Friday, November 9, 2012

Hate and Loathing in America

I've been observing a disturbing trend this week on social media. My personal Facebook page (not the public one you guys see) has been flooded with an outpouring of post-election hate. What's particularly disturbing, is this hate speech is coming from my personal friends (people I know and like), and friends of theirs (their social circles).

One man complained "the government should not spend money on useless minorities." The man's uncle, my friend, reminded his nephew that he was gay, and thus one of those "useless minorities."

One friend commented on a post quoting 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith with the pithy reply: "Sounds like jew propaganda to me." The two-page quote about economics never mentioned religion. But why pass up an opportunity to bring in an anti-Semitic remark in a discussion about money?

A friend of mine asked: "Dow down over 300 points... what happened?" Based on my experience as a former stockbroker and having earned an MBA from one of the nation's top MBA schools, I gave a reasoned, non-political  response: "European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said the debt crisis is starting to hurt Germany (the lynchpin holding up the EU economy). Add to that Apple's continued descent into bear territory (more than 20% decline from $703 to $563 in one month) and uncertainty about the so-called "fiscal cliff" and traders are bailing out of long positions. I expect a few rocky months ahead with some good buying opportunities on the dips and a rebound in early 2013." His friends chimed in with more simplistic, Tea Party-like (but incorrect)  response : "Wrong guy won." and "Wrong guy won - an understatement at best."

This kind of thinking is called a syllogism: a type of logical argument in which the conclusion is inferred from two events: Obama was re-elected and the stock market fell. But it is also what's called a logical fallacy because there is no evidence to connect the two unrelated events (for example, if Obama as president were bad for the Dow, it would not have doubled during the first four years of his presidency, so if anything, his retention as president should be viewed as favorable for the Dow's prospects), while there is evidence pointing to the true causes of the market decline. We call such evidence "facts". People who make emotion-based arguments (haters) ignore facts (logic). And when you present them with the facts, they tune it out. I'll discuss this tuning out of reality in my next post. But for now, I think we have to ask why there is so much more hate and ignorance rising to the surface of the American zeitgeist.

Another friend said "I did something I've never done before here on Facebook -- I unfriended four people." He explained he disliked the "level of discourse, whether in anger because a candidate lost or whether in trash talking mode because a candidate we like won" that appeared on his Facebook news feed from his friends. As I've stated, I, too, am disturbed by this. But, as a journalist, I find it troubling to censor the speech of others simply because I do not agree with it or find it offensive. If it turns out my friends are not the people I thought they were, but instead, indeed carry such hate in their hearts, then I shall delete them as friends both from Facebook and from my life. But venting from a passionately held political belief is different from racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic remarks.

I replied: "I haven't defriended anyone based on their political beliefs, although I have hidden some of the feeds of some of the more abusive friends, and I have blocked some friends from reading my feed because I knew they are so far from my views that my political posts during the campaign would disturb them. I don't mind political debate and I appreciate those with different views from my own, but there is a segment of the population that is divorced from reality, living in a bubble/echo chamber where only their own views are heard and reinforced, and when you try to have a discussion you are met with rattled off talking points or arguments ad hominem (because they are low information viewers/voters lacking an understanding of the issues, relying on simplistic unfeasible platitudes and solutions to complex problems)."

I added: "As a journalist, I recoil from the idea of shutting off someone's speech just because I don't agree with it or find it offensive. Let them post their rants and whining and most readers will draw their own conclusions. They only make themselves look bad."

One friend of a friend responded "Facebook is my living room, in a sense. I take umbrage to irrational rants stuck in my face (news feed). I invited these friends in... When someone displays what I consider to be irrational or mean-spirited rants within my news feed, I'm not obligated to be fair to them. I'm not running a newspaper here or a government; if I want to unfriend someone, I have that option, and I can show them to the door."

I can appreciate the frustration of internalizing what some of our friends are posting. But, if these are indeed one's friends (and not merely strangers bearing the appellation of "friend"), are we not obligated to be fair to our friends? If you "unfriend" every friend who says something you don't want to hear, you will eventually find yourself with no friends at all. Sometimes, the best friends are those who tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear.

I believe it is important to discuss and debate issues of public concern. Such debate may be robust and passionate. The intent should be not to "win" an argument (which Dale Carnegie teaches us is impossible) but to educate the other person as to your viewpoint and try to open his mind a crack for him to consider the subject from your point of view, so he will be receptive to learning new facts that might later alter his position. Such discourse should not include argument ad hominem (personal attacks) or hate speech against specific groups of people. Instead, it should be an intellectual exchange of ideas -- some accepted and others rejected -- that ends with both sides remaining friends, who simply choose to disagree on certain matters.

Over my lifetime, I have engaged in numerous robust and passionate debates with friends from different cultures, different countries and political systems, different religions, different races, different sexuality, and who were proponents of political and economic theories vastly different from my own. I've disagreed with many, learned from many, and in some cases, changed my initial conceptions. But even when my friends expressed views at polar opposites to my own, I never disowned them as friends. At times, I might have questioned their fundamental intelligence or mental stability based on their statements, but never their friendship. Because, as an old cartoon of a skunk once put it, "a friend is someone who knows all your flaws... and likes you anyway."

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