America’s Culture of Petulance

(Originally posted in January 2016)

Right after I read about the Muslim woman who was thrown out for silently protesting at the Trump rally in South Carolina, I was overcome with a sense of exasperation. Not because I didn’t expect this kind of behavior from the Trump crowd and their candidate, but because the comments that followed the article were so casually antagonistic and condemnatory. All because a woman stood up, silently, wearing a t-shirt that read “Salam. I come in peace.”

For several weeks now, protesters have shouted, held up signs and interrupted Trump’s rallies in far more disruptive ways. Apologists for Trump and his security people claim that if you don’t agree with someone holding a rally, you shouldn’t be allowed to attend. Theirs is a politics of exclusion and anger. So their natural inclination is to articulate that political position no matter how out of sync it is with a democratic government long hailed as “the great melting pot.” For the Trump crowd, however, they prefer separate pots and pans, and yours can go back to wherever it came from.

In my exasperation, I wrote a comment on the article myself. I said simply, “This is what a hero looks like,” referring to Rose Hamid, the silent protester.

Amidst the wealth of progress that is the Information Age, America has given birth to the Culture of Petulance, the very thing that negates so much of that progress.

It took only minutes for someone to reply. Before I even looked, I knew to expect someone spoiling for a fight, however virtual it might be. “For which cause?” Larry B. asked me.

“The cause of religious freedom,” I replied.

“Whose?” Larry B. asked.

“Everyone’s.” This is the moment, as those of us who spend much time on social media know, when the respondent is loading up to let you know just how stupid you are.

“Oh, good, so she would be willing to go to a Jewish Church and pray for Jesus?” Larry B. responded.

Despite the obviously faulty logic that Larry was demonstrating, I answered one last time. “Why do you hate this woman’s actions, Larry?”

At this point, faulty logic gave way to something different: condescension.

“Oh, is that what I am thinking?” Larry wrote.

Obviously, Larry disagreed with this woman’s actions, and he wanted to insult me for thinking positively of her. Furthermore, Larry really wanted to express that he was superior to me intellectually. The problem with that was that he was equating “religious freedom” with “religious relativism.” I was making a point with my original comment that this woman was brave for standing up to a building full of people who believe Islam is evil with nothing more than two legs and a peaceful slogan on a t-shirt. Larry was arguing that she was a hypocrite for not going to a “Jewish Church” and praying “for Jesus.” And did he mean a synagogue? Probably, but the word escaped him.

I could have continued with Larry B., trying to have a reasonable conversation in order to find some middle ground; but Larry B. had no interest in that. I’ve interacted with hundreds of Larry B.’s over the last several months, often in the red hot furnace of gun control debates. In that time, only one person I interacted with actually came down from the testosterone fields long enough to have an actual give-and-take on the issue. Much the same happens when I’ve responded to articles about climate change, police brutality, raising the minimum wage, and the Affordable Care Act. Ninety percent of the time, the Larry B.’s begin by ridiculing you, bullying you and antagonizing you into losing your cool. I admit, I have lost my cool before. It can be hard not to.

Not this time though. I blocked Larry, just as I’ve blocked dozens of Larry’s before him. That conversation, if you can call it that, was over.

However, losing our cool has become our national modus operandi. Antagonism, willful ignorance and the casual abuse of logic are the new norm. Amidst the wealth of progress that is the Information Age, America has given birth to the Culture of Petulance, the very thing that negates so much of that progress.

For every Rush Limbaugh, there are millions of citizens imitating his bombast and dismissive cynicism in their everyday interactions. In America, we have poisoned the well of knowledge and are drinking enthusiastically.

Of course, I’m not making this huge assumption based on one conversation, nor on hundreds of interactions, on social media. Nor am I asserting that I have done any scientific or social research on this issue. These are observations, and I could most certainly be wrong. I just don’t think I’m that wrong.

Chris Hedges, in his article “The Great Forgetting,” observed that “We have surrendered judgment for prejudice. We have created a binary universe of good and evil. And our colossal capacity for violence is unleashed around the globe, as well as on city streets in poor communities, with no more discernment than that of the blinded giant Polyphemus.” That capacity for violence is both physical and psychological, and both are equally devastating. Witness the dehumanizing effect of extremist pundits and the networks that support them. Without 24-hour propaganda channels on t.v., radio and the internet, much of this tailspin into pre-adolescent petulance could have been ameliorated. Yet, we have come to accept these as inevitable and unassailable. Why? Because the networks and internet tell us we should, 24-hours a day.

Two events in my lifetime have perpetuated change for the worse: The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which required news media to offer equal time for rebuttal of opinion pieces, and the subsequent coalescence of news media monopolies that has left us with just six media giants controlling 90% of our news. Clear Channel alone owns 1,200 radio stations while News Corp owns the biggest newspapers on three continents. This consolidation, and the latitude to articulate only one side of any debate in print or on air, has contributed to a catastrophic trend of negating our ability, as Hedges put it, to transform ourselves “through self-reflection and self-criticism.”

Now put that in the context of everyday interaction. If you and I are having lunch together or attending a business meeting, we generally agree to respect either other and to hear each other out when we disagree. In business, only the most strident and rigid – often dictatorial executives – can get away with violating the precept of civility and equal time for contrasting opinions. Imagine, however, if someone had the right to say whatever they want, and never have to face opposing views? Anytime that person is present, they own the conversation, if you can even call it one. This is essentially the news media world we live in. Regrettably, this (now legal) unilateral self-righteousness has become the example for tens of millions of Americans who consume the news on television, on the radio, online and in print. The true disaster, for the entire world, is that millions of Americans now believe this is good and admirable. For every Rush Limbaugh, there are millions of citizens imitating his bombast and dismissive cynicism in their everyday interactions. In America, we have poisoned the well of knowledge and are drinking enthusiastically.

Two events in my lifetime have perpetuated change for the worse: The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which required news media to offer equal time for rebuttal of opinion pieces, and the subsequent coalescence of news media monopolies that has left us with just six media giants controlling 90% of our news.

Many people have blamed social media for this degradation of our public discourse. I disagree. Social media is the locus of the vast majority of our daily interaction, it is not the cause. Without role models to demonstrate the kind of abrasive and contentious interactions that have become the norm, social media would likely be a much more civil place. Even prior to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the subsequent media consolidation, people argued and were rude to each other in public spaces. What has changed, more significantly than the arrival of new interactive mediums, is the rules of engagement in any social space. The unmistakeable preponderance of “dog whistle” politics by right wing pundits and elected officials is given a 24-hour megaphone into our living rooms, our computers, our phones and our cars. That we can get “news” every hour of every day of the year is not inherently bad; that we get profit-driven “newstainment” instead is the tragedy. Uncivil discourse sells, and because it sells it has risen to the level of acceptable rhetoric.

As a result of initial concerns about the changing character of news broadcasts, the extremist pundits now call into question whether news can ever be objective. FOX News came onto the scene two decades ago with its “We report. You decide.” slogan intended to suggest that all other news sources were making interpretive “decisions” for us. It was a shrewd and insidious strategy. They followed that up with “FOX News. Fair and balanced.” For a network that energetically antagonizes anyone who disagrees with their right wing politics, it is transparent that they are neither fair nor balanced. Of course, they are under no legal requirement to point that out themselves. Subsequently, the ideas get repeated hour after hour, day after day, year after year, until the person you’re sitting at lunch with one day tells you that he doesn’t trust the news at all, ever, because it’s impossible to be objective. Public distrust of news media has deteriorated to the point now that if a network reported a hurricane is miles from your house, a good proportion of Americans would sit stubbornly in their backyard lounge chairs, certain that the newscasters were lying their brains out.

Propaganda, by definition, is “chiefly derogatory Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” Prior to the coalescence of our media monopolies, and before the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, the ability to effectively spread propaganda was considerably more constrained. Today, propaganda has become so ubiquitous that it pops up in even the most unlikely of places.

Most recently, during the “Gun Violence in America” town hall aired on CNN, President Obama was answering a question and discussing the “notion of a conspiracy” that the he wants to confiscate all guns in America. This is a conspiracy that has been around since before President Obama was even elected. Anderson Cooper, a famous newscaster and pundit for CNN, interrupted to ask “Is it fair to call it a conspiracy? A lot of people really believe this deeply, they just don’t trust you.”

Not only have we redefined this petulance of ours as a value, but we have created a market for it.

Cooper is, by most standards, considered a progressive liberal. Of course, this should not mean that he can’t objectively report the news. The discipline that once was journalism – you know, “what, when, where, how and why” – proscribes the influence of pure opinion. However, in this instance, Cooper stated that “a lot of people really believe this,” while casually ignoring clear and convincing evidence that contradicts the absurd conspiracy theory itself. So why did he seem to be validating an irrational theory? God only knows. At best, it seems that CNN management is vying for FOX News viewers to jump ship and watch their highly profitable, round-the-clock commercial programming. This wasn’t an act of journalism by Cooper. This was an act of corporate cynicism, jettisoning journalistic ethics for the opportunity to make money.

Our politicians do nothing to help change this polarizing dialogue. In the presidential election season, the Republican party has perpetuated the idea that only FOX News can be trusted with its candidates. The October debate on CNBC prompted several of the Republican candidates to lash out at the Republican National Committee, claiming that the questions were poor or inappropriate and were shedding negative light on the candidates. On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic debates seem to steer far and wide from FOX News and FOX Business News. Of course, given the mostly sensible and thoughtful nature of their debates, I suspect FOX wouldn’t invite them on air anyway. That they don’t is worth noting nonetheless.

Thus, we continue down the political path of “he said, she said” rhetoric, with little to no reasonable engagement. In this America, we have romanticized interpersonal conflict without resolution. The best metaphor of the resolution we actually get would be that moment on May 1, 2003, when George Bush spoke on the USS Abraham Lincoln to address the nation regarding the Iraq war. Above him hung a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.” Of course, the war in Iraq grew far worse, devastating the country’s infrastructure and citizens well into President Obama’s term. What we “accomplished” is no longer up for debate. Honest debate is too boring when we can cross our arms, stare menacingly at one another and shout each other down.

Perpetual conflict without resolution breeds fatalism. Is it any surprise that one of the primary arguments against stricter gun laws is that “criminals don’t obey the law” and “laws restricting gun access do nothing to stop crime”? In the fighting stance that has become our national discourse, everything ends in violence of one type or another, so why even try to avoid it? Just put up your fists and sharpen your tongue. There will be blood.

I’m not sure what the future holds for America nor what to recommend that might change the seemingly inevitable death spiral of civil public discourse. Many days, still reeling from the insult-rich interaction I witness in the news and online, I grow more and more certain that nothing can be done. On other days, and more rather than less I hope, I am energized to contribute to a better dialogue, however short my reach. I try to have faith, but it is an uphill battle for many of us, and far too often. Not only have we redefined this petulance of ours as a value, but we have created a market for it.

To our great national shame, the profits are very, very good.

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