Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Civility, Or: Real Life Versus The Internets

Those of us who have spent a considerable amount of time discussing and debating politics and current events online have a tendency to become quite the vitriol spewing blowhards. There is something about this medium – primarily the anonymity and lack of physical proximity to one’s opponents – that just fosters over-the-top invective. As an admitted and experienced online socio-political demagogue, I’m more than qualified to express this observation. I’ve spent enough time engaged in this activity to realize that those of us who do this become cartoonish caricatures of normal, opinionated human beings.

That’s not to say that it’s a completely negative or non-worthwhile hobby. To the contrary, if you hang out in the right online locales and tangle with enough well-informed, intelligent opponents, it can be quite the learning experience. But almost as a rule, it gets very nasty very fast and otherwise mature, reasonable adults end up in virtual shit-slinging fests that would (or should) be completely humiliating in a less anonymous, real world environment.

I’m all for debate and discussion. Indeed, it is a pity to me that discussing politics is considered such an impolite taboo. It’s one of the things that drives me to online discussion forums. In the real world we are so concerned about not offending our peers that we have conditioned ourselves to just not discuss these matters that really do affect all of us very deeply. It’s like we’ve admitted that we lack the capacity to have grown up discussions about grown up topics. This, in my view, is a serious mistake. Vigorous debate is healthy, necessary even. Especially in a democracy where, allegedly, peons like us actually have some control of our political fortunes. It’s okay that we have strong disagreements. That is actually the point of a democratic republic; to have a structured and civilized way to direct public policy in a manner that accounts for differing viewpoints and preferences. It is more than a little tragic that it’s socially acceptable to spend hours arguing about sports or reality TV shows that have zero real impact on any of our lives, but it’s a big no-no to talk about the debt ceiling or healthcare debate, or tax policy, or our wars – things that, unlike whether or not Lady Gaga has a penis, actually do matter.

The reason for me saying all of this is that yesterday I actually did call both of my senators (John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchinson) and my representative (Dr. Michael Burgess) to “make my voice heard” on this debt ceiling debacle. When an online demagogue like myself does something like this, the first thing you realize is that ranting and raving like a hysterical lunatic will get you absolutely nowhere. When you have an actual person on the phone (much less face to face) and they are speaking to you intelligently and with courtesy about these issues that you may feel so passionately about, you realize that, like you, they are human beings just trying to do the best they can. Pardon the corniness. Granted, this doesn’t apply to everyone but I think it’s safe to say that it applies to most. When talking to Michael Burgesse’s aide, who was (thankfully) being bombarded by calls yesterday, it certainly applied to her. When you are used to communicating these issues through hyperbole and angry rhetoric, actual contact with a reasonable human being kind of deflates your balloon. And what you realize – or what I realized – is that articulating your thoughts respectfully and in real time, to someone who is treating you – despite your strong disagreement on the issues – with courtesy and kindness, is a very rewarding and challenging thing.

Being polite, sticking to facts, being specific, avoiding insults and inflammatory rhetoric, certainly feels more constructive than the ad-hominem, ball-kicking, hair-pulling internet brawls that have become the norm for many of us. But in our defense, because of the aforementioned strange cultural norm, the interwebs are the only outlet available to those of us who enjoy and see value in spirited debate and open political discourse.

Now I may very well be deluding myself. My call yesterday might have been utterly meaningless in the scheme of things. But I don’t see how it could have been any more meaningless than getting in juvenile(ish) pissing matches with complete strangers online. The online thing has its place and purpose and I won’t deny that. But in theory, this democratic republic of ours affords some actual say and power to us individual citizens, and that power is not being put to any kind of meaningful use by simply yelling at people we disagree with online. There is probably not a single one of us who does not want change in some form and directing all of our political energy to the blogosphere will not do much to affect that change. In real life, calling someone a teahadist or libtard will do nothing but guarantee that other people will immediately discount you as an unreasonable extremist. If you want change, you do not want to be discounted. If you want to be able to persuade or inform your fellow citizens, you cannot come off as a blowhard. There will always be the real-life blowhards and they will always be the laughingstocks of everyone else.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is here. I do know that I had a conversation with someone yesterday who was near someone in power, and we were/are on opposite ends of the political divide. We talked in specifics, in a reasonable manner, and listened to one another receptively and at a bare minimum my views were registered and acknowledged. My “voice was heard”, for whatever that is worth. I’m as cynical as the next guy but that style of discourse sure felt more constructive than the anonymous, online variety.

I’m familiar enough with history to know that social progress and positive change has always started from the ground up, with seemingly inconsequential people like you and me. Maybe the internet has, among other things, served as a kind of trap where otherwise politically active people who give a shit get stuck, instead of taking an approach that might have an actual impact. Just a thought.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Mexican Fisherman

An American tourist was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.

Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The tourist complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, "Only a little while."

The tourist then asked, "Why didn't you stay out longer and catch more fish?"

The Mexican said, "With this I have more than enough to support my family's needs."

The tourist then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life."

The tourist scoffed, " I can help you. You should spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat: With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you could run your ever-expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, how long will this all take?"
The tourist replied, "15 to 20 years."

"But what then?" asked the Mexican.

The tourist laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions."

"Millions?...Then what?"

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."

I came across this a few weeks ago and have been meaning to put it here, for my own reference if nothing else. This story elegantly illustrates one of the fundamental problems of the collective American psyche – the over-emphasis of material and financial “success”. More is always better. As one person put it: We live to work, they work to live.

One of the great things about America is that each individual is free to determine their own personal values and choose how they want to live their life. What’s so interesting is how little variation there actually is when it comes to those values and lifestyle choices. Our cookie cutter idea of success is so pervasive that the entire culture seems to be built around the acquisition of stuff and money. We express our unique, rugged individuality by pursuing the exact same goals as everyone else and conspicuously consuming the same products.

It’s worth noting that a population willing to work ever longer hours, sacrifice their personal relationships, time with family, and opportunities to pursue other areas of human development chasing this pre-packaged ideal, works out very conveniently for the ultra-wealthy business owner and executive class. In short, people who can never have enough make for great employees. The carrot and stick approach is a fabulous way to get the most out of your human capital. Sadly, it can easily be observed that even when people do achieve this very narrowly defined version of success they are still just as discontent as before, often even more so. This myth about what is supposed to make us happy and what we are supposed to be is probably one of the greater ills of our time.