Barely a fortnight into 45’s administration we find ourselves awash in wrongheaded executive orders, a coterie of deplorable appointees, invertebrate senators and congressmen on both sides of the aisle, a disjointed and scrambling media, moves to dismantle safeguards against rampant greed (EPA, DAPL, ACA), what already looks to be an early Benghazi in Yemen, dissolving friendly relations with ally nations because of ignorant misunderstandings… it’s exhausting trying to keep up when we’re being carpetbombed with bad ideas, backsliding into a repressive state of affairs when Mike Pence’s hair still hadn’t been drained of color.
It’s no picnic at home, either, and we’ve been navigating a troubling administration’s adjustment period for a bit longer. How not to be upset when the already tragic death of a Korean businessman spurs action that 7000+ deaths of your own countrymen did not? When a mouthpiece who allegedly speaks for a sizable sector of the population asks with a straight face whether we really need freedom? Not to mention clandestine burials carried out with all the efficiency of a black ops mission, “Thinking” blogs that appear to do precious little of it, and senators who wax unscientific about the sanctity of zygote preservation while, with the next breath, espousing the necessity of the death penalty (hopefully when those little fu*kers turn the ripe ol’ age of nine!).
The writers’ rooms of Veep, House of Cards, Black Mirror, et al. have their work cut out for them. Satire and perceived thresholds of believability can’t keep up with the breakneck pace of the times we live in. Hell, even Matt Parker and Trey Stone, the creators/showrunners of South Park who can turn around an episode in six days, have decided to back off tackling 45’s administration because “what was actually happening was way funnier than anything we could come up with.” Just this week White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer unironically retweeted an Onion article slamming his own work!
One can be forgiven if one’s head continues to spin from the madness, Linda Blair style, and just like her, the urge to projectile vomit in a continuous stream is strong. All of combined history’s progress in science and technology, the collective wisdom of philosophy and reasoning! Shouldn’t we know better? Can this really be our New Now? Is time a flat circle? Or a millstone grinding us to powder?
When we exchange stories of our civilization’s downfall in the future’s post-apocalyptic campfires, Facebook’s algorithm for tailored content will have pride of place in the conversation. It certainly seemed harmless at first: based on what you’d “liked” or spent time interacting with (comments, sharing, etc.), similar content would be piped to your feed.
This made sense! Get more of what you already know and like! Other social media platforms followed suit when engagement rates went up, but what also happened was that we enclosed ourselves in cocoons of our own tastes. “Out of sight, out of mind” went perspectives different from ours. Discovery of new things now had to pass through filters to get to us. While we certainly curate other aspects of our lives to suit our tastes, in the real world we still can’t avoid encountering the Other, whether it’s on the way to work or at work itself or when buying groceries or any number of regular activities.
These encounters may not always be deep or prolonged, but exposure to different strata of people, whether by gender, sexual identity, politics, religion, income, education, breeding, tastes, etc. can only serve to broaden our perspective, to allow us to recognize that along with differences there are also commonalities.
What we should be worried about is a disconcerting lack of empathy that seems to be making itself known, particularly online, by those who feel they can anonymously attack at the safe distance of the web. Discourse cannot develop and grow if we remain in our self-curated echo chambers, our pods, our bubbles, with like-minded individuals applauding what they already agree with. Our sensitivity deadens when it doesn’t get the chance to be exercised and tested. We remain unchallenged if we stay in a daisy chain of back-patters congratulating one another on how “woke” we are. We become prey to purveyors of targeted Fake News and Alternative Facts (currently the two worst band names you can use), distrustful and suspicious of anything unfamiliar.
We need to engage with… not the Enemy, but the Other. To try to understand a differing opinion, we must empathize. We practice this empathy through the arts: in books, movies, songs—narratives are delivered and we place ourselves in protagonists, proceeding through a point of view we may not share, but in context, can begin to understand. But we need to use that empathy on people, too. We need to empathize because shouting someone down, especially from a perceived higher ground, isn’t going to change people’s minds; if anything, they’ll lock up and resist stronger just to spite the condescension.
Whether Drumpf’s wall actually gets erected or not, other barriers remain to our understanding of others and, through their eyes, ourselves. Those barriers may be invisible, but we can dispense with them when we see them and recognize them for what they are.