed to the recent deaths and how to prevent them in the future–was really the issue at hand.

My interpretation was that this is one of the most awkward interviews I have ever watched for nothing more than the fact that the two men are talking about the same thing, but are not talking to each other.  Clarke doesn’t listen to Lemon’s question.  Lemon gets defensive.  In the end, little is discussed, and various sources side up with their team to spin the interview.

It’s really easy to get stuck only on the sources we click frequently, to rely only on the interpretations we read regularly.  But we have to remember that there are other interpretations out there, and that some voices are more credible, more reasoned than others.  Some are factual.  Some are informed opinion.  Some are straight up propaganda.  Clicking and reposting or re-tweeting the first thing that catches our eye is not being an informed citizen.

EMOTIONAL CONTENT

When I teach logical fallacy in class, the one that students struggle with is “Appeal to Emotion.”

“What’s wrong with emotion?” they ask.

“Nothing,” I reply, “Unless emotion is all you have to go on.”

Emotion in politics is so powerful.  Logic may convince you of the right and wrong, but emotion gets you butt off the couch to do something.  Unless you’re on social media.  Then it just makes you stay on the couch in perpetual indignant rage.

Consider the video below.   Marcus Luttrell is the retired Navy SEAL veteran who authored the book Lone Survivor on which a subsequent Hollywood film was based.

 

By most accounts, Luttrell’s speech was the highlight of the night, which could be as much of a condemnation of everyone else’s lackluster and plagiaristic performances.  But placing veterans on the Rostrum is a shrewd political move.  Audiences respect their military service, which brings a certain gravitas to their words; patriotism, after all, is a powerful in-group emotional response.  Moreover, Luttrell ( in a part before this clip) damned the teleprompter and went off script, which provided some great “plain folks” appeal.

Granted, this is a political convention speech, so it’s main purpose is to emotionally rally the base and motivate the uncommitted to vote.  But so much of politics and the news is emotionally driven.  It’s the basis of click bait.  It’s the reason Bush the Elder used Willie Horton.  Unemotional people don’t get to the polls, but they also don’t hastily re-post things on the internet.  Why is the dictum “If it bleeds, it leads” so popular in news? Because death and blood shocks, horrifies, provokes empathy and sorrow, all of which makes us stay tuned through the next commercial break.

I would suggest that we should always be aware of our emotional reaction to the news, and how our emotions are being targeted.  My biggest critique of the Luttrell speech is his line that “the world is a dark place.”  Are there scary places in the world?  Of course.  But there are also warm-hearted, welcoming people as well.  The fear is an effective, time-honored political tool.  “The world is a scary place, and only candidate/policy X can make it safer.”  Fear, anger, and disgust have been identified as the primary emotional reactions that precede moral reasoning.  Trigger any one of these buttons and our brain begins to rationalize moral condemnation on its object.

Being aware of our emotional state is perhaps even more important when we recognize that we suppress our own emotions to fit the beliefs we’ve professed.  In the week that was…the week that had highly publicized killings of African American men followed by the killings of police officers, I struggle when I see my fellow humans find ways to rationalize the death of any of these.  In a cosmic sense, we all die some time and death is inevitable.  But people will minimize their empathetic reaction toward death based on the framework of their political belief.  We need to be conscious of how we are manipulated through emotions by politics, but we also need to be conscious of times when our politics limits our ability to experience emotions, when we see people as an “other” so much, that we forget to remember their humanity.

The problem with not understanding our emotions in our political beliefs is that they allow us to be susceptible to the worst fabrications of our political class, they allow us to continue to believe ideas that may have been proven untrue or no longer useful…just because we are defending our own personal political dogma.  When someone challenges us politically, we should engage them with the desire to learn, not out of anger.

Bertrand Russell once said

“If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do…So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on you guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.”

Indeed.  What does our outrage solve?  We often think of argument as something that inherently divides us.  Undertaken in the spirit of learning and empathy for our fellow humans–and done skillfully and honestly–it can be something that can help bring us together.

 

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