January 28, 2021
In a joke illuminating our divided times, a husband suspects his wife is deaf and decides to test her hearing. While she’s cooking, he stands afar and asks, “what’s for dinner, dear?” Hearing no response, he moves progressively closer, continuously questioning until he’s behind her. “What’s for dinner, dear?” he repeats, to which his wife testily replies, “for the fifth time, meatloaf!”
Often, we think others are deaf when we’re the ones with the hearing problem – a syndrome reaching pandemic proportions in our increasingly polarized culture where “I’m right, you’re wrong” thinking proliferates, catching dissidents-turned-heretics of varying persuasions in a thought-police dragnet.
Believe you’re immune to this contagion? Think Again. Humans crave social integration and approval, finding it in social media’s echo chambers where one can turn a “deaf ear” to information disconfirming their bias, and be “all ears” to whatever confirms it.
I call this phenomenon “curated tribalism,” and it’s contaminating the greatest continuing experiment in human history – the American Idea that people with differing beliefs, values and ethnicities could together forge a freer and fairer nation. As the contagion spreads, trust in civil society’s indispensable institutions – media, academia, and our justice and electoral systems – is evaporating.
So vital is free expression to a healthy, innovative and prosperous society, America’s founders implanted it in the First Amendment and our cultural DNA. Only a few centuries old, this human-rights-assuring ideal produces cultures where differences are settled in the marketplace of ideas — not by thought police.
Though not perfect, our system was designed to protect the weakest and most unorthodox voices and to challenge odious speech with better speech that clarifies and informs. Whether this system can withstand today’s cancel culture firing squads and Big Tech’s censorship onslaught remains the question.
Considering that “cancel” was the third most-used word of 2020 – behind COVID and pandemic – it’s not surprising that 62 percent of Americans self-censor to avoid reputation and career-ending consequences, according to a Cato Institute survey. That doesn’t include the ongoing multi-platform purge of undesirables from social media, further consolidating the conformity surveillance state.
If you’ve been unfairly judged and unable to speak your mind, you know the pressure of percolating frustration. To appreciate the collective powder keg that’s brewing, multiply that by tens of millions of “heretics” whose pent-up resentments have nowhere to vent.
So, if “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, conformist cancel culture is rendering us deaf and dumb.
To break through conformist thinking, let’s apply Fitzgerald’s intelligence test to our era’s most vexing conflicts, going beyond approved narratives to understand the myriad ways people are affected:
People vulnerable to COVID-19 must be protected. Shouldn’t we also protect people vulnerable to COVID lockdowns?
George Floyd’s senseless killing was unjust. Wasn’t the ensuing violence that destabilized communities and victimized innocents also unjust? Isn’t equality under the law the antidote to racism?
Despite efforts to upend the election, the Electoral College worked, and presidential power transferred peacefully. That said, Harvard’s Electoral Integrity Project reported that U.S. elections from 2012 through 2018 rated “lower than any other long-established democracies and affluent societies,” and 55 percent of Americans surveyed by Hill/HarrisX in 2020 believed the upcoming election would “be rigged.” So, shouldn’t we enact reforms to restore trust in the electoral system, and those elected by it?
The desperate, foolish and lawless Capitol Hill rioters must be prosecuted. Shouldn’t we also try to address the disenfranchisement and grievances felt by 70 percent of Americans who believe “our political system seems to only be working for insiders with money and power,” according to a 2019 NBC/WSJ poll?
Hashing out our differences in this thoughtful and civil way won’t feed the outrage beast created by the fusion of corporate media, big tech and politicians – they accumulate too much money and power by exploiting divisions – but vast majorities of Americans are not ideologues, believing in the American Idea.
During prior divisive times, we’ve had leaders who helped advance this idea by encouraging us to have “charity for all and malice for none” (Abraham Lincoln), and to “learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” (Martin Luther King Jr).
So, unplug from cable TV, the parrot-like mainstream press, and the social media memes and mobs destroying our moral consensus. Find free and heterodox thinkers to inform and inspire you. Have conversations with people who think differently, always practicing the Golden Rule while questioning, listening and searching for common ground.
Think Again – if we listen to understand rather than reply, might we become a wiser and more united country where silence is truly golden, and not deafening?