Burrage: Here’s how we can repair our democracy following this emotional election

This election is jam packed with emotions: excitement, disillusionment, hope, fear, joy, and anger. Because it is so emotional—coupled with our new social dynamics facilitated by Facebook and Twitter—many people are finding themselves at a breaking point, sometimes making personal attacks against family, friends, and distant acquaintances on social media because of their political beliefs. Drawing hard lines in the sand is sometimes necessary and adhering to one’s morals is always imperative.

But is sacrificing civility simply because we do not agree with someone to the detriment of our society?

Glancing at the comments section on any controversial social media post will reveal terms like “libtard” “tea bagger” and “sheeple” along with a great variety of other disparaging personal insults. People insult each other’s intelligence, mock where they come from, demean them because of their political affiliations, and humiliate them for spelling and grammatical errors. Reasonable citizens who are otherwise calm, rational people are writing in all-caps, furiously tapping cell phone screens and keyboards as comment threads reach into the hundreds.

We all know that heated exchanges freighted with disrespectful insults is like spinning one’s proverbial wheels—but many do it anyway.

We hear even our elected officials refer to their opponents in the most disgraceful terms from the presidential race all the way down the ballot to town councilor. Anyone who has watched the 2016 presidential debates has noticed that the discourse has moved away from critical examination of policy and ideology, and now centers largely on insults, character assassinations, and conspiracies.

Flat out lies and bold-faced distortions get promoted by media outlets—both large and small— consumed by the willfully blind. The challenge of remaining civil has been greatly exacerbated by a political climate saturated in so much misinformation.

Returning to the Facts

In order for us to strive toward more civil political discourse, we must also begin to respect facts and experts. We don’t ask our doctors to perm or braid our hair and we don’t ask our cosmetologist to remove questionable moles from our bodies. In the same way, we mustn’t look to obscure websites over governmental statistics; we shouldn’t value internet memes over peer reviewed articles; or trust editorialized cable news over balanced journalism.

When facing critical questions about our society, it’s important to differentiate between thoughtful, balanced analysis and misinformation whose purpose is to deceive.

The gift that is the Internet  has allowed us to access information in seconds that in years gone by would have taken hours to find at a library. We have instant access to thousands of studies and articles written by some of the world’s most thoughtful scholars and journalist.

We can find almost anything we seek.

The curse that is the Internet has spread lies and conspiracy theories. Placed on credible looking backdrops on fancy websites, the spinners of these tales fool people into thinking they are credible sources. People have begun to see editorials as fact, while talking heads on cable news have been canonized as speakers of the gospel. Politicians pander to these distortions whether they do so with zeal or just as a need to survive the current political climate.

Contentious debates about history, injustice, and politics are a necessary part our society. Our progress and survival as a nation is dependent on careful review of policies and ideologies. But calling people names and dismissing their humanity wholesale is not constructive.

We must make a commitment among ourselves to avoid personal attacks. Attempts to reduce people into stereotypical caricatures of people in an effort to win an argument is both counterproductive and degenerative. It also requires little creativity or intellectual wherewithal. Challenging someone with deliberate analysis based in fact invites more thoughtful rebuttals whereas slanderous assertions elicit only resentment.

A commitment to fighting injustice and standing on principle is honorable. Drawing hard lines in an effort to honor those commitments is even more important. But is personally insulting someone or shooting from the hip with misinformation going to get us closer to justice and fairness? The answer to that question is bound to our fate.

About Teddy Burrage

Avatar photoTeddy Burrage is a Portland native and local activist. He was formerly a congressional intern and organizer with the Portland Racial Justice Congress. Teddy hopes contribute to positive change in Maine by promoting social justice and civic engagement.

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