No Twitter. No political-ish discussions, more or less. That was what I intended to do during Lent, which I observe as much for the secular self-improvement aspects as the religious meaning.
By the letter of the law, I cheated. On Twitter, I went from “automated posts only” to “well, I need to share this piece of mine again” to checking the occasional trending topic. Then I spent two full days back in the thick of things because the women’s soccer team finally reached a collective bargaining agreement. (Trust me — that’s a big deal. Read my story.)
On Facebook, I did pretty well to avoid political discussion, but I couldn’t give myself a 100% rating. Don’t even ask about my vow to get to the gym twice a week for workouts and once for yoga. (In my defense, the gym canceled our yoga classes.)
But by the spirit of the law, Lent was a success for me. I was able to step back and put things in perspective. We often speak of “Lenten meditation,” and I think I did that.
I spent far less time arguing. Someone tried to bait me into a pointless soccer argument on Twitter, and I went on Twitter just long enough to decline.
And I broke the habit of trying to express every single thought I have.
When I go back on Twitter today, I can set a higher bar for my interactions. I hope I’ve permanently overcome the withdrawal pangs.
So what did I gain from my meditation? A few personal/professional thoughts and a few political/philosophical. (Including: Why isn’t “philopolitical” a word but “sociopolitical” is?)
They’re somewhat intertwined. In the current philopolitical climate, I’ve thought a good bit about what I can do to make things better, persoprofessionally.
One clever thought was to start a new blog with a simple, catchy name: The Bullshit Blog. We are at peak bullshit these days — on Ash Wednesday, the headline on my Guardian briefing e-newsletter was “Trump offers upbeat themes, inaccuracies in Congress speech” — and calling it out directly seems like a good way to combat it.
And there’s certainly a place for that. These days, it’s late-night TV. I’m not sure I could really add anything by dwelling in the negative when I’m not as funny as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah. Frankly, they’re struggling to make it palatable, so what chance would I have? (The leaders at this moment are probably the weeklies — Samantha Bee and John Oliver.)
Fact-checking sites also have their place. They can remind us that Trump warned Obama not to intervene in Syria, only to accuse him of being weak on Syria as he prepped a missile salvo to do what Trump said he … geez, I can’t even get through these sentences.
But I’ve thought beyond the daily bullshit. Certainly, long-term trends are at play. Trump is simply the next level up from decades of denying climate change or leading us into Iraq to destroy the chemical weapons Saddam was about to unleash. “Have you forgotten,” indeed.
Perhaps there’s a value to seeing it coming. Did we all know, deep down, that someone would eventually justify Trump’s wiretapping accusations by finding some instance of someone in law enforcement investigating someone in Trump’s campaign over ties to Russia? (In some respects, wouldn’t it be a bigger scandal if law enforcement was not keeping a close eye on Trump’s confidantes?)
And I am indeed cataloging bullshit. Instead of sharing every little thing right away, I’m building up a library. At some point, I might unleash it.
But let’s go beyond that. Let’s go beyond partisan philopolitics.
Left-wing bullshit also exists. I’m not going to argue that they’re equivalent. But if you ever watched Whale Wars — or Crossfire, for that matter — you know the supposed good guys can be doing a bit better.
There’s actually a common theme to bullshit of all parties. It’s intellectual laziness. The person who believes climate-change denialism out of convenience has much in common with the person who shuts down a complex discussion by accusing others of seeing it through “white privilege.”
George Will, of all people, tried to make this point in an April column. Will, like Andrew Sullivan a few weeks prior, drew upon the Middlebury incident, in which a protest over controversial author Charles Murray absurdly turned into shouting down his forum and assaulting — yes, assaulting — the professor who doesn’t even agree with Murray. The headline on Will’s piece didn’t really fit because it wasn’t just about “alternative facts.” It’s about that intellectual laziness. It’s about finding some way to “win” an argument without actually thinking about it.
Coincidentally, I saw a couple of things along those lines:
First, the time-worn “blame the other party” argument …
Second, a story on the U.S. women’s soccer team’s collective bargaining agreement cast last year’s debate over the labor issue as “a smattering of sports fans who (wrongly) believe women are inferior athletes and thus don’t deserve equal pay to the men” and … everyone else. Not accurate. The facts: A lot of people, including me, raised questions about the misleading rhetoric the U.S. women used last year. When they abandoned that nonsense — not caving in but literally becoming reasonable — they got a good deal.
(It wasn’t just journalism anti-bullshit OCD that made me and others question their negotiating stance. We had legitimate questions about the existing labor agreement, which was far more cruel to players outside the selected 25 or so in the national team pool than it was to those in it, and whether the players were arguing to help that second or third tier of players as well. We had reason to believe they were not. And it’s bizarre that our concerns put us on the opposite “side” of the issue from people who proclaimed themselves proud “equal pay” allies but wouldn’t know Tori Huster from Tori Amos.)
And finally, a Guardian piece asked if U.S. sports media has become a “leftwing propaganda tool.” The piece argued that ESPN’s critics protest too much.
I’d suggest this: Why should we accept that the values in question here, mostly tolerance, are “leftwing”?
The common thread in these three bits of ugliness: Labeling.
And while I was kicking this around in my head, I saw an ad for an AXS TV interview with Roger Waters, who offered up this wonderful comment: “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘fussy left-wing socialist Bolshevik.’ It’s very easy to make labels and attach them to people in order to lessen the impact of their voice.”
It’s the simplest argument tactic. I’d say it’s getting more popular these days, but I can’t prove that. In the 1950s, you could shut anyone up by calling them a Communist. Today, it’s “liberal.” (Or “Faux News viewer” or something like that. The left really doesn’t do insults as well as the right. That’s why left-wing talk radio never caught on.)
And yes, it’s bullshit, in a way. But it’s something else as well. It’s the lack of interest in understanding.
Which leads to the next point …
Empathy is essential. But in the broader sense of public conversation, what we really need is understanding.
Yes, we should all practice empathy and try to walk in each other’s shoes. But that only covers us on the person-to-person level. It diminishes hatred, and there’s nothing wrong with that (with apologies to political strategists whose job is to get us all frothing and face-punching). We need, though, to talk in broader terms.
And that means listening critically. Yes, I empathize with the man in one of the many “let’s all try to empathize with Trump voters” piece who is fretting about the possibility of losing a manufacturing job that currently pays him six figures. Imagine what kind of house that money buys in Iowa. But I also think he should take some of that money to take classes in something else.
And there should be no empathy for a lack of empathy, which is what much of the country has now toward government workers. Tell people that government workers typically have given up higher-paying private-sector jobs to get up at 5 a.m. and commute to work, and you’ll get a lot of blank stares. People have this image of “Washington” as a bunch of fatcats sitting around eating fancy meals. They don’t realize that the fatcats are the lobbyists, the lawyers and the contractors. Not the government workers. So if you cut “government” and increase defense spending, what’s going to happen? Right! You’ll have a lot more contractors eating foie gras with your tax money!
So we need a balance: empathy + critical thinking = understanding. Everyone has a right to be heard. Not everyone has a right to be right.
The next question, maybe more difficult: How do we make our conversations productive?
A lot of people are giving up. “Don’t feed the trolls” becomes “you can’t change anyone’s mind.”
Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. If we don’t change anyone’s mind politically, we’ll have bad results. If I allow people to lie about my writing, it affects my book sales.
I’ve found that minds are changed not in a single argument, but by patient persuasion in which how you live can be just as important as how you argue. In high school, I was a creationist who surely had a few negative stereotypes of “others” — gay people, Muslims, Northerners, etc. What changed my mind wasn’t a single argument. It was meeting people and listening to them.
So to pull this all back to what I learned from Lent: What am I going to say now?
I don’t think I can set hard rules. I can’t say I’m not going to “talk politics” because everything is political to an extent.
But I’ll try some guidelines, and they certainly apply to sports and philopolitics equally:
- No more conversations with out-and-out trolls. Some people don’t want discussion. They want to compensate for some poor decision or bad luck in their own lives by making others miserable. But notice I say “no more conversations.” I reserve the right to make a quick tweet to explain why I’m not talking to someone, or perhaps an quick aside for someone who’s copied into the conversation.
- Before sharing something, ask myself if there’s a larger point I can make. I’ve built up some bookmarking tools. Maybe I can save a few stories on a particular topic and build upon that?
- Make it funny. I think satire is one of the best tools we have against bullshit. Simply screaming back at someone never does the trick.
So that means I’m going to be more selective. It’s not just a question of picking my battles. It’s a question of efficiency. How can I make the best points to the widest audience to provide something thoughtful and/or entertaining? (Sometimes, I even get paid for that. I should work on it some more.)
Going 40 days with some hard limits forced me to get out of a rut. I don’t need to share every single thing I read. I don’t need to get caught up in endless Twitter battles.
But did I miss it? Oh yes. Tonight, I watched a great UFC card … and I didn’t talk about it. That’s not fun. Sports are supposed to be social.
So I’m glad I did this. But I’m glad to be back. Unleash the hounds …