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Wednesday, 05 October 2016 15:41

Remember talking ‘to’ people, not ‘at’ them

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We are still near the dawn of the Internet age. We can get just about any information we desire in a matter of seconds, so much information that a simple Google search on practically any subject will turn up literally thousands and thousands of “hits.” This has obvious advantages if you are looking for the best restaurant in, say, Hickory, or if you want to know who won the Dodgers game last night, or if you are trying to find out why your dog is sick by typing in her symptoms. It is all there for the taking.

The disadvantages are not quite so obvious, but they are insidious. I have a friend who refuses to become a part of Facebook and who will not arrange for any of his bills to be paid online, even though it is much more convenient and easier to pay them that way. He is afraid, with some justification I think, that our world is becoming more and more dehumanized as we have less and less reason to come into actual contact with one another. He would rather take the time to drive to the electric company, the cable company, his insurance carrier, the bank, and anywhere else he needs to go to pay a bill. He knows the people who work there and they know him.

His friends are people he actually knows and likes, and people who know and like him. He does not have a list of 743 friends on social media, half of whom he has never actually met. If he did, a small fraction of those might wish him a Happy Birthday if Facebook nudged them with a friendly reminder. Less than 10 of them would bail him out if, for some reason, he was carted off to jail.

No, he’s not having it, and I can’t say I blame him. I tend to agree with every one of his points, and yet I am on Facebook and pay almost all of my bills through automatic draft. I am sympathetic to his argument, but I am also profoundly lazy. Well, if not lazy, I will say that I have better things to do with my time and energy than driving around town dropping off checks in eight or ten different places around town. That would take precious time away from more productive pursuits, such as watching video clips of baby goats jumping around on a trampoline or arguing about politics on Facebook.

By now, only the truly and hopelessly delusional believe that there is anything to be gained other than venting and/or preening from posting political opinions on Facebook. Or anywhere, really. We must face the sad fact that we are no longer a country capable of thoughtful and civil discourse. Rather than gathering and evaluating facts before forming an opinion on issues, we form opinions first based on our feelings and/or personal biases and then seek out the “information” that validates that viewpoint. If that information is challenged — even with facts —we either ignore it as if those facts do not exist or counter with other sources, even if they are discredited.

In the Internet age, we have seemingly lost the ability or the willingness — or both — to evaluate and critique sources, so that everything we see online “weighs the same.” These days, The Washington Post is deemed no more reliable by many than The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal no better than the Breitbart Report, CBS News no more objective than Fox News.

We are a polarized nation in part because so many millions of Americans believe with all of their hearts — and minds — that there is no objective source to be found anywhere these days, which leaves the truth (about anything) up for grabs, or in the eye of the beholder. Facts that run contrary to their opinion roll off of this worldview like acorns off of a tin roof. They simply will not penetrate the surface.

So we all sit every day with our laptops or iPads or whatever device we use to go online, turning to the same sources that confirm what we already think, marinating in the same juices, firing off opinions that are, at best, some hybrid of anecdotal evidence (our own experience, in other words, limited as it may be) and partisan political boilerplate. Guns don’t kill people. Tax cuts create jobs. There is no such thing as white privilege. And so on, ad infinitum.

When this, the ugliest Presidential race in our nation’s history, is finally over, we must find a way to heal, to hear, to listen, to think, and above all to unite. I think my friend is right. We would be better off closing our laptops and turning off our phones, choosing instead to talk to people instead of talking at them. If not that, we will have to redefine what it means to be human and what it means to be well-informed in the age of the Internet.

(Chris Cox is a writer and a teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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