There is a fair amount of polarization in our society today. Immigration seems to be this week’s hot button. Gun laws, restricting and freeing both are frequently a topic of debate. LGBTQ challenges are in the news. There always seem to be two camps and the camps like to throw barbs at one another with seemingly deeply entrenched beliefs on the issue of the moment. And the issues seem to keep coming, round and round.
Or do they?
I don’t know if there has ever been a time when journalism was without some sort of slant but in some ways it feels like reports used to be less biased. On the other hand, it can also be said that these days we have a lot more diversity in who is reporting. Forty years ago the three network news anchors, and there were only three then – ABC, CBS and NBC, were white males. (I must admit, I still miss Walter Cronkhite). Now? Hundreds of news channels, television, radio, blogs and so on, with a ton of diversity.
This would seemingly be a good thing. Diversity of thought is an excellent way to learn and make informed decisions and choices. Except we don’t. We don’t actually have thought diversity and so the decisions we make and the choices we follow are probably less informed than forty years ago.
Why is this? Three reasons, two related to the internet and one related to our need to be right about something. Or our need to be right about everything.
The great thing about the internet is that information is readily available. The bad thing about the internet is that BAD information is just as readily available. There was a time when there was an expectation that information and opinions being reported were at least in some ways factually accurate. Now? Not so much. Everybody and their dog can pretty much say whatever they want (in posting this, I’m one of the dogs). Okay, fine. Say what you want. The problem is that someone will see what has been said and link to it or cite it as accurate information. And then it snowballs into who knows what.
The second problem compounds the first problem. All the big information providers tailor what you see based on what you look at. The little ones probably do, too. Google, Yahoo, Facebook and so on filter the content you see based on what you want to see. I remember Yahoo advertising how well they did that. You could ‘train’ the home page so you could see all the things that interest you and skip over the rest. There is currently ongoing annoyance with many Facebookers over their newsfeed defaulting back to ‘Top Stories’ (Facebooks euphemism for what it thinks you want to see) and ‘Most Recent’. I must admit, I’m quite fascinated at the technology that allows for this but also a bit frightened and somewhat dismayed by it.
Can anyone see the danger here? What we see is being determined by a software algorithm helping us to see what we want to see.
Add to this our need to be right, which leads to what people like me who spend time in Bible study call prooftexting. Prooftexting is what happens when you take a snippet of information out of context. Another more contemporary name for it might be ‘sound bite’. We take a small piece of information out of the greater context it was found in and present it as a solitary fact. We quote someone with one sentence that on its own misconstrues what the speaker intended.
This brings us full circle to seeing information that is less than diverse and frequently based on dubious research and little to no validity because a computer has decided that is what we want to see. We see what we want to see and what we already believe. When this is widespread we go down the rabbit hole into polarization.
Everyone I know decries the polarization and how our country is being strangled by the ‘other side’. Polarization is rampant, this is certain, but there is a solution. If you want to be part of the solution, be informed. Look for diversity of thought. Seek other opinions in spite of what Google, Yahoo and Facebook ‘present’ to you. Seek understanding rather than being right. Read articles you disagree with. Have conversations (not arguments or diatribes) with people on the ‘other side’. Be willing to listen.
Uncomfortable? Yes. Difficult? Yes. Occasionally painful? Yes. Do it anyway. That is, do it if you want to be part of the solution instead of compounding the problem.