It’s interesting to note the increased focus and attention that effective language skills has generated over recent years, all while actual use of effective language continues to decline. It seems, anecdotally at least, that the general public is less able than ever to effectively and appropriately communicate their thoughts, fears, desires, emotions or frustrations, even though having access to greater online resources, services and training options with which to improve. We are now witness to a constant procession of bewildering and unacceptable transactions between people within families, social groups, workplaces, communities and between nation states. Consider the awful recent exchanges between employees and customers at places like Bunnings in Victoria, Australia in relation to the wearing of protective masks.
In the meantime, the environment within which the abovementioned thoughts, fears, desires, emotions and frustrations incubate is being infected by disharmony-generating social and cultural pressures, now weaponised to the degree that they quash any positive work done by trainers, therapists or thought leaders. Disharmony is Trumping (pardon the pun) harmony. We seem to have collectively agreed that it is now acceptable to include within our communication toolkit behaviour such as sarcasm, aggression, abuse, threats, insults and violence. I personally cannot recall when that particular notion was put to the vote.
It would take a tome to adequately discuss each of the factors influencing our ability to share meaningful discourse, but it does seem pertinent to mention one huge social-influencer … social media. So, at risk of losing nuance, I will try to briefly put my thoughts into sequence:
1. When you have a society that is constantly swamped by information, society is going to look for ways to cut through to the crux of that information so it doesn't drown in it. The sheer volume is just too much to take in. But, simply looking only for the essence is akin to asking a comedian for “just the premise and the punch-line please” and encourages an adherence to, or preference for, sound-bytes and bumper stickers. For example, there are internet sites that now offer expurgated versions of books, so you uncover the core message of the book without having to spend time reading it. The potential result is a community that habituated to rejecting deep, drawn-out thought, nuance and subtlety, in favour of limited black and white thinking.
2. Removing nuance and subtlety makes the “truth” appear much more clear and obvious than it actually is.
3. Shallow, black and white thinking polarizes people into groups (tribes) and causes an “Us v Them” mentality. “I’m here with these people and we know this is the truth. You can stay over there with those people thinking those wrong thoughts.”
4. Groups then bestow gross generalizations on members of the other group and attach demeaning labels, tarring everyone within that group with the same brush of principals and ideologies with which the group as a whole is identified. A simple example of this is the popular sentiment that every politically left-leaning person is anti-religious, anti-establishment, pro-choice, radical and soft (i.e. socialist), while everyone on the right is authoritarian, paranoid, money-hungry and uncaring (i.e. fascist).
5. Understandably, this labeling becomes insulting and further pushes the groups (and therefore the individuals within the groups) apart, towards the poles.
6. The effect of this is that individuals are less certain who they can trust and, thus, form social bonds more slowly and cautiously (“I don’t know you, but you might be from that other group”). In addition we add a self-protective layer to our demeanour, almost as if we’re trying to prevent from being contaminated by contact with someone from the other group. It’s an attitudinal mask protecting against infection.
(NOTE: It is in our DNA to favour our “in-group” over other groups. In fact, that very thinking probably kept us alive for tens of thousands of years and may well be one of the main reasons Homo sapiens survived.)
7. To add to this problem, along came social media, granting anyone the ability to spew their opinions out into the world, in tiny aggressive sound-bytes, some of which are nasty messages about the other group. Early Twitter users, you will recall, were allowed only 140 characters per post, removing any hope of subtlety. Suddenly you had billions of people all over the planet announcing to the rest of society that they knew “the truth”. (I am reminded here of the Isaac Asimov quote, “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”) Quickly the world began to struggle to distinguish between science and pseudo-science; between authority figures and conspiracy theorists; between fact and fake news. The most recent, glaring example of this has been the public’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. There are still those that plant themselves firmly in the “COVID is a hoax, perpetrated by Bill Gates” camp.
8. Now, to add a further, more insidious element to this problem, Facebook and other industry giants (YouTube, Amazon, Google etc.) created algorithms that monitor and record how you respond to data. They quickly discovered two important facts … 1) humans are attracted to contention and outrage and 2) people respond more vigorously to negative information. These became the basic premises upon which click bait was formulated. They soon realised that all they had to do was display in front of someone what the data suggested that person favoured, and then frame it within some contention, and that person would not only click on it, they would hit the “Like” button more regularly, respond more energetically and share it more readily. This exposed that person to more advertising, as their data was farmed out to other organisations looking to sell their goods and services to just such a person. Not surprisingly, the contentious topic simply pushed the reader further towards the poles. Let’s create an example. You are a Trump supporter, a fact that you have announced quite regularly to the Artificial Intelligence controlling the algorithms, by clicking on, commenting on and sharing articles on Trump’s positive qualities and good works. The algorithm then force-feeds you on a media diet involving Trump being falsely attacked by spreaders of fake news, who have a socialistic agenda and are trying to dismantle the very fabric of American society. This causes you outrage, so you immediately comment on the post, typing a 300-word tirade in condemnation of the “Communist Lib-tards” who are unnecessarily attacking your fearless leader. Your outrage pushes you further to the political right and into greater opposition with your buddy, who has never been a Trump supporter and has just responded in outrage to the online article he was fed, stating that the Trump administration has been found to have got away with potentially illegal activities that have benefitted the country’s richest one percent and are dividing the haves from the have-nots. The algorithm effectively pushed him to the left. The trust between you and your buddy is beginning to erode.
9. When dealing with people from the “other” group, it feels perfectly OK to use less-than polite language, given that they are less intelligent and less important. Like a gateway drug, we test the waters and find that we felt quite good putting that person down like they deserved. In fact, we got a little charge of adrenalin and dopamine. And, like a gateway drug, we find that we look forward to the next opportunity to get that dopamine hit.
10. Our standard of communication is on a slippery slope in the wrong direction!!
Some additional thoughts in brief …
· We are being re-trained because of our natural proclivities ... our susceptibility to a tribal mentality.
· Popular culture is asking us to use sound-bytes and memes as the basis of our knowledge and to shape our conversation around those sound-bytes and memes. It glorifies the glib and flippant, turning every discussion into a back-and-forth of pithy remarks and witty one-liners. You’ve only got to suggest to someone that smoking is bad for their health and their reflexive response will be a line from popular culture, such as “You’re here for a good time, not a long time”, or “You’ve got to die of something. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.”
· Modern society is asking us not to think in shades, but to choose firm sides on everything; to have a vicious dog in every fight.
· Today’s world suggests we mistrust anyone who states they have information in contradiction to that in which we root our own beliefs. It is training you to decry anyone who asks you to modify, tailor or adjust your thinking in any way.
· Popular culture is asking us to mistrust the credentials of highly credentialed people and to trust the voices of the conveyors of popular culture … actors, musicians, reality TV stars, YouTubers, influencers, fashion bloggers etc.
· Modern society is popularizing the idea that your beliefs matter, simply because you have them; that your opinion is valid simply because it comes from a place of good intention; that your presence on this planet is divine no matter what you do or how you treat others. It encourages you to be you, regardless of how ineffectual a member of society you are and despite your constant displays of antisocial behaviours. It glorifies those that advertise the most egregious aspects of their character and puts them in touch with global support networks.
· Popular culture has rebadged the sociopath as a cult hero.
· Society now glorifies the hero labels. Words like “patriot” and “warrior” and “justice” and “freedom” (to name but a few) are now being fired off like a weapon and worn on T-shirts and caps as a kind of threat or challenge. Their introduction into conversations can cause well-intentioned people to become keyboard warriors and stir a mob into violent action.
What can we do?
Well, I certainly have fewer answers than questions. But I do think that the path to solutions most often starts at the gate of awareness. Once a problem is identified we can turn some attention and energy towards its resolution, even if that involves doing something individually and on a minor scale to begin with. The minor steps I have taken are to disengage from contentious online conversations, to recognise when I am being fed by an algorithm, to avoid reflexively rejecting another person’s ideas, even when they don’t sit comfortably initially, and to seek balance on all matters (i.e. not planting a flag into a particular camp).
DISCLAIMER: Please understand, I chose not to write about all the fantastic and laudable work social media and popular culture has done, continues to do and will do into the future. I wrote of my experiences and observations over a long period of time and after some deep consideration, but I don’t assume to be right. It is my opinion and, as mentioned before, though it comes from a place of good intention, it is subject to distortions of perception and biases of cognition. I do not consider myself an expert on social media and popular culture and am open to debate and discussion on all matters relating to communication, discourse and the human experiment.
Once again I apologise for the length of this post and hope that it didn't disturb your desire to get to the essence much more quickly!!!