It has been 27 years since Rodney King, an alcoholic drug-addicted Los Angeles cab driver, tearfully uttered those words. Rodney was a troubled soul whose beating by police officers was filmed by a bystander and precipitated the L.A. race riots which resulted in the death of 63 people, hundreds of injuries and massive property damage. The answer to Rodney’s question remains moot, for we are still not getting along very well. Perhaps we need to spend more energy on learning why this is still true.
REAL CHANGE OR WINDOW DRESSING?
It is true there has been progress in race relations, the issue of police brutality is being seriously addressed, and the “metoo” movement has garnered some traction, but we continue to expend a great deal of energy in fruitless debate which never seems to find resolution. This is especially true in our current political scene where vituperative language has become the norm, and both democrats and republicans cling so rigidly to their positions that compromise is impossible. Disagreements have become personal. Name calling and character assassinations are routine.
A PERFECT STORM
Not since the civil war has there been so much divisiveness or tribalism as is the currently fashionable term. It appears to me that there are multiple reasons why we can’t “all just get along,” one of which is the nature of our political campaigns. Somewhere along the way experts in such matters determined that so-called negative campaigns are the most effective strategy, and that has become the modus operandi for all kinds of kinds of candidates from dog-catcher to president. With the candidates continually trading insults and accusations, there is little relevance paid to issues and the undecided voter is left to decide which of the candidates is worse. Since his vote is based largely on his disdain for the character of his hero’s opponent rather than issues he is likely to retain very negative feelings towards the one whom he voted against. Such feelings may be carried forward and make it more likely that when a discussion ensues between two on opposite sides of an election civility is less likely.
NEWS. ARE YOU KIDDING?
So-called cable TV news stations have also in my opinion contributed to this giant schism in our political discourse. I use the term so called for they can hardly be called news outlets, but are dominated by political commentary to be generous or perhaps more accurately political propaganda outlets. Fox News leads the pack with the most viewership and the most conservative commentary. Their current star Sean Hannity is said to be one of Trump’s most trusted political advisors yet they have the temerity to call themselves “Fair and Balanced.” At the other end of the political spectrum is MSNBC who no longer attempt to hide their pro democratic bias. Then comes CNN which makes a pretense of being neutral, but fails miserably. They do have some conservative consultants on their staff which they bring in on occasion for their group discussions.
WHERE IS THE MIDDLE?
One thing these networks have in common is their programming which consists mostly in bringing in groups of experts (there must be a lot of experts in Washington for they never seem to run out) and have a group discussion with participants representing more extreme positions on both sides of an issue. Consequently; a viewer is likely to choose a more radical position. The days of political reporting in which both sides of an issue are elaborated upon by a single person with no skin in the game seems to be long gone. Only PBS seems to follow that old-fashioned format of simply presenting the facts and allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions.
During my career as a Psychiatrist my patients taught me much about our desire or perhaps more accurately said our need for validation. As such we are inevitably drawn to those who share our beliefs and perceptions, and therein lies the effect of today’s dueling media outlets. Those of us who harbor conservative beliefs will be drawn to Fox while the more liberally oriented will stick with MSNBC or CNN, “and never the twain shall meet”. The same phenomenon is operant with “talk radio” and with the internet which is becoming a news source for increasing numbers of people. As we continue to be immersed in one particular viewpoint and converse only with people of like mind we find ourselves rigidly attached to one particular political philosophy having convinced ourselves that we are the only custodians of truth.
LOGIC BE DAMNED
An argument can be defined as a person or group attempting to convince others that they are wrong. It is also true that political issues can have serious consequences therefore; political arguments can and often do become emotional. I recall as a child hearing the admonition that one should avoid discussions of politics or religion in polite company, and indeed these are the two subjects about which people are likely to have the most intense feelings. Since I am a peace-loving man and something of a wimp to boot I must admit that I tend to shy away from raising the issue of politics with friends whom I know to be on the opposite side of the fence. I submit that this same phenomenon exists throughout society and deters us from discussions of the issue that divide us and hopefully learn to compromise or at least respect the opinions of those with whom we disagree.
Advertisers have long proven that repetition in TV ads will sell everything from Viagra to Tylenol, so why not politicians. The Washington Post reports that $6.5 billion dollars were spent on the 2016 election much of which undoubtedly went to television ads leaving us drowning in a sea of powerful messages describing how terrible are all those candidates for office. Little wonder that elected officials now share the worst favorability ratings ever, and that disgusted citizens are so sickened they don’t even bother to vote.
BAD GUYS EVERWHERE
Among the most powerful motivators are anger and fear, and those masters of propaganda who manage elections are adapt at using them as weapons. Naturally when one votes for a person because he is persuaded that the other candidate is a threat other issues will become irrelevant adding more fuel to that fire which inhibits reasonable discussion.
Our prevaricator in chief has proven himself to be a master at eliciting those feelings and continues to describe the press as “the enemy of the people” and members of the Democratic party as “evil”. There are also the warnings about immigrants characterizing them as criminals, rapists, murderers, drug dealers and subversives. His talent for instilling such feelings is well demonstrated by the behavior of some of the attendees at his rallies. History shows us that a very effective way to unite a group of people is to find a common enemy, and his followers revel in chanting “lock her up”.
THERE REALLY IS “FAKE NEWS”
Last but certainly not least is the effect of the internet and social media which held such promise in bringing people together has now become a powerful weapon to interfere in our elections primarily by propagating conspiracy theories and lies of all kinds so numerous that it is virtually impossible to rein them in. Artificial intelligence has further sharpened these tools so that individuals can be targeted with false information tailored to their own particular biases or prejudices, and can reach millions of people in short order with very little expense. Nearly everyone except Mr.Trump agree that the Russians were very involved in such shenanigans in our last election and although we are told the effects on the election cannot be determined there is little doubt that it has contributed to much confusion and misinformation designed to enhance our divisiveness.
The other day when I began writing this I thought there were signs of at least some yearnings for a coming together to work out problems. Niki Haley in her retirement announcement appeared to break from her boss and indicate that she did not think political opponents to be enemies. There was commentary on our need to come together, but those hopes were soon dashed with the pipe bombs, and now the senseless shooting of 2 black people in Kentucky followed by the mass murder of Jews in Pittsburg.
SOME BEHAVIOR IS PREDICTABLE
With such horrors filling the headlines you might think they would provoke serious talk about bridging the now toxic divide that separates, but after expressing regrets and sympathies yesterday our fearless leader is back on track today blaming the news media for causing the tragedies. Apparently, the false flag theory which named the Democrats as the perpetrators didn’t fly so he was forced to go to his fall back strategy. Nevertheless, we once again hear talk of our need to come together in spite of our differences. Will we follow through this time? Hope springs eternal!