When did “consensus” become a dirty word?
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Anyone who spends a great deal of time, as I do, reading online news feeds, news analysis, and op-eds is bound to be fed up with the hyperbolic headlines that herald fairly pedestrian stories. Headlines, intending to draw in web surfers and current affairs junkies, all too often promise something rare and explosive if you click on it, then routinely turn out to introduce a story of mild interest at best. Internet headers are papered with expressions like “explosive revelation”, “epic rant”, or “complete meltdown”. Clicking on these screeds brings you to stories of mind numbing tediousness and utterly devoid of anything explosive, epic, or even complete.
On the internet, the number of clicks a page receives determines the value of that page and, in aggregate, the worth of the site. The owners and webmasters couldn’t give a rat’s ass if you read the cretinous drivel that supports the headline; as long as you clicked on the page you’ve done your job. Headlines are now breathless, overblown, and misleading; they are an insult to their readers’ intelligence and an affront to anyone who cares about journalism.
Nevertheless, the hyperbolic headline is an indication of the depth to which political discourse has descended. Overstated claims, describing molehills as mountains, and screams of outrage at the slightest provocation are all part of the dialectic. Political positions have become like those headlines: overblown, shrill, uncompromising, and extreme. Political positions have become extreme, not in an effort to increase one’s click-through rate, but to eliminate the possibility of compromise. To stake out an extreme or radical position helps to ensure that no common ground can be found; compromise thus becomes impossible.
Bombast, in the expression of a political position or in a demand made in the political
sphere, has become so commonplace that those who express their views in extreme language have come to believe their own rhetoric. That which was once either simply florid language on the one hand, or the expression of an initial negotiating position on the other, has become a bottom-line non-negotiable demand. Today, all stances assumed in the political sphere have become unalterable and carved in stone. An uncompromising position is the only type of position we see at this point in social history.
Compromise, the backbone of civilised society, the very essence of culture and non-confrontational relations, has become anathema. Where compromise used to be taught to kindergarten children as a necessary social skill, today, and particularly by those on the far right, compromise is seen as synonymous with defeat and surrender. Insistence on seeing one’s most extreme demands acceded to without the slightest alteration, modification, or moderation is the new standard in public discourse. Stubbornly refusing even to consider an opposing view is seen as integrity; loyalty is defined as an unthinking rejection of anything that differs from the party line. It doesn’t matter how extreme the party line, or how benign the contrasting idea, refusing even to consider it is seen as a virtue.
In the US, the infiltration of the Republican Party by the Tea Party faction was the watershed moment of the new politics of absolutism. They came roaring into Washington on a wave of support for their evangelical fervour and their rejection of the traditional way of doing politics. Drunk with their own success, they demanded that even (or even especially) their most outrageous and radical ideas be accepted, and they simply would not compromise or retreat even fractionally from those positions. The result was acrimony in discourse and gridlock in Congress.
But they went even further in their refusal to compromise; when they were given, as the result of negotiations, what they demanded, they simply staked out a position that was even more extreme and refused to back down from that as well. They waged a tireless war against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), even though it was a compromise on the part of the administration and the Democrats in Congress, and was, in fact, the health care reform recommended and supported by their own party before the Tea Party came to prominence. As long as the other side was willing to accept it, they wouldn’t; it was too much like capitulation to their minds.
So polarised has the political world become, actual thinking has become suspect. If someone is thinking about the implications and consequences of their views, the possibility of considering modifying them is raised, and that will never do. Polarisation has become so extreme that political philosophies and viewpoints have become secular religions and to apply critical analysis to them is to commit heresy.
And, as politics becomes similar to religion in its adherence to immutable doctrine and dogmatic cohesion, religion becomes increasingly political in its insistence on imposing its doctrine on the body politic. This is seen most graphically and most dangerously in the rise of a faction of extremists within Islam.
The radical jihadists, who form a tiny minority within Islam have persuaded many in the western world that they speak for all Muslims and their savage actions are supported by all or most Muslims. The acts of brutal terrorism the radicals carry out against western targets are intended to raise the anger and fear of Islam as a whole; they want westerners to hate and fear all Islam so that their warped and vicious heretical Islam will dominate. And, here in the west, we find some politicians playing into their hands by blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few. And what those politicians don’t mention, since it conflicts with their views, is that jihadist terrorism kills and injures far more Muslims than western Christians. To acknowledge that Muslims are the vast majority of victims of jihadist terrorism would contradict their lies that the west is in a war with Islam rather than the truth: that extreme Islamic jihadists are in a war with the rest of the world.
The hyperbolic headlines, and the polarisation of politics and religion that they reflect are seen in the increasingly radicalised evangelical Christian movement here in North America. Christian radicals, who are increasingly disconnected from anything like the mainstream interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ, have taken to manipulating politics by trying to persuade the media and their consumers that they represent the views of the majority. Precisely like ISIS.
The positions staked out by the Christian right include a rejection of the doctrine of separation of church and state; they insist that Christianity is the religion of the United States and that legislation, education,
and daily life should reflect that. Disconcertingly, they insist that their right to practice their religion is being compromised by having to obey the same laws that the rest of us do. They insist that the existence of legal same sex marriage is oppressive to their religion. They demand the right to practice their religion by discriminating against various groups, most notably the LGBTQ community. They demand that the rest of the country provide, through tax breaks, financial support for their institutional bigotry. There is no room for compromise, and their rhetoric becomes more strident and more extreme every day.
What can be done about this gridlocked and hostile state of affairs? Are we doomed to keep spinning our wheels as we push against one another? Will public discourse remain nothing more than two opposing sides shouting slogans and epithets while nothing gets done and forward momentum dies? Only a few things come to mind.
In the first place, we can read news media that carry opposing views. In an effort to avoid being locked in an echo chamber in which we only hear our own thoughts and ideas parroted back to us in different words, we can actively listen to what the other side is saying. We can choose the media we really pay attention to by eschewing the ones with the overblown and bombastic headlines that sparked this column, and instead turn our focus on the outlets with restrained and moderate headlines; the content under those headers is likely to be more thoughtful as well. We can develop our critical thinking skills and apply them both to what we read about hot button subjects and to what public figures actually say.
But most of all, to get out of this trap of strident and hostile gridlock caused by a refusal to back away from extreme views, we can avoid voting for candidates who fan the flames of fear and anger; we can reject the politics of polarisation and dogged adherence to extreme and exclusionary views. We can decide that our culture of inclusion and cooperation is worth saving. We can reject those who harangue us with the notion that we need to treat everyone who is different from us with cruelty. But the simplest and perhaps the most important thing we can do right now, today, is reject people who seek high political office on a platform of easily debunked and consistently repeated lies. We can reject those who appeal to the very worst in human nature and we can support anyone who is willing to consider opposing views, to apologise for mistakes, to correct factual errors, and to assume the best in people rather than the worst. We can refuse to fall into the trap of voting out of despair, out of anger, out of fear and hatred. We can have faith that if we reject fear and hatred, there might just be a chance to renovate our civilisation and have a society where we work together constructively and cooperatively.
All of that is much harder to do than to relax into the comfort of groupthink and tribalism; but if we want to back away from the abyss just in front of us, we have to have the courage to do what’s right.