What do we do when we are submerged, awash and drowning in information. When television, streaming boxes, newspapers, magazines, emails, blogs, tweets and twits clamor at us from every corner.
Well, we do a number of things and most of them are not particularly helpful to our personal or political well being. Probably the worst is to hide. Turn off the computer. Don’t watch the television. Stop the subscription to “National Review” or “The New Republic” . Don’t read anything that has been published after 1950. This path is hard to follow and while it has some glitter left over from our cultural romance with wilderness and back to the land mythology it would be remarkably harmful if undertaken by a large number of people living in a democratic society.
A more common form of hiding from this maelstrom of information is to latch on to only those sources of information that you are most likely to agree with. You do not have to work too hard online to put together a favorites list or folders on your computer that hold only sites that generate opinion and information that you are quite confident you will agree with. Opinion that fits snugly with your own preconceptions and information that provides data to reinforce them. You can assiduously skip over any TV station that has Fox News quacking away at you. You can only read the NRA newsletter or get your political insight from Emily’s List.
This second option is comfortable and easy to understand. Cultural, economic and racial segregation and self segregation has been endemic to Western civilization at least since we can find written records about what has been going on. We have created and enforced racial segregation in what is now the US since we got here. Religious segregation and self-segregation as well began with the first boatloads of immigrants. It is easier to live with people and makes you feel safer when you are dealing with people who send off social signals that you readily understand because they are the same social signals you send out. Why go out of your way to have to deal with possible or perceived conflict when you can ensconce yourself in a warm blanket of similarity that only occasionally allows a cold draft to slip in.
While there are several problems with this social system of associative similarity, we are seeing one outcome of the corrosive impact of such standards in the US today, as the dominate standards espoused by white, Christian, middle class, families that come out of the 1940s falls to pieces under the charge of international economic and informational systems, and the demographic change to a multi racial, wealth skewed society trying to deal with its history of endemic racism and short term role as an international economic 800 pound gorilla.
One of the most insidious problem embedded in our current social, political upheaval, is that the cliches we all think in no longer apply to the reality we live. The cliches we think in are much like the social cocoons we live in. They allow us to asses questions and problems comfortably without having to spend too much mental energy actually thinking about them. The problem now is that the cliches we have created over the last one hundred years or so in a majority white, politically and culturally homogeneous country do not apply to the political, cultural and economic issues we are attempting to deal with today. A significant portion of the political upheaval we see around us today is generated by these misplaced cliches. The noise making politicians speaking to us in cliches created for another time and trying to make them apply to today reflect the dissonance, controversy and hostility inherent in attempting to hold on to these tried and true banalities.
I would suggest that one of the things we begin to work on now is to create new cliches for us to think with by leveraging the flood tide of information that surrounds us. I really cannot encourage anyone to watch Fox News, but you can more easily make yourself read some internet news, blogs or websites that come from as far away from your self image as you can get and the life you live in even if it makes you cringe on occasion. You can make an effort to try to gather some understanding of why there are so many more different voices in the American public discussion than there used to be and “where they are coming from”.
Our country was founded in conflict and disagreement. We have always had disagreement and will continue to have it as long as we can maintain our democracy. What we need to do now is create new cliches that more of us can agree on so that our disagreements can be argued out with no less passion, but with more understanding. If, after not speaking to each other for twenty years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could renew their personal discussion using and creating our early cliches, we can as well.