It has been on my radar for about three years - or shortly after I took my first partisan office. "It" is the sprint to the fringe. The extremes. And the apparent loss of common sense. Nowhere was the sprint to the extremes more evident than at the recent Colorado Republican State Assembly. My thoughts were well reflected in two columns by the vaunted Dick Wadhams - one HERE and the other HERE. The Denver Gazette's Vince Bzdek also nails it in THIS COLUMN.
I get it. People are angry. Upset. Tired of not feeling heard. Ridiculed. I get it and we will unpack some of those emotions in blog posts to come. I get the emotion. But to win, I think we need to pull the emotion out of it and infuse a little Colorado Common Sense.
This will seem like a topic shift, but it's all related. Glenn Beck is my guilty radio pleasure. Take this from a radio guy - I think he is brilliant. He is an amazing entertainer and his commenting skills are spot on. For me, he has replaced the void left by Rush Limbaugh. Glenn does a weekend podcast which is a long-form interview with someone he finds interesting. This weekend he had Jonathan Haidt on his program. It gave those of us who worry about the extremes hope. I have listened to it four times.
I'm going to listen to it a fifth time and I'm going to do something odd - I'm going to dissect it here and add my thoughts. This may take a lot of words - but I think it is worth your time to read my words and either listen to the podcast or watch it right here...
Glenn interviews him out of intrigue for a story Haidt wrote for The Atlantic titled After Babel. The story is long, but worth it, and is found HERE.
In what follows, the numbers at the beginning of paragraphs denote the time mark in the podcast.
The theory on fragmentation in the post-Babel era
6:24: Not only does the left hate the right and vice-versa, but everyone is ripping themselves to shreds within their own camps. Fragmentation is different than tribalism. Tribalism is where we hunker down in our own camps. Dem v Rep. Silos. Fragmentation is where everything tears apart, even within our own tribes.
The Babel story - Haidt summarizes: People were too proud and God knocked over the tower. However, God doesn't actually knock over the tower, he confuses their language and the tower falls from the confusion. Genesis 11: 5-7 - 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
I find this comparison fascinating - we (humanity, tech giants) have built the modern Tower of Babel in the form of social media. In the beginning, the Babylonians spoke a common language. But they became prideful in their tower. God confused their language. So they spoke the same language, yet did not understand each other. Considering our own tower of social media babel, do we speak the same language, yet not understand each other? I believe that to be true.
The key thing Haidt wanted to get across in the above-linked article...
13:00: Social media started and it wasn't so bad - you connected and shared pictures, etc. Between 2009 and 2012, the dynamics of the platform changed. It was no longer about sharing pictures of your family and dog, it became about commenting on articles and things people said - the retweets and the shares. Haidt was right in his article in comparing these comments on social media to "a little dart gun," because social media users can shoot as many darts as they want at anyone they want. There is no accountability and no due process of the conviction levied in the fired dart. This is a spot-on analogy.
Most people are nice - most people don't want to destroy anybody - I agree with this but Haidt outlines four groups of people who fire away with those dart guns with great enthusiasm:
- The far-left
- The far-right
- Trolls (Haidt describes them as mostly men who are just jerks and like to harass. Trust me, I have a few women trolls.)
- Russian and Chinese intelligence agents who began using it skillfully in 2014 to make us hate each other and destabilize America.
I could not agree more with his four classifications.
There is no reconciliation on the horizon
17:10: Glenn makes this point and it is something I have felt for the last few years. In life - in my case, with my walk with God - if/when I sin, I ask God for forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and I am reconciled with the Lord. In social media land/cancel culture - if you sin, you are canceled. Erased. Dismissed. There is no forgiveness, no reconciliation, just banishment, and erasure. The end. It's dangerous - it has no soul - and its effect is the stifling of speech and the inhibiting of the free exchange of ideas.
The culture war has spilled out into all channels.
19:04: Haidt finds via his research on morality that most people are nice, reasonable - if you talk to them in private, they are very polite. I agree with that. Yet the common person becomes a jerk when they are performing in front of others via social media.
Technology allows us to connect - social media uses a business model where users are not the customers, they are the product, and the users perform to get others to watch. #Truth - we all love a "Like." A share. A "thumbs up." In the 2010s, social media changed the architecture so things could go viral much more quickly, and people were more incentivized to attack one another and become outrageous.
This is when Haidt believes that our institutions became structurally stupid. It's not about individual Americans being stupid because we are not a stupid people. But our institutions became stupid because most of us are afraid to say anything. So true. We are afraid of the thousands of social media darts that could fly our way and we are fearful of cancellation, which could and has resulted in a very real job and social loss because institutions are stupid and fear the darts.
Glenn makes this point and I have experienced this as a media personality: I used to have an audience. Somewhere around 2010, my audience also had an audience (on social media).
I share Glenn's experience: I have been accused of saying things "just to get an audience." On the air, that is partly true - my job is to grow and maintain an audience. Now, if everyone has an audience, do they say things on social media just to get an audience? To get the likes? The shares? I think that is highly likely, thus, are the things shared on social media real and a true assessment of what people think and believe?
Social Media is a Skinner Box
23:02: Haidt makes this assertion and I agree. What is a Skinner Box? Well, you put a rat in it. And when the rat pushes a button, it gets food - a reward! On social media, if we do and say certain things, we get a LIKE - a reward - and we quickly find out what type of post will get us more rewards. Basically, social media has turned us into a bunch of rats. What is true?
26:50: Haidt makes a point that I think is important. He is speaking of the fact that he was raised Jewish but has become an atheist. He says he has great respect for people of faith, which is why he believes he is invited to speak at Christain universities. Here's his point: "People are very tolerant about what I believe as long as I do not show contempt for them." That is so important! Glenn points out - "That used to be what united us!"
This is a pivotal point: I do not care if you are white, black, brown, yellow, green, or purple. I do not care if you are LGBTQ+IA, furry, or identify as a chimpanzee. I'll respect you, you respect me. Yup. I'm as WASP as they come, but I can no sooner change who I am than you can change who you are. So kindly do not expect me to make who I am lesser. I am sure you have felt discrimination in your life. I am sorry you have experienced that. It was not right. But it's not my fault and please do not expect me to pay penance for something that was not committed by me.
Haidt encourages us to think about the things that are holding us together and the things that are tearing us apart.
We're in a post-Babel era
Haidt claims that if we continue on the path we are on now, we will fail as a country within ten years. I'll grant the point. What binds us together? What is the truth? Social Media is the modern-day tower of Babel and today we debate about the fluidity of gender - is a boy a boy, a girl a girl, do men menstruate and have children, and mothers are now birthing persons - this is all debated at a time when we're literally yelled at to "believe the science." Funny, I type this paragraph fearing the social media darts that may fly my way. But is it not the truth?
Haidt points out that there are many Latin American counties that have tried to enact democracy with weak institutions. Can a constitutional republic flourish with weakened institutions?
The last 20-minutes of this program made me want to write this mammoth-long blog post.
It's not that we're all going crazy, there are just four groups that are empowered by a viral social media, and because of social media algorithms are the very groups that tend to go viral:
- The Far-right
- The Far-left
- Foreign agents attacking our society with the modern-day Tower of Babel
Then there is the middle 80% of the country. Finally, I come back to the point I started to make in my opening paragraph. The middle 80% is very reasonable.
In public discourse, there is a concept known as the exhausted majority. It's used by the left and by the right. I'm sure somebody from some tribe can get down into the weeds and tell me how it's evil because it's the creation of the other tribe. I don't care because I believe in the concept. The 80% of us who consider ourselves reasonable, practical, pragmatic, and grounded in common sense are just exhausted. Done. Fed up.
We're done with the polarization, the rancor, the anger, the name-calling, and the vitriol. We understand that we have more in common than not. We don't lift our voices because, well, we're exhausted. What good would it do?
Haidt goes on to describe society, particularly American society, as a ship that we are on. (I love where they take the analogy.)
- We're on a ship that is sinking - it's taking on water.
- But the ship can be repaired. It's not destined to sink.
- But if we don't do anything, it will sink.
- We don't know what to do because the sailors/and the crew are just fighting each other.
- We're the passengers and we're saying, "what do we do - our ship is sinking!"
- Now there is a realization that the ship is sinking and the crew that is supposed to be sailing the ship are just too busy fighting each other.
- So we, the passengers (we the people!) have to take action.
- The middle 80% has to stand up!
Now something that convicted me as an elected representative...
35:12: Because our leaders are so intimidated by our extreme wings. If you're a president of a university, you're intimidated by the young, woke left. If you're a moderate or traditional Republican politician, you're getting death threats from people on the right (I am a traditional Republican public servant and I can 100% attest to that statement!).
Haidt's analysis of what this means is that the leaders and the 80% in the middle must stand up to their wings.
Back to the ship analogy - If we have a dawning realization that the ship is sinking and the 80% in the middle want to repair the boat then we simply must stand up and do so.
So where is the Churchill? Where is the Statesman?
James Freeman Clarke was a 19th-century American theologian and author. His rather famous quote...
Politicians worry about the next election. Statesmen worry about the next generation.
James Freeman Clarke
In today's political discourse there are nothing but politicians. Where are the statesmen?
44:44: Glenn makes an important point with which I agree - in the previous two minutes, the change in the parties was discussed. Glenn believes that it is really no longer Republicans vs Democrats in the traditional sense. Now it is more about the elites vs the 80%. The elites - those who believe that they know better how to run your life than you do - those who believe in the power of government over the power of the individual - against the 80%. It's less Republican vs. Democrat and more the elites and those who follow them vs. those (like me) who believe in individual liberty and the power of the individual.
We need to mobilize the middle 80% - the reasonable people - yes, the regular folks (Regular Folks Rising is a podcast I produce with Colorado House Minority Leader Hugh McKean).
We need to restore our institutions to reason and keep politics out of places it does not belong.
I love this quote - "We need to have a Geneva Convention for the culture wars." Truer words have never been spoken. There needs to be a cease-fire and a return to truth and reason.
The last five minutes are really worth listening to - SOLUTIONS!
Sorry - long blog post, but I was so inspired by this podcast!