Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

The Porn of Politics

Cleared for release by Joint Staff Public Affairs

Most political discussion, especially online, has become a kind of circle jerk. For once, this advice is true: if you don’t stop it, you’ll go blind. If you aren’t already, that is.

 

Increasingly, political discourse has devolved into noise: people shout what makes them feel good, to people who want to hear it. No debate ensues, no ideas are examined, no minds are changed or even opened. It is all just to feel good. Like masturbation, it may be pleasurable but nothing much is born of it.

That’s why political events – Trump or Hillary rallies or even ostensible “think tank” events like the Manning Centre Conference about conservatism in Canada, any gathering of Liberals or New Democrats – can resemble circle jerks. The folks involved may get something out of it but the rest of us just look away, in cringing embarrassment.

The Internet is a big part of this process. Just as the floodgates of porn permit people to “have sex” without ever meeting another person, so too the torrents of one-sided, narrow-minded political opinion on the web close out the possibility of real debate. People don’t exchange bodily fluids or ideas so much now. A great deal of political content online now is, in reality, just another kind of porn. People engage it to feel good, nothing more, nothing less.

That’s not inherently a sin. Woody Allen famously said of masturbation, “don’t knock my hobbies” and so I won’t criticize all the people politically self-pleasuring. It is necessary and worthwhile, in small doses. But it’s a lonely hobby and not one that will produce much in the long run. There’s more to life than yourself, you see.

What I am suggesting to the millions of political porn fans out there, is that they try some actual intercourse. True, some effort is involved: you have to actually engage with someone else. You actually have to pay attention to what they feel, think and say. You actually have to tolerate things that aren’t just for your gratification. You have to give, not just take. There is friction involved, disappointment and mess.

And it’s not quick. One thing you’ll find, if you try this, is that you need time with another person for you both to get something out of it. Rapid short form messaging or posting ain’t the way to do that. You may feel good firing off your statements, but if the other person’s feelings don’t matter, you’re just masturbating to an audience. But that’s a lot of what you find, when you try to communicate with people on the Internet.

Yesterday I tried to have a nuanced Twitter debate about state funding for education. It was hopeless. My correspondents, who brand themselves very conservative I’m sure, were not interested in a discussion: they wanted to ejaculate slogans at me, and at each other. Eventually one even gave up on words and just posted a cartoon to convey his contempt for what I was saying (it didn’t matter that I wasn’t saying anything like that – listening to me didn’t get his rocks off). Fortunately I had some Real World activities to pursue, and I left them to stroke each other.

There is little more awful than the self-referential, self-serving, self-affirming group bleating of people who all agree that they are right and “the other side” is wrong. Like inbreeding (I know I’m mixing metaphors, bear with me) it tends to degrade the gene pool. It lowers the bar of discourse and rewards stupidity and noise, over thoughtfulness. Any attempt to actually listen to other people, to consider their ideas, or even to treat them with respect, evaporates in an atmosphere of contempt.

As this phenomenon has spread and been replicated, the standard for debate and comment has steadily slithered downwards. Go listen to Edward R. Murrow or Eric Sevareid comment on American politics in the 50s and 60s.  Then listen (if you can stand it) to some of today’s hyper-partisans like Ann Coulter or Paul Begala. It’s like Django Reinhardt morphing into The Kid from Deliverance.

My advice to the political porn junkies out there is this: you had best start listening to people who don’t think like you. People whose life experience is different. People who hold strong views, that you disagree with. People who – despite what you believe is their limited, stupid, maybe even bigoted opinions – are in fact just as capable of thought, of love, of caring, of compassion – just as capable of wisdom, as you are.

Maybe they’re just wrong. Maybe you can bring them over to your way of thinking. But they’re not making the trip, if all you do is shout at or mock them.

Or maybe they’re not wrong. And that’s the real risk of actual dialogue. It takes some guts to listen to people, to engage politely with them. Why? Because to hear them, you have to at least pretend they have something to say. Allowing that daylight into the tight bundle of beliefs you wound together with elastic bands and nerves – that’s dangerous. You may get a little unravelled. You may have to confront the concept that, once or twice, you may have been wrong.

You will surrender the safety of always being right.

But you will discover the strange, fragile magic of not having to be right. You will be liberated from the burden of containing all the world’s wisdom in your head and on your shoulders. You will discover, that you are not alone. For good or for ill, you are not alone.

If you don’t, if you stay inside your head, with your glowing screen and your political porn, what is happening to you now will just speed up. Like Kafka’s cockroach, one morning you will wake up to discover what you have become: the Kid from Deliverance. A grinning idiot, rocking slowly back and forth, going nowhere, staring blindly into the interior of your own mind, picking out the same notes, the same tune, over and over again, until you die.

It’s a neat song, well-played. But an eternity of one banjo song? That’s what they call Hell.

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2016 by in Canada, Conservatism, Liberalism, Politics in Canada, The U.S.A., US Election 2016.
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