The book of Ecclesiastes has a well-known and timeless poem:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
I am having trouble reading the times right now. The atmosphere in the U.S. is tense, strained, distrustful. There is a near-expectation that the November election will bring orchestrated riots across the nation, much as it did four years ago. While there may be a certain amount of poor sportsmanship (to say the least) in rioting over election results, that's not at all enough to explain what happened. For the most part I chalked up the 2016 election riots -- or I should say, the susceptibility of many otherwise decent people to join the riots -- to the extreme levels of fear and hatred that had been carefully built by political rhetoric during and after the campaign cycle, both on the part of the politicians and their allies in like-minded media outlets.
Where do extremists come from, if not from extreme levels of hatred and fear?
We, all of us as human beings, have a blind spot. We assume that not only are our thoughts and feelings justified (never mistaken or manipulated), but also that their scale is justified (never out-of-proportion). Back in the real world though, extreme rhetoric is a prime cause in moving people to be extremely angry, extremely hateful, extremely fearful, and to do extreme things. All the while, the new-minted extremists are fully convinced that they have a justified and proportionate response. A person's response is generally proportionate to something, but to what? In these cases, it has been proportionate to their fear or anger or hatred. But is their fear or anger or hatred proportionate to what is happening?
Imagine that you could measure anger. Maybe 1 point on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to an aggressive driver who cuts you off in traffic. Maybe 10 points on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to a drunk driver who endangered you and your loved ones. Here's the thing: if we're angry at a 10 point level, we start with the assumption that the other person did something 10-point bad. We don't consider "What if they did something 1-point bad and someone else exaggerated it or portrayed it in the worst possible light?" Or "What if it didn't actually happen as reported at all, or if someone is keeping certain facts out of the picture to make a good story better?" It is a natural human bias that the information we already know is the
information that matters to us; there are people who abuse that trust. But we're so invested in believing our own reasonableness -- so invested in justifying our feelings and reactions -- that we easily recruit ourselves to defend the integrity of people who withheld vital information, in an effort to prove we can trust ourselves.
We're human: We do not have full knowledge, and information is brokered through notoriously unreliable channels. There are people in a position to manipulate us every time information is passed along. Basically every media outlet on the market is known to keep certain facts out of the picture, to filter information to suit the confirmation-bias of their party. We even find ourselves in the unfortunate situation where a reliable slant creates brand loyalty. It follows that, regardless of our preferred media outlet, our reactions are probably out of proportion to what they would be if we knew all the facts. If we consume mass media, we will quickly encounter areas where people are actively trying to manipulate us, starting with the emotions. The more volatile emotions can act like a hallucinogen: for example, fear distorts both our perceptions and our thinking. So does anger or hatred. Eventually the bias can get to the point where the contempt or fear persists and is the automatic reaction to the targeted person or view.
To mass-create extremists requires the willing participation of mass media outlets, the willing consumption of bias, and the willing justification of an extreme reaction. It also requires a willing disinterest in whether another point of view may have legitimate concerns. Each of those points is an opportunity to turn back the tide on the mass-creation of extremists. It takes discernment and (in these times) some amount of patience and courage. We can try to broaden our sources of information to find the information that is being filtered out. We can actively wonder what piece of the picture we are missing; the additional information may support views we haven't considered yet. We can entertain some skepticism about our own emotions after consuming political media, much as we might after watching a scary movie. We can think twice about justifying extreme reactions. And we can hold the media outlets accountable when they withhold or distort information, or manipulate volatile emotions.
With the state of information today, I find it helpful to work from the premise that any politicized story is uncorroborated until seeing if the other side has possession of facts that are not being reported through the first outlet. Assuming that any political story is uncorroborated leads to a certain "Schrodinger's Cat" view of the news: any given story may or may not be true. I find myself with a whole zoo full of Schrodinger's cats. I will bet that it is more accurate than some of the certainties on the market.
I hope it is still a time for peace. But as anyone who watches the international scene knows, peace doesn't just happen. It takes willingness. That willingness is eroded by hatred and suspicion and fear. I'd encourage anyone who loves peace to tune out voices that promote hatred, suspicion, and fear.
A time for peace -- I pray it's not too late.
(Slightly altered version of the lyrics to Turn, Turn, Turn -- based on Ecclesiastes)