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Today’s diminished discourse

It’s time we make conscientious efforts to step away from political tribalism.
Dec 15,2017
Today, due to the desire to exchange ideas and opinions, more people engage in social media than read newspapers. That activity is commonly defined as “discourse.”

But when one looks up Merriam-Webster’s definition for discourse, one finds the following additional definition that is labeled as archaic: “the capacity of orderly thought or procedure — rationality.” It seems we may be leaving some of our rationality to our past.

This is not to say people are truly less rational — they just seem to be. People once swapped stories and opinions at the barbershop and street corners. Today, similar gossiping and opining takes place over the internet.

With millions of resources available at the click of a mouse, people reinforce their notions. A recent Rand Corporation white paper on Russia’s fire hose propaganda model noted, “When information volume is low, recipients tend to favor experts, but when information volume is high, recipients tend to favor information from other users.”

Public relations firms have long noted this behavior. People trust opinions from social media more than traditional media, which supposedly upholds traditional standards of journalistic integrity like vetting sources and double-checking facts.

While people continue to debate each other face to face, more often, it is done over the internet. As such, we have entered a new age of discourse, which is moving away from the archaic notions of discourse to tribal warfare. In fact, I find it increasingly rare and refreshing to come across a concise, rational argument, regardless of whether I end up agreeing or disagreeing with it.

Both intentionally and subconsciously, discourse too often has come down to emulations of professional spin doctors who adroitly avoid hard facts and uncomfortable challenges by changing the subject. Consider how often you find the following on the internet:

• Attack the news source, rather than argued facts or opinions. Make the other person defensive about the source of his or her stance rather than addressing the point at hand.

• Preface your reply with “What about…” by turning attention to an unrelated transgression or other negative example without addressing the presented point.

• Engage in trolling. Deliberately and cleverly anger the other person so that the original point made by the other person is lost in the exchange.

We are learning from some of the best cable television internet spin doctors. Probably one of the very best is Trump aide Kellyanne Conway. Even if one may strongly take exception to her remarks, one must give full credit to her mastery of the craft. As such, I suspect many people have internalized her and other political operatives’ approaches to public debate. Consider some of the tactics she uses when addressing often-hostile journalists:

• When asked a tough question in which an honest answer would be incriminating, don’t answer it. Rather, reply with an answer to a different but similar question.

• If the journalist continues to press with a hard question, use a three-part tactic. First, make oneself out as the inquisitor’s victim, then repeat the hard question’s key word in a defensive statement. Finally, answer with a new question based on the key word.

• When caught in an indefensible portion, reinterpret the position as being a more defensible position. Then respond from the newly defined position.

• Should the other person continue to press and push one into a corner, pass the buck by stating “I don’t know,” make up something vague or say “I have to get back to you on that” while not clearly promising that “I will get back to you on that.”

We have all seen some, if not all, of the above tactics on Facebook and elsewhere. If we are to be fully honest, we have engaged in some of these same techniques in our online discourse, purposely or unintentionally.

The problem is being exasperated by our internet exchanges. The internet unintentionally promotes a type of distant involvement — an acknowledgement of a problem without a commitment to actually getting involved in the solution. Consequently, people today fight about anything and everything.

Furthermore, the internet may be creating a new form of social insecurity. When an argument appears, the regular social media debater feels isolated if he or she is not taking part in the discourse, no matter how rational or irrational the input from that person and other people may be.

So what is one to do? The obvious cure is refrain from such online discussions, which can be difficult. Participation in these social media forums can be habit-forming. So if one must, guard how one engages in online discourse, first by monitoring oneself from engaging in practices outlined above and second by calling out people who attempt these same tactics.

At the same time, clearly state one’s opinions and equally differentiate opinions from facts. Be sure that what facts one presents are verifiable rather than assumed.

Resist jumping on bandwagons of current popular opinion. Doing so does one very little good and may collectively do much harm.
Finally, feel free to openly disagree with like-minded friends rather than limiting the contrary opinions that you have labeled as being with “the other.” Make conscientious efforts to step away from political tribalism. It is past time we try to return to more rational discourse.

*The author is the owner of Onsite Studios, publisher of the Korean Economic Reader and author of two books on doing business in Korea.

Tom Coyner