Opinion

Want to change our national discourse? Don't be a slave to it.

Pundits aren’t solely to blame for the vitriol. They’re just giving us what we want. New media and the Internet heightened our symbiotic relationship – making everyone a demanding participant and sensational purveyor. To change our discourse we have to be masters, not slaves, to the cycle.

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The memorial service for the victims of Jared Loughner in Tucson a couple weeks ago gave me insight into the problem at the heart of our broken national dialogue. It wasn’t President Obama’s noble efforts to find words that heal. It wasn’t the predictable denouncement of the vitriol that seems to have taken over media and political discourse. It was the crowd itself.

At times, the memorial service looked more like a high school football rally, with audience members jumping in their seats, cheering and hollering. Grief looks different for everyone, of course, and there certainly was a need for raw, emotional release on that occasion. But in that crowd, I saw barely controlled chaos and a demanding hunger for the words – the show – people had come to see and be part of. And I immediately recognized that mindset. I’ve seen it before at the recent town-hall style listening sessions on health care. The raucous attitude seemed to spread like wildfire – the same wildfire that seems to consume cable TV and the blogosphere.

IN PICTURES: Tucson memorial

It’s easy to blame the embarrassingly immature vitriol that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin produce for the current lack of civility in public affairs. But those who think that these commentators are compelling the crowd to do their will have it inside out. Ms. Palin, Mr. Limbaugh, and Mr. Beck, as well as their cable counterparts on the left (and there are many), aren’t so much leading the crowd as pandering to it. There was a time, when those in the media did, in fact, shape public opinion. Now, due to the perverseness of the Internet and the prevalence of high-tech polling, they merely echo it. And like actual echoes, they are, by definition, an aberration of the real thing.

'The medium is the message'

It was the media visionary Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” Philosophers have written whole books on its meaning. Basically, the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. Mr. McLuhan warned that an ignorance of the pervasive effects of this phenomenon could be detrimental to our culture.

If we wish to return some measure of civility back into our political discourse, we need to demand a higher standard than those in the media have delivered. That means we need to start with ourselves. In the age of multimedia access, we have become both the media and the message. The result has been a predictable downward spiral. We can do better.

But it isn’t enough to merely say that we need to tone down the rhetoric, as some social commentators have pointed out. Those who are busy robotically screening their content for potentially violence-tinged phrases – such as “in the crosshairs” – are missing the point. It is the entire tone and character of today’s political conversation that has gone into the gutter. And that is mostly due to the means of how that conversation is played out.

How many of us freely admit (or even boast) to having our biggest exposure to current events provided by (wink, wink, nod, nod) ironically faked news shows produced by Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert? How many others look to a half-term governor for direction on important public issues – on Twitter no less?

Healthy elitism and leaving the electronic dungeon

McLuhan could certainly have predicted that this is where we would end up if he knew that our primary means of communication would be Twitter, Facebook, staged news programs, and web sites that merely compete for mouse clicks and eyeballs rather than trying to engage dynamic minds.

New media isn’t all bad, of course. These mediums themselves aren’t the problem. They’ve done wonderful things by opening up the conversation exponentially. But increased participation also means fewer reflective filters and bigger competition for ratings. Intelligent analysis often gets lost in a news cycle desperate to supply instant gratification to the crowd.

Four ways to kick the partisan habit

Perhaps what we really need is to embrace a measure of healthy elitism. Where are today's successors to great conservative thinkers like the late William F. Buckley and liberal intellectuals like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan when we need them? It’s time we sought out an intellectual and dynamic, vital center. But in order to escape the dead zone we’re in, we’ll first have to slip the shackles of the electronic dungeon that we’ve created. That doesn’t mean we need to smash the machine. We simply need to become the master rather than the slave of our technology.

Brian Fox is a freelance writer.

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