I’ve written before about the potential of “new media” to accelerate our cultural evolutionary processes (processes described in the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts), emphasizing the positive potential (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). But there are also dynamics in place which co-opt this meme-accelerator in service to our basest inclinations, systematically favoring the least well-informed and most poorly reasoned memes and paradigms over the best-informed and most well reasoned memes and paradigms.
This consciousness-contracting force is comprised of the following interacting factors, the first of which is laudable in and of itself, but combines with the other two in dysfunctional ways: 1) A shared popular commitment to respecting the right of each to express any position in public discourse without privileging some over others; 2) A wide-spread individual aversion to being embarrassed by having one’s own factual or logical error debunked in public discourse; 3) The pandering of many comment board and blog moderators to those who are so embarrassed, favoring empty sniping (which is accepted as the norm on such forums) over carefully constructed argument (which is considered too discomfiting a challenge to those who want a “safe” place to broadcast their often arbitrary, ideologically-derivative opinions).
I’ve encountered this dynamic repeatedly, targeted both by participants and, in service to popular inclinations, moderators as well, for introducing analytical thought into such forums. Most recently, the Denver Post has taken this dynamic to new depths, deleting three highly factual and analytical comments on my part, at the behest of someone who was offended by the factual and analytical content itself.
The first comment was a list of points contesting a comment by the complaining individual (whose own comment was nothing but a string of ad hominems), citing economic studies, a demographic argument made by The Economist magazine, and historical facts. Other than starting with the word “hogwash,” and ending with the phrase “other than that, you really nailed it,” it was nothing but fact and argument. The second comment was a point-by-point debunking of his response, devoid of any ad hominem. The third was nothing more than a straight-forward and very dry correction of the assertion that the 15% tax rate paid by many of the wealthiest Americans is due to their charitable giving, noting that the 15% rate was the capital gains tax rate that many of them enjoyed, and not an artifact of deductions for charitable giving. Amazingly, the Denver Post on-line moderator deleted all three, at one point messaging me that he saw nothing wrong with my comments, but was deleting them anyway!
I contacted the Denver Post about this, and received assurances that they would discuss it and get back to me. They never did.
This is just the most egregious example of a larger, and more troubling dynamic: The privileging of angry ideological memes over factually informed and well-reasoned memes. Anyone who reads comment boards such as the Denver Post can’t help but notice the dominance of angry ideological voices. What many may not realize is that the moderators themselves actually contribute to ensuring that such voices dominate their comment boards, not because they necessarily agree with or prefer the tone of those voices, but rather because of a mistaken application of a democratic instinct: Protecting voices from factual and logical challenges to them.
In one sense, the larger endeavor we are in, the struggle over humanity’s future, is a contest between the forces of mindlessness and mindfulness, of belligerence and compassion, of bigotry and enlightenment. We must never forget, each and every one of us, that that struggle occurs within as well as without, within our own individual psyches, within our own groups and movements, within our own rationalizations and ideologies. But the two are a challenge that we face without distinction, for we share a mind, and when the forces of mindlessness prevail in our interactions, they also prevail in our own internal cognitive landscapes. The Denver Post, for instance, succeeded not only in silencing reason applied to fact in deference to irrationality applied to fictions, but also in reinforcing the belief that it was right to do so in the mind of one who least could afford to have that belief reinforced.
It is incumbent on each of us to confront these countervailing currents, sweeping through the same media of collective consciousness as I am using now; to level their waves of mindlessness with the interference of equal and opposite waves of mindfulness. As many know, my outline of a sustained strategy for doing so can be found in the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. But this suggested paradigm, like the paradigms it is designed to affect, should be one which benefits from the genius of the many, from the refinements offered by time and numbers. It is now just a nascent thought, waiting to be developed. The only critical thread that must weave itself through all of our efforts is a commitment to continuing to strive to be reasonable and imaginative people of goodwill, working together with humility and compassion to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world. The more successfully we spread that meme, the better off we will be.