The following is a quote from a recent (October 3, 2022) “daily journal” article for The Atlantic Magazine titled, “The Widening Gyre,” by Tom Nichols:
But we are not helpless. The center can hold-because we are the center. We are citizens of a democracy who can refuse to accept the threats of mob bosses, whether in Florida or in Russia. We can and must vote, but that’s not enough. We must also speak out. By temperament, I am not much for public demonstrations, but if that’s your preferred form of expression, then organize and march. The rest of us, however, can act, every day, on a small scale.
It is fairly easy to read between the lines of this quote and understand that Nichols is referring to Trump and Putin. However, I feel that he is leaving it up to the reader to figure out what exactly he means by the “center.” While this may not be true for everyone, I have serious doubts that a “center” position in politics, and perhaps in many other facets of life today, exists anymore. It is also being left up to the reader to decide who the “we” are. In our ever-expanding polarization as a society, the “we” is becoming exceedingly difficult to pinpoint. The reasons for this are as complex as they are multifaceted, but for me one of the primary factors for this polarization is media literacy, or lack thereof. Not because we are not trying, or because we have become media illiterate so to speak, but rather because there is simply too much information out there for people to digest. And it is for this reason that Nichols’ title is very appropriate, because as the circle widens the center keeps getting further, and further away!
Throughout the ages, the dissemination of information has had its impact on numerous societies. One could say that it all started around 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. It took about 400 years later (1844) for the first telegraph to again alter the information landscape. Then the floodgates opened: Telephone and mimeograph (remember those?) 1876; typewriter 1880s; photocopier 1937 (but the first Xerox commercial ones were around 1959); home computers late 70s; mobile phones 1973 (who can forget the Motorola weighing in at 4.4 lbs.!) Apple Macintosh 1984; WWW 1990 (widespread around 1995 when Netscape launched); and then the social media phenomenon, starting with bulletin boards and ending with who the hell knows what. I am sure there are some blanks to fill in here, so please feel free to do so!
Even though it is called the “Information Age,” when you look up many of these 20th century inventions you will find people discussing the amount of “knowledge” now available to us, and this is inherently wrong. Information, or put another way, raw data, does not become knowledge until whoever is looking at the information does something with it. You need to process it, measure it against other information, fact check, and a whole host of other gatekeeping tasks before it can be classified as knowledge. So, if you read something and pass it on to someone else, you are simply sharing information; you are not enlightening anyone with knowledge. This may sound simple and reasonable enough, but in this day and age, it is more the exception than the rule.
It is no secret that we are being bombarded on a daily basis with information of all kinds available 24/7 on a multitude of different platforms and devices, in our homes, our offices, our cars, in our pockets, even on our wrists. We are “connected” to everything and everyone in ways that are very different than 75 years ago. And historically speaking, 75 years is like a blink of an eye. While the state of being “connected” can be seen as a positive thing, there is an important question that needs to be asked about this connectedness: “To whom?” For me, this is where “polarization” and “information overload” meet head on.
We have only to look at the current state of politics, for one, in this country to better understand this collision. Collectively, this country is divided into two camps, sides, parties, factions…pick a term! If this isn’t a salute to polarization, then nothing is. The sheer volume of information (“noise”) is bad enough, but when the noise itself is aligning itself into the above-mentioned divisions, what you end up with is that neither side is listening to what the other is saying. Just think about the plethora of right-wing or left-wing publications, forums, groups, websites, etc. out there. So, when Nichols writes: “We must also speak out,” who are we speaking to? For argument’s sake, let us say that the split between the two sides is 50/50. What this means is that at any given time neither half of the split have any fucking clue what the other is saying, or more importantly why! There has always been a divide in thinking between city and rural, but where this country finds itself now goes far beyond city slickers versus country folk. I am not referring to people we might know because of who they are; I’m referring to the average Joe or Josephine. What are these “other” people listening to? What do they believe to be true, accurate, or factual? And if you are relying on the “noise” you regularly listen to in order to form your response to the questions above, you are no closer to knowing what these people know, want, or care about!
More recently (November 14, 2022), Nichols had this to say in his assessment of the recent midterm elections titled: “A Break in the Gloom:”
The misfit flotilla of Republican election deniers, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted flakes and phonies was poised, it seemed, to board the American ship of state without much resistance. Instead, much of the Republican fleet sank within sight of the shore.
If your first thought was that I really don’t need to read between the lines here, you are absolutely right, but the second thought should be: “Who is reading this?” Many of you I am sure are familiar with the phrase, “preaching to the converted,” (as I am most likely doing here!), and the above missive is a perfect example of this. However, let’s say that agents from the “other side” read this. What do you think their reaction would be to being called “misfits,” “deniers,” “flakes,” and “phonies?” More than likely, they would respond with corresponding vitriol…and on and on it goes as the circle gets even wider. Why is all this important, you might ask? Because it is often the “voice” seldom heard that can be the loudest one in the room.
Los Angeles 2022