Unco Junto: The Myth of the ‘National Conversation’
May 3, 2016
With this blog I plan to start a monthly series I've titled "Unco Junto" (after the discussion clubs founded by Benjamin Franklin) in which I offer an introductory topic essay and a handful of commenters are invited to respond in any way they see fit. The goal is to provide a forum for long-form--and hopefully provocative--analysis in a media often dominated by superficial sound bites.
References to a "national conversation" (or some version thereof) are common in the news media and public discourse, especially among journalists and politicians. When actor Sean Penn wrote a controversial interview with then-escaped Mexican drug lord "El Chapo" Guzman for Rolling Stone magazine in January 2016, his action was in service of a national conversation. As he told The New York Times, "Penn said he has ‘a terrible regret' that the capture of the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo has distracted from his article in Rolling Stone, which he had hoped would start a national conversation about the war on drugs."
Note Penn's premise that his action would "start" a national conversation about the war on drugs, when of course that topic had been widely discussed in books, documentaries, magazine articles, and other media since June 1971, when President Nixon declared a "war on drugs." Penn's mistake is a very common one, with politicians and activists acting as if Americans hadn't spent decades--in some cases well over a century--debating and discussing important issues such as racism, drug use, women's rights, poverty, national security, and so on.
More recently Hilary Clinton invoked the national conversation idea in the wake of Nancy Reagan's death, saying, "It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it." Clinton later apologized for falsely crediting Nancy Reagan for "starting a national conversation" about AIDS, when in fact both Reagans had actively and studiously avoided giving AIDS a national platform. Clinton's (surely well-intentioned) gaffe highlights the glibness with which politicians routinely use the phrase as a sort of unfalsifiable shorthand that almost never goes unchallenged--except in the rare instance in which a national conversation is attributed to someone who in reality did their best not to have that conversation.
What activist or leader would not want to be credited, no matter how tenuously, with helping spur discussion about an important social issue? (I suppose that by writing this piece I, also, am participating in the much-needed national conversation about national conversations--an honorary credit I'll happily decline.)
The Missing Conversation
Is there a "national conversation"? There's certainly plenty of back-and forth between people of different opinions on social media. On television, Twitter, and elsewhere people with opposing views trade barbs and views. Person A makes some factual claim or statement, Person B rebuts it, and Person A often changes the subject or employs one of dozens of logical fallacies (straw man arguments seem to be especially popular). Anyone with an internet connection sees this so often that it's routine, and this can hardly be called a "discussion" or "conversation." (For a nuanced look at the dynamics of social debate see Deborah Tannen's book The Argument Culture.)
Even leaving aside trolls who insincerely argue for their amusement, the vast majority of online exchanges are more akin to strangers shouting at each other, usually framing their opinions as demonstrable fact. Each side typically has their own set of facts (or, as their opponents would say, "facts") they use to bolster their claims. Where, then, is this putative "national conversation" occurring? Around proverbial office watercoolers in batches of four or five? On political talk shows whose audience is closely aligned with the network and host they appear on, and where substantive dissenting views are rarely seen?
The seemingly endless stream of national conversations has not gone unnoticed, as one Washington Post writer noted: "It's getting pretty noisy in here with all these national conversations. There's the national conversation on gun violence. And the one on immigration. And income inequality. And marriage equality. And debt. And climate change. And obesity. And bullying. And, of course, race. After a while, it's hard to know whose turn it is to talk, what everyone is saying or which conversations really matter -- especially because they're all ‘long overdue.' Politicians love calling for national conversations, but without a doubt, President Obama is our national conversationalist in chief. He has launched or identified conversations on issues great and small and considers them vital to our democracy."
Indeed, the issue is nothing new; as Dana Milkbank wrote in 2007: "It's time to have a national debate about all these national conversations and national discussions we've been having. ‘I'm going to start this campaign with a national conversation,' Hillary Rodham Clinton announced in her ‘I'm in to win' Democratic presidential campaign kickoff earlier this year. ‘Sign up to join the conversation here,' she proposed on her Web site. ‘I need you to be a part of this campaign, and I hope you'll start by joining me in this national conversation.' Since then, the nation has had enough conversations, debates and discussions to make itself hoarse. ‘It's no secret,' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confided at a briefing this summer, ‘that we're engaged in a national discussion, national debate, about Iraq.' On the Today show, Meredith Vieira informed Elizabeth Edwards that by disclosing her cancer recurrence, she had ‘actually set off a national debate, whether you intended to or not.' But Edwards's husband, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, was busy having a ‘national conversation' about race. ‘We should jump at the chance to have this conversation,' he argued. Not to be outdone, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani agreed to speak to the Latino Coalition, which organizers said would ‘help open up a serious national discussion.'" Almost a decade has passed since that was written, and it remains true today.
Unlike a real conversation, of course, there is no endpoint, no final comment on issues such as race, poverty, war, and so on. In real life, conversations end when agreement is reached, agreement to disagree is reached, people get bored, or frustrated, and so on. Thus perhaps the analogy itself is flawed, in a situation similar to the misnamed "political debates" so abundant during caucus season. The candidates are not "debating" in any real sense; there is no genuine exchange of meaningful points of view.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary offers one definition of debate as "to discuss a question by considering opposed arguments," which is about as far from political debates as can be: instead of thoughtful discussion of opposing arguments or positions-which might conceivably result in an intellectually honest person admitting mistakes--the events are dominated by "gotcha" opportunities, talking over each other, and even snide (or sexist) remarks. The candidates recite canned bullet points, generally avoid questions from opponents and moderators, and repeat dubious claims that provide days of fact-checking grist. The "winner" of a debate is typically not the person whose arguments are most valid or practical but instead who got in the most memorable zinger or insult.
The fact that there's little or no genuine debate amid the political theater and manufactured outrage of the "debates" is a problem if one assumes that the goal is to inform the public about which candidate would make a better leader of the country for four or more years. Similarly, the (apparent) lack of a meaningful national conversation is only a problem if you assume that the problems (not) being discussed-race, sexism, terrorism, and so on--are important enough to merit meaningful conversation.
Just as the journalistic tenet of presenting "both sides of an issue" has been misused in order to give a public platform to discredited views (including anti-vaccination activists and creationists), the largely-unquestioned importance of a "national conversation" has been used in the same way. Recently a "national conversation" was invoked when the Tribeca Film Festival was criticized for including and promoting a film about anti-vaccination Dr. Andrew Wakefield, casting him as a valiant hero for his (retracted and discredited) study linking childhood autism to vaccines.
In response, a Tribeca spokeswoman stated that "Tribeca, as most film festivals, are about dialogue and discussion. Over the years we have presented many films from opposing sides of an issue..." Despite a clear scientific consensus that the film's premise is not only false but potentially dangerous (as it may influence parents not to vaccinate their children), the festival initially defended its decision as serving a social good by airing a film intended to stimulate "dialogue and discussion"-in other words a national conversation. But of course no such conversation is needed, since the science and evidence is crystal clear (to its credit the festival later reversed itself).
For many people frustrated over the perceived absence of a national conversation about their pet agenda, the situation is seen as a grave social injustice that can be remedied by crime or even violence. To choose just two examples, in 2014 Jerad and Amanda Miller went on a killing spree in Las Vegas, Nevada. Their goal was to raise awareness about their anti-government views and hoped that their murder of two police officers would spur people to action: "They left a swastika, a Revolutionary War-era ‘Don't Tread On Me' flag and a note proclaiming, ‘The revolution is beginning,' on the fallen officers." More recently, a group of armed ranchers took over a refuge in Oregon to draw attention to--that is, spur a national conversation about--the unfairness of federal land use policies imposed upon ranchers.
Indeed, the fervent desire to have a "national conversation" about issues important to a given person or group is universal: there is no advocacy or political group that doesn't want their views discussed on a national stage. It transcends gender, politics, and ideology. It is, at its heart, a desire (or demand) that a specific viewpoint or issue be discussed-and, by implication, resolved in a way favorable to those calling for a national conversation on that subject to redress their real or imagined grievances. In practical terms "Let's start a national conversation" often means "People who disagree with me on a specific issue should listen to what I have to say, realize that I'm right, and address it in the way I want."
While there can be little question that discussion, debate, and sharing views is essential to an informed citizenry and democracy, the question of whether a "national conversation" is the best way to achieve those ends may not be so clear. For example "In 1970, psychologists David Myers and George Bishop rounded up several groups of students. They wanted to see what happened to a group of individuals when they discussed the topics of the day, but the groups they chose were not created to foster balanced debate. They were divided by their attitudes on race" based upon how they scored on a test called The Multifactor Racial Attitude Inventory (MRAI). The groups "discussed questions such as school busing, desegregation, and housing covenants. (Housing covenants are provisions on a deed to a house which state that the house cannot be sold or rented to a certain group of people. If the owner does sell or rent to that group, they forfeit the property.) After the discussions the students took the MRAI again. As the researchers predicted, the students evinced more extreme attitudes than they had before. Those who were progressive were more so after they discussed the issue with other progressive people. Those who were racist were more so after their discussions. The ‘risky' opinions that they had held going into the discussion were validated and made to look like the norm, and so they felt comfortable taking even more risks.
What's interesting about the study is how the authors end it. Free discussion of issues, they conclude, might do more harm than good. People aren't likely to have breakthroughs or epiphanies. They're not likely to be repulsed by a look at the extremes to which people with their general opinions can go. They're more likely to intensify their existing views to match those extremes."
For years many online news organizations attempted to engage their readers in a national conversation by encouraging them to respond to news stories and share their thoughts about important topics facing the country, on everything from race relations to poverty to national security. Now that practice has been largely abandoned. Why? As a 2009 article by the Poynter Institute noted, "It took years for most news organizations to allow users to comment on news stories, even after blogs and message boards saw how they engaged users and fostered constructive conversations. Now some news organizations are disabling the commenting function on some or all stories and other news content. The problem for many news orgs is that comment ghettos, where banality and obscenity rule, have arisen on their sites."
Since that time dozens of popular news sites have disabled reader comments, including Reuters, Popular Science, Discovery News, The Week, USA Today's FTW, and The Verge. The "national conversation"--at least in that medium--seems to have been an unqualified failure, generating vast amounts of sexism, racism, and vitriol, with precious little "conversation."
Given human nature (as well as the politically polarized and contentious nature of the country), there seems little reason to think that a "national conversation" would achieve the sort of unity or consensus its advocates assume would result. In fact, the evidence for a national conversation seems especially thin when we consider the fractured state of the country. After all, presumably the point of a national conversation is to resolve differences, make social progress, and unite the public. Yet racial tensions remain high, the gap between the rich and poor has grown, and politics are more fractured and divisive that at any time in recent memory. Where, then, is the product of the national conversations that have been in vogue for at least a decade? Shouldn't those conversations--if they exist as meaningful mechanisms for settling controversial issues--have made things better instead of worse over the past decades?
There is of course nothing new about discussions on public policy and social problems among citizens; those have gone on for millennia. What do you think? Is there such a thing as a "national conversation," and if so, what is its nature and how can it be quantified or falsified? If it exists, where are its fruits? Or is it just a faddish buzzphrase with no real meaning beyond "things people talk about" (or "things I want other people to talk about and resolve in my favor")? Is a real, productive "national conversation" even possible? What do you think?
Should there be National Conversations?
Ben Radford's challenge to the existence of a national conversation is correct. To the extent that there is such a thing, it is diffuse, sporadic, and frankly ignored by most. The examples raised illustrate this point amply. There are issues, surely, that present themselves regularly, or that are ongoing and frequently discussed in various media, but to extend that fact to a concept of a national conversation grossly overestimates the engagement of the public in some dialogue. I wish to point out two of the most glaring errors in the use of this notion to describe national issues in the media, and then to propose that we ought to have some real notion and means for having actual, national conversations.
Actual conversations rely upon two or more parties engaging in dialogue that propels the conversation in some direction. If random phrases, unrelated to each other and not suggesting some building-upon each other, are exchanged, we hardly consider the resulting noise a conversation. In conversation, the parties involved exchange ideas that become the basis for some shared meaning of some sort, either storytelling, argument, or some other group dynamic emerges. A conversation involves, in sum, give and take, and a general direction rather than just random musings. Because none of the various fora in which our alleged national conversations occur provide for or experience the necessary give-and-take, we cannot really call the crosstalk that goes on to be a conversation. But there are arguments as to why we need national conversations, one of which is that democracy demands it.
In the mythical early stages of our democracies, such conversations happened, constitutions were drawn, and governments were crafted in coffee houses and salons, and modernity emerged. This is a romantic view of early democracy, based upon the Agora as a model for something we now call "deliberative democracy." Can we recapture the notion of the agora in a modern society, dominated by megacities and where online presence marks the most social sphere for most of us?
The Agora was a physical space in Greek city-states, and was the place where science and government were both conducted, a center of the city where citizens could debate, participate in policy deliberations, educate themselves, argue, exchange goods, and even punish. The concept of the Agora is appealing, but is it practical? Can we engage in society-wide conversations, debate, and policy with 350 million citizens?
There are virtual communities and international collaborative project such as Wikipedia. Wikis are democratic in concept, but most tend not to attract the involvement of large numbers of people. Conversations are engaged in as entries are edited, but again these occur among the very few contributors. Although wikis end up being quite accurate, and their architecture suggests something similar to an Agora, the reality is that they are de facto exclusive. Most people just don't show up to engage. Elections are similar in this respect, where although a large percentage of the population may take part, few do. Of course, we cannot know with accuracy what percentage of the Athenian population actually contributed in the Agora, as opposed to merely listening, and as we described above conversation involves some give and take. Can we nonetheless devise something like an Agora, and allow for something like a "national conversation" in some suitable forum?
Perhaps we can, and I would suggest we should. Deliberative democracy is a concept that based upon the notion that collective decisions are better arrived at through collective deliberation. Rather than simply voting for one of two sides of a particular issue, often as represented by some politician, in a deliberative democracy we would come together in interested groups and discuss issues openly, allowing all who wished to interject, until we reached some sort of consensus. I lived for a time in The Netherlands, and this process, or something rather like it, is frequently used to arrive at collective decisions. In Holland, it is called "poldering," named after "polders" which are the mounds of piled dirt that hold back the sea. By building a consensus, layer by layer, something incredibly strong emerges. The act of collective deliberation produces a stronger consensus, and it too emerges from public, open discussion. My experience with poldering in The Netherlands was incredibly frustrating. As an American, I just wanted to get something done, yet constant and ongoing discussion often prevents decisions being made quickly. The Dutch are used to this. I was not.
A national conversation of the sort that would enable deliberative democracy would require a significant alternation of our current patterns of debate and decision-making. Turning from the paradigm of opposing arguments, and toward one in which the goal is consensus rather than victory, fundamentally contradicts much of what we seem to savor of our partisan democracy. If we had, for instance, a national conversation about legalizing heroin, we would need somehow to agree that the end goal would be some sort of generally-agreed-upon action based upon consensus. To do that, every participant needs to be capable not only of expressing points of view, but also listening to those of others openly but critically, and of altering not only one's position, but also accepting some compromise. Until the birth of the Internet, we lacked a national platform sufficient to engage in a real national conversation of the sort that could enable something like deliberative democracy. Newspapers and TV are largely one-directional media, but the internet is omnidirectional. To date, its potential for true conversations has not been realized, as anyone who has to stomach to read "comments" sections of media outlets and blogs can testify.
The current partisan paradigm has arguably led us to a fair amount of division. There is evidence that our Congress has never been so ideologically polarized. Could we mimic poldering on a large scale, using the flexibility of modern media, so that we could engage in some national conversations, at least on important subjects? It is worth considering, and perhaps trying after the model of the Agora in some updated form. But I am not optimistic that we have the will to engage in national conversations. Abuse, ad hominem, sound bites, and contests make for good TV. Long-form dialogue leading to some consensus compromise does not. No national conversation does or can exists until we agree that deliberation, conversation, and compromise are not only possible but preferable to what we have grown used to. We should first have a conversation about that.
David Koepsell is Director of Education for CFI. He was executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism from 2003-2008 and has been a co-instructor with the CFI Institute since 2012. He holds a law degree (1995) and PhD in Philosophy (1997) from the University at Buffalo, and has authored and edited numerous books, as well as popular and scholarly articles, and has spoken to audiences worldwide on issues relating to civil rights, secularism, science and technology, ethics, humanism, and ontology.
I generally agree with Ben and David on the point that the "national conversation" we've been hearing so much about lately is mostly a metaphor. The notion that somehow the reasonable exchange of ideas on topics of national import is possible seems distressingly remote from our current political reality. As a metaphor, it suggests a productive physical presence as an ideal for political discourse, but I suspect that it is almost always misleading to think of actual national politics in such terms.
At one point a "national conversation" might have actually been possible (depending on how you want to define "national"). In ancient Athens, during the height of the city-state's power in the fifth century BCE, the system of direct rule did apparently achieve something like a literal national conversation. While not a nation in the modern sense, Athens' system of direct democracy depended on debate, and any citizen-that is, any non-slave male landholder member of the polis who had reached majority-was entitled to speak in front of the Assembly. This was about 20% or less of the population at any time. It seems improbable that at any Assembly meeting that all of the citizens would be present to debate if for no other reason than the Pnyx Hill, on which the Assembly gathered, could fit only between 6,000-12,000 people (estimations vary greatly), between one-tenth and one-fifth of the citizens. Even then, when only a fraction of the citizens could physically be in the place of debate, most likely the leading citizens of the time would have dominated the national conversation that was being held.
A real national conversation, in this context, was almost practicable. The restrictions on direct participation were, besides citizenship, mostly spacial-you had to be within earshot of the person currently speaking in the national conversation. Therefore, physical proximity was important, and one could not vote by proxy. Okay, so maybe only two to four percent of the population was participating, but that was 2-4% of the ENTIRE POPULATION in the same place to consider the same issues at the same time. Not too shabby, ancient Athens...not too shabby.
So a truly national conversation was never really realizable. However, it seems to me technology has allowed us to feel that we are more involved in a national conversation. The national conversation became a more resonant and relevant metaphor with the arrival of secondary oral culture. "Secondary orality" is a term coined by Walker J. Ong that describes a culture that has developed technologies which permit a resurgence of oral culture via technologies that could not have been developed without the rise of a literate culture. It is, for instance, difficult how to see a technology like radio, which provides sensations associated with being present at an event, without the development of science and the high-fidelity transmission of knowledge down through the ages that literacy and print culture had enabled. A secondary oral culture will bring back to the foreground aspects of oral culture that may be diminished in print culture-tone and control of voice, paralanguage, accent, and (with the rise of television) the appearance of the speaker, all of these come back in a secondary oral culture.
An early example of the power of electronic communication technology to suggest a sort of national intimacy is FDR's "fireside chats," which the President used to promote his sweeping New Deal reforms. Even the term "fireside chat" suggests that the listener is being addressed personally. Sources describe FDR's composition process as looking "at a blank wall, trying to visualize the individuals he was seeking to help" (qtd. in Ryfe 90). Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins recalled: "He thought of them sitting on a suburban porch after supper on a summer evening. He thought of them gathered on around a dinner table at a family meal" (qtd. in Ryfe 90). As he spoke, Roosevelt clearly sought to make himself seem close to the listener, and by frequently addressing the audience as "you," the President suggested a personal, unmediated relationship between him and the electorate. This was, as Ryfe points out, a carefully constructed message designed to suggest intimacy in an era of mass media according to principles then operating in American advertising.
Such national broadcasts were generally one way, that is, a friendly talking-to that gave the President's message a sense of presence. The rise of television news programming also added to the sensation that one was closely connected to remote events and people while giving the populace collectively shared experiences that bridged time and space. Again, though, these were generally one-way conversations. There are variants on these models, of course--radio call-in shows, reading letters (and now tweets) on the air, and man-on-the-street interviews, for instance, but the conversation generally was (and is) one-way. The visuality of television, however, and the ability of the moving image to convey or provoke emotion might well make the fact that it is a one-way conversation seem less conspicuous.
The last 25 years of digital media have changed the relationship between the public and political discourse. The number of people who have access to an almost unlimited audience has grown to equal the number of people with access to the Internet. The Agora has gone global. Within that new, virtual public space, we see the segregation of groups into factions, or what an academic who teaches rhetoric might call "discourse communities." These groups are distinguished by communicative practices, concerns, beliefs, sociolinguistic codes, rules, assumptions, and taboos unique to the community. When these groups arise online it happens largely, but not entirely, per the will of their participants. People seek out others with similar views and interests. Nothing remotely surprising about that. I imagine that the dynamics that Ben describes in the Myers and Bishop study are at play, that individuals become more entrenched in their views as they are socialize with people who share similar opinions and beliefs. But a new, peculiar and unseen force at play may be sculpting public dialogue about national issues and making the prospect of a national conversation more difficult: the algorithm.
Social media platforms like Facebook are trying to anticipate what type of content you are most likely to engage with, and by tracking your online behavior, software engineers have been able to "personalize your online experience," to use a phrase that makes me instantly want to crawl into a hole and die. What appears on your page, the news you read, the people you interact with are partially determined by your past online behavior. The medium is in fact silently guiding the conversation, and by trying to anticipate what you are likely to linger on, the algorithm may limit the type of material that you are exposed to. This becomes a problem for the prospect of "national conversations" when considering the supposed shared knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions of discourse communities. Unless you really work to expose yourself to ideologically diverse and differing content, you may find yourself incapable of understanding what members of other discourse communities think or mean. This makes communication very fraught with misunderstanding and ends in individuals talking past one another, making the prospect of a national conversation seem even more remote.
Ryfe, D. M. (1999). Franklin Roosevelt and the fireside chats. Journal of Communication, 49(4), 80-103. doi:10.1093/joc/49.4.80.
Bob Blaskiewicz is Assistant Professor of Critical Thinking and First Year Studies at Stockton University, where he specializes in and teaches about World War II veterans' writings, science and pseudoscience, extraordinary/paranormal claims and conspiracy theory. He is the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry's "Conspiracy Guy" web columnist, a blogger at www.skepticalhumanities.com, a regular panelist on the live weekly web show The Virtual Skeptics (Wed 8PM Eastern), and contributes a monthly essay to the Skepticality podcast.
Calling the "National Conversation" a myth is, I think, a misnomer. Far from a cryptid or a hoax, this turn of phrase has simply become something of a trope, overused and diluted over time but certainly not imaginary. "National conversation" calls to mind several different things-some good, some not so good. The most annoying use is when it is held up as a "get out of criticism free card" by someone saying things publicly that should be met with clear rebuttal, scorn, and censure. Passionate (but wrong) spokespeople who denounce vaccinations, or suggest a group of people be discriminated against in the name of religious freedom, or insinuate GMO technology might be a way to poison our population, rather than countering the criticism they receive, often fall back the claim that they are only "trying to start a national conversation." It's become the lofty, media-savvy equivalent of smugly ending one's sentence with "I'm just sayin!" This cowardly use of the phrase "national conversation" would be better off retired.
What about the less cynical meaning, namely the use of "national conversation" to simply mean a measuring stick to gauge whatever many Americans are currently thinking about, discussing, perhaps even formally debating and legislating. For the good of our citizenry, many of us should be engaged in some kind of discussion about topics that are currently being decided by lawmakers. Representatives have tracked the "national conversation" since our country's birth, taking note of constituent's concerns as voiced during personal visits, town hall meetings, in letters, then later in phone calls and emails. Nowadays we live in interesting, highly documented times: with much of our population hooked up to social media, it's now a simple matter to track how many times a particular topic is mentioned on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. Hashtags are used expressly for that purpose, as a way to live-index what the nation is, in fact, conversing about. And certainly, sometimes it really does seem like a national conversation, as hashtagging a trending topic on a public thread can draw replies from random citizens across the nation-indeed, across the globe. Most skeptics know this first hand, as we ourselves have trouble resisting the siren call of Someone Who Is Wrong on the Internet.
Yet, with so many voices, is America splitting off into a hive of separate, miniature echo chambers rather than a broadly inclusive conversation? We see it in our own personal lives: a parent who tends to only communicate with others in their retirement community and only ever watches Fox News. A paleo-eating hippy friend who marches against Monsanto but has never looked into any of the science behind GMO technology. These archetypes represent the problem of cocooning oneself in a stream of information that only reinforces what one already believes--and, unfortunately, it's a perfectly natural, comfortable, human thing to do. Facebook even helps us with this process by using algorithms to pinpoint what it thinks we want to see in our feed and jettisoning the rest. One-way conversations lead nowhere.
A real national conversation could help us all peer out of our respective microcosms and see things from other people's point of view, to help us realize when we are wrong about long-held beliefs or see more sides to a complicated issue. But how do we go about refereeing such a melee in order to glean some kind of meaningful "conversation" from it? Back in the days of one radio station, people had little to distract them from hearing Roosevelt's fireside chats. When there was no such thing as cable news or TMZ, most Americans were sure to tune in and listen to Walter Cronkite report on the news. Our "national conversation" may have been less varied, but it had common reference points. Over the decades our population has increased, and the ability of that population to read and write has increased: illiteracy among those 14 and older dropped from 20% in 1870 to .06% in 1979. With all these minds reading about current events, forming opinions, and being able to comment on them, we now have quite the cacophony of voices competing to be heard. Everyone is a content provider! No longer is there just one older white dude from the sole screen in a family's home telling us "and that's the way it is."
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Wresting the national conversation from the few "old white dudes" who used to dominate it is certainly progress. And in any teeming pool of diverse ideas, it would seem logical to think-or at least to hope!-that, given enough time, the cream will rise to the top. Yet repetitive, asinine, fear-mongering, sensationalist voices are still the loudest, as the national conversation devolves into a room of screaming children demanding to be noticed-not on the merit of their ideas but simply because they want attention. As Brendan O'Neil put it when describing the spat between Donald Tump and Lena Dunham, much of it has become a "war of recognition" and "competitive snowflakeism."
It might be naïve optimism, but I hold out hope for the future of the national conversation. The Information Age is still in puberty, and puberty is an ugly, uncontrolled thing. There will always be a market for celebrity gossip, fluff, and sensationalist nonsense, but we cannot live on just mental junk food. We need reliable ways to minimize mere attention seekers in the media and instead elevate real ideas and discourse--and, slowly, we are accomplishing this. The population is becoming shrewd about which outlets provide meaningless clickbait and which provide legitimate news and editorial views. Simple, straightforward cartoons and images coupled with concise messages now spread across people's feeds virally, communicating points of view and propagating based on their success far faster than Richard Dawkins could have imagined in 1976 when he coined the term meme.
Many are learning what logical fallacies are and how to deconstruct poor arguments: something that's happening both on a large media scale and in smaller units of families and friends. Across the nation, people argued with their friends and relatives these past few years, pointing out the weaknesses in arguments against gay marriage and the logic behind legalizing it--even President Obama credits his daughters with helping him understand the importance of marriage equality. A hot-button topic in the media that spreads to individual homes, including the White House, and results in people examining their views, changing their minds, and passing logic-driven legislation that helps our society: that epitomizes a use of the phrase "national conversation" that we can all be proud of.
It can always be improved upon, and the phrase can be hijacked by plenty of buffoons, but the "national conversation" need not be a unicorn.
Celestia Ward has a BA in writing and misspent her youth in academic publishing, working her way up to senior manuscript editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press. Nowadays she works as a cartoonist and caricature artist in Las Vegas (www.2HeadsStudios.com), and she draws and cowrites the webcomic "Astounding Tales of Science."
I'd like to thank the writers who offered their insightful thoughts, comments, and reactions on this topic. Obviously we could have additional responses to these responses (and so on), but the format isn't really conducive such recursion. I hope you found the pieces as interesting as I did, and readers are of course welcome to continue the... conversation. Check back next month for a new topic!
Conversation logo by Muhammad Rafizeldi and used under a Creative Commons license.