I’ve had an epiphany. We are inundated these days with caustic rhetoric in the media as well as social media. Unless you completely disconnect from culture, it is hard to get away from it. It seems like almost anything we read or hear is laden with anger. Whole groups of people — liberals, conservatives, religious people, young people, old people — are lumped together as if they are monoliths.
And it doesn’t stop there. Specific individuals — the President, actors, musicians, and writers like me — are verbally assaulted as if the totality of what we are can be summed up in someone’s limited assumption about us based on a single statement, sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately, taken out of context.
Even words have become abused. “Hate” used to refer to an emotion. Now it is applied if you simply disagree with someone. Racism, by definition, means one believes a single race is superior to another. Now it is applied to anyone from one race who disagrees with someone from another.
The President has been called a white supremacist, a Russian spy, a misogynist, and in recent days someone actually said he wanted these horrific public shootings to continue. Surely no reasonable person could believe that.
It would seem that we have become more hateful, angry, and aggressive than we were in the past. But I think maybe not.
There are two sides to this issue. On the one side, perhaps we have a little less civility than we had 40 or 50 years ago. I can live with that. Times change and culture changes. I’m not one to rue the “good old days” very much. While I do miss some of the innocence of 40 or 50 years ago, it would be unrealistic to expect things to never change.
But the other side of the coin is where my epiphany lies. Years ago, to be heard by the community at large, you had to be one of the privileged few with access to a microphone or a camera. Today, everyone has a microphone and a camera.
Social media has given a platform to voice opinions to anyone who wants it. In the old days, in order for an opinion to make the grade, it had to be vetted by whatever agency was airing the story. Today, there is almost no vetting. Anyone can publish anything at any time with or without any evidence. And, sadly, without any consideration regarding the effects of that voiced opinion.
When I was a boy, my friends and relatives had the same wide range of wild thoughts and opinions as we see today. The difference was that hardly anyone knew it. Today, this same range of thoughts and opinions can be aired world-wide almost at the moment one thinks it.
I’m not slamming digital media. I’m only observing that we aren’t that much different than we have always been. But because of our digital world, we have the opportunity to hear more of it.
While I don’t really care what sandwich you had for lunch or what you think about me, the President, or whatever, I’m glad we have digital media. Thoughts and opinions are not guarded by a select group as they were many years ago. Isn’t that what the First Amendment is all about?
You don’t have to like what I say and I don’t have to like what you say. But we are both free to express our thoughts in the platform we choose. What a wonderful arrangement! The downside is that we are now responsible to monitor ourselves.
I’m so grateful to live in a time when I can write what I want. I’m grateful when readers express appreciation for my work, but even though I don’t especially like email from angry readers, I am grateful that we live in a world where readers don’t have to agree with me and they can be free to express it.
This freedom brings responsibility. I propose that we teach our children how to think through the effects of expressing thoughts in a public way.
Before I respond to readers who are angry with my books or articles, I always wait at least 24 hours. Sometimes I even have my editor look at my responses to ensure I’ve been respectful in my response.
That is how I think we can have the best of both worlds. Free speech and respect for one another.
[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D. gregmoffatt.com]