Updated: Sep 18, 2020
We encounter excellence nearly everywhere, except in the court of public opinion.
The bridges we cross, the cars we drive, the planes we fly, the computers we use, the healthcare we receive - are all the result of generation-level expertise, knowledge acquired through years of study and innovation, building on decades or centuries, even millennia of mastery.
On social media, however, we can voice our opinion on topics we know little to nothing about. And people are listening. According to TechJury, the average user is spending 2 hours and 24 minutes per day on social media - that's 15% of our waking day.
Ignorance and Incivility
When we go to the theater or lecture hall, we expect a finished product, the best the artist or expert can produce.
Social media is, in a sense, the world's concert hall for sharing news, ideas, and opinions. Except we're all allowed on stage. Simultaneously. Are we presenting our best selves? Or are we clamoring to get on stage, to be heard, only to play Chopsticks, or worse, just bang our fists on the keyboard?
2020 might be the poster child for Chopsticks. With so many of us stuck at home, we see the lockdown, economic woes, mask mandates, natural disasters, rioting, and the election through virtual eyes. Increasingly, our interactions are online rather than in-person.
Ignorance, error, and unsupported opinions are easy, abundant, and distracting. It becomes quite the task to sift through it all.
Imagine if the same ratio of poor-to-high-quality content that exists in online discourse existed in any other sphere of our lives - transportation, technology, healthcare, nutrition, education, or politics. Life would be a nightmare. To the degree that any of those is a nightmare, we are likely to find ideas or execution of poor quality somewhere within.
Walking Out Of The Performance
Yesterday, a friend posted a link to Spot the Troll, an intriguing exercise where you are quizzed on eight online profiles where you try to spot which were fake and which were real. My biggest takeaway is that the quiz makers should have added a third option, "Ignore Completely". All eight profiles contained lots of noise, opinion and conjecture loudly shouted often in anger. Such content is, I think, largely worthless regardless of where it lies on the ideological spectrum, yet some of the examples given were shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media. We can do better. Just because you can (post or share) doesn't mean you should.
Ignorance combined with incivility only makes matters worse. Online incivility inhibits social trust, but the reverse is also true. When we see others doing the hard work of communicating intelligently and respectfully, of putting in the time and hard work to research and share ideas concisely, our faith in our ability to collectively pilot the ship of state increases.
Free speech is a bedrock principle, essential to freedom and progress, so shutting down the foolish, the wrong, and even the dangerous is, I think, even more dangerous. If the stupid or malevolent reveal themselves openly, that is preferred. Better to have such ideas out in the open.
If a performance gets bad enough, we'll walk out of the theater or change the channel. In the concert hall of public discourse, this is dangerous. How many people do you know who have disengaged from discussions of, for example, religion or politics because it's too contentious, frustrating, or filled with "fake news"? In a society that relies on the citizen voter, this is perhaps the greatest danger of all. Free speech doesn't matter if no one is listening.
What Can We Do?
When we speak, we should take a cue from Rotary International's "4-Way Test":
Of the things we think, say, or do:
Is it the TRUTH?
Is it FAIR to all concerned?
Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
We must read (or listen) deeply, do the hard work to discern truth from error, and articulate our ideas with clarity and precision. And wait to get on stage until we have something worth sharing.
How often do you post, comment, or share ideological content (we're not talking about cat videos) emotionally or in a knee-jerk fashion?
Are you generous to those you interact with? Do you assume they are intelligent, of goodwill, and have reasons for believing the way they do?
When you attack, do you aim at ideas or people?
Do you use straw man or steel man arguments?
How much of your time goes into reading or listening to further your education?
Do you read from multiple sources and viewpoints?
Do you avoid logical fallacies and vulgar language when engaging online?
In addition to books, long-form podcasts are increasingly becoming great venues for hearing intelligent ideas and conversations while you're driving or doing yard work. I recommend just about anything by Thomas Sowell, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Bret and Heather Weinstein, Coleman Hughes, Glen Loury, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, Douglas Murray, Niall Ferguson, Jonathan Haidt, Shelby Steele, Williams Lane Craig, Larry Elder, Stephen Hicks, Joe Rogan, John McWhorter, Walter Williams, Heather Mac Donald, Daniel Schmachtenberger, Peter Hitchens, Rita Panahi, and Jason Riley, among others.