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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

What do liberals and conservatives hear when they argue?

Stephen H. Provost

My father taught me a good debater is able to argue both sides of a point, and I discovered on my own that it’s a lot more fun to do it with a little (or a lot) of sarcasm throw in.

So, I’m going to be tweaking both liberals and conservatives with this post, but there’s a serious point behind it: We don’t tend to realize how we come across to other people, especially in political conversations. While you’re making those deeply considered arguments for your deeply held beliefs on social media, it’s quite likely that those on the other side of the issue are hearing something entirely different.

What are they hearing?

Maybe something a little like this:

What conservatives might hear when liberals get on their soapbox ... 

  1. Men are bad – They’re a bunch of clueless oafs who use their entrenched gender-based privilege to push people around. Besides they’re only interested in sex and beer and football. (What about women who like those things, too? Shhhh. We’re conveniently ignoring that).
  2. Pro athletes are bad – We should be paying teachers that much! Screw supply and demand. Besides, the fine arts are the only acceptable form of entertainment. NASCAR? UFC? Boxing? They all gotta go!
  3. Faith is bad – Unless it’s faith in myself. (Hey, stop reminding me of how many times I’ve screwed things up, OK? It takes a village, don’t ya know!)
  4. Other liberals are bad – Unless they agree with everything on the accepted liberal “Litmus Test Checklist of Acceptable Knee-Jerk Responses.” What’s that? You say liberalism is about thinking for yourself? Puleeez! That’s so 1960s.
  5. This chemical is bad – There’s a 0.03 percent greater chance of contracting (insert fatal condition here) if one consumes 200 gallons of it a day. This must be stopped at all costs!
  6. Humans are bad – We’re destroying the environment! (But please give us free health care so we can live longer and make it worse.)
  7. Success is bad – If you have too much money, it either means you cheated to get it, inherited it from someone who did, or that you’re hoarding it and not giving it to the less fortunate people who deserve it more than a cheapskate like you!
  8. White people are bad – Because skin color defines us, don’t ya know. Wait a minute ...
  9. Cars are bad – Unless they’re electric. Everyone should ride a bike to work, even if your office is sixty miles away! Or telecommute, even if you work loading goods onto containers in a warehouse. Don’t you know you’re part of the problem? That diesel truck you’re loading is destroying us all!
  10. The Electoral College is bad – Because it’s unfair? Get real. No one cares about that. Because we lost! Twice!

What liberals might hear when conservatives get on their high horse... 

  1. Immigrants are bad – They take all those dirt-cheap jobs that should go to Americans so the corporate honchos can keep all the money!
  2. Government is bad – But elect us anyway! Because it's good for us (we want those speaking engagement fees, do-nothing corporate board seats and seven-figure deal for our memoir)!
  3. Taxes are bad – Unless they’re used for the military. Who needs roads, health care, education? You’re on your own with that shit.
  4. The arts are bad – Most of that shit was either made by people on LSD, about to commit suicide or trying to brainwash you to give to the DNC. Ever notice how LSD and DNC kinda rhyme? You can’t tell me that’s a coincidence!
  5. Science is bad – Especially if it disagrees with my interpretation of my scripture, which just happens to support my financial agenda. Isn’t it nice how that works out?
  6. Universities are bad – They fill our young people’s heads with all sorts of perverse ideas about evolution and equality (communism!) and diversity. Egads! There’s a reason they call it liberal arts. (Makes the sign of the cross).
  7. Gun control is bad – Because the NRA said so. The gun manufacturers need to sell more guns, and we’re in their pockets (but we can’t admit that).
  8. The media are bad – Biased! Fake! Trust only Fox News and Drudge and Rush and Hannity. They’re not biased! No, not at all!
  9. Same-sex marriage is bad – Don’t get us wrong. We still believe government should stay out of everything, but sex is different. It’s only in the most private, intimate setting that government has a place! You have to admit that makes sense!
  10. Poverty is bad – It means you didn’t try hard enough! It’s all your fault! You want a living wage? So sorry. You want to survive, you gotta play the game, baby. You’re the one who worships Darwin, right? Well, maybe you oughta take a page out of his book. It’s all about survival of the fattest … er… fittest.

And the one they both agree on: a distaste for the First Amendment:

Free speech is bad (conservative version) – We can’t let J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain and John Stewart corrupt our youth now, can we? “Harry Potter” almost ended civilization as we know it: They used that witchcraft to elect that guy from Kenya! We can’t let that happen again!

Free speech is bad (liberal version) – We can’t let anyone offend our delicate sensibilities, now, can we? We need safe spaces to protect our little ears from your bad, bad words.

Now I’m sure there will be some people on both sides who don’t like that I’ve said any of this – which just reinforces my last point about free speech.

Besides, you’re not supposed to like it.

Are debaters these days still able to argue both sides of an issue? Or have we become so addicted to political defensiveness that our debate preparations consist solely of buttressing our own POV – with both reasonable points and kitchen-sink-dumping fallacies?

People on both sides of such “dialogues” are at fault, whether they’re arrogantly pushing their views on others or refusing to listen when presentations are calm and rational. We need to start talking to each other again, rather than spouting talking points and then raising objections before we’ve even heard what the other side has to say.

We might just learn something … if we’re not too busy coming off as such know-it-alls!

The Internet is our Matrix, and it's killing us

Stephen H. Provost

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
— Morpheus to Neo in "The Matrix"

The Matrix has you.

Whether you know it or not – and if we stick with the film’s analogy, there’s a good chance you don’t, you’re in the process of becoming dependent upon a form of virtual reality that could just drive you nuts.

So, here’s your red pill.

If you’re reading this, you’re online, which means you’re hooked up to our 21st century approximation of the Matrix, a mechanism that has supplanted our traditional sources of … you name it: shopping, news, entertainment, information. You get the idea.

You’re more likely to find a newspaper – minus the paper – on your computer screen than on your front doorstep these days. You find movie times online now, too, along with the movies themselves. Netflix, anyone? YouTube? Who needs a TV weatherperson when you’ve got And who needs a book when you can download the text to your Kindle?

Despite pockets of resistance, the Internet has become so pervasive that it’s starting to look like Standard Oil at the turn of the 20th century. That company became so powerful, and society so dependent upon it, that the Supreme Court ruled it was a monopoly and broke it up into 34 separate companies.

We can’t do that with the Internet, which unlike Standard Oil, isn’t a single company. And it doesn’t work exactly the way a monopoly does. Unlike a traditional monopoly, hasn’t limited our options, it’s broadened them exponentially, providing access to more streams of information and entertainment than ever before.

Growing dependence

I love that about the Internet, and a lot of other people do, too, which is why it’s become so successful.

Yet in doing so, it’s also become nearly indispensable, and there’s the rub. Even as it has broadened the number of options at our fingertips, it’s narrowed our means of accessing them. The more brick-and-mortar stores close, the more we’re reliant on Amazon and its brethren. The more newspapers shift their focus online, the more we have to shift our focus there, too. The more “streaming” video becomes a thing, the more we rely on it for our entertainment. And so it goes, right on down the line.

National security experts long ago started worrying about our growing dependence on the Internet. Back in the days when MySpace was still a thing, they began warning that even warfare would shift from traditional battlefields to online cyber-skirmishes involving black hats, white hats and a whole new form of espionage.

Turns out they were right. Russian interference in our political process is merely the most blatant example of a problem that’s been simmering for a long time involving hackers on the one hand and security experts on the other, each trying to stay one step ahead of the other.

This involves continual – and rapid – change, something human beings aren’t always comfortable with.

Information overload

Yes, change is good, but constant rapid change puts people in a continual state of anxiety, slaves to a fight-or-flight response that feels like it’s always on the verge of kicking in.

Ever wonder why so many people resist moving away from fossil fuels and toward alternative forms of energy? It’s not because they like pollution or want climate change. It’s not even just about jobs or industries, although that’s a part of it. Fundamentally, it’s about security. We develop habits and, no matter how much we strive to embrace innovation, there’s a part of us that resists it for no other reason than “we’ve always done it this way.”

More to the point, we know how to do it this way.

There’s a tendency to dismiss resistance to change as backward or ignorant, but there’s far more to it than that. It’s a natural human defense against the kind of upheaval we’ve experienced as we’ve become more and more dependent upon the Internet – where rapid change is the rule rather than the exception.

We’ve moved out of the information age and into the age of information overload. I’m not just talking about the proliferation of choices the Internet has offered us. Those are, after all, still choices. There might be millions or even billions of websites out there, but we tend to find those we like and stick to them (insulating ourselves in the process from opinions that don’t gibe with our own, but that’s another story).

Not-so-brave new world

Still, we don’t always have a choice to shield ourselves from information overload, or the anxiety it causes.

One simple example: The demand that we continually change (and remember) multiple passwords as a means of shielding ourselves from identity theft, computer viruses, etc. It’s not like the old days, when you taught your child to remember his home phone number, which never changed unless you moved to a different city.

That’s stressful, and it’s just the beginning.

Add to that the stress of staying on top of internet marketing techniques, whether you work for a major company or are in business for yourself. Google, Facebook and so forth are continually tweaking their algorithms, so marketers have no choice but to respond. A generation or two ago, you took out an ad in the newspaper, on radio or TV, then measured the results in terms of how many shoppers turned our and how big a sales boost you got. Simple cause and effect.

Now, you aren’t limited to those three marketing options, which are largely secondary anyway. Online, you have to market your product via Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram. And Snapchat. And Pinterest. And LinkedIn. And Amazon. And Goodreads. And on and on and on. Each of these platforms has different rules, different systems to learn and different ways of maximizing page views.

(As an author active in promoting my work on all those platforms except for Snapchat, I know what I'm talking about.)

Once you’ve mastered those rules, you’ve got to test them by figuring out where those clicks are coming from, along with the demographics of real and potential customers.

You’ve got to use the proper metadata and keywords. Then, once you’ve got all that in place, you’ll need to measure the performance of text vs. images vs. videos at attracting a user’s attention within a milieu of never-ending options. Are users staying engaged? Are they returning? You’ve got to measure those things, too.

We’re not built that way

Suddenly, you’re light years away from a relying on folks to page through the Sunday paper at their leisure, providing solid customer service when they visit your establishment and hoping they’ll spread the word.

Pretty soon, nearly all your time is being taken up adapting to ever-changing systems, processing information and analyzing the results. Then starting all over, virtually from scratch, when some algorithm-writer changes the rules.

In an atmosphere where marketing is king, queen, prince and pauper, there’s little time left for actually creating the product you’re supposed to be selling in the first place. The process is king, and the product takes second place. Heck, just getting through the process is a challenge – one that often demands a greater degree of multitasking.

Despite what this word might suggest, our brains aren’t built to multitask. If they were, texting and driving would be no big deal.

"If you have a complicated task, it requires all your attention, and if you're trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks, it's not going to work," David Meyer, cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan, said in an article by Joe Robinson titled The Myth of Multitasking.

The fact is, we can’t think straight when we try to process too many things at once. Our memories suffer. Our ability to think creatively – which involves things like daydreaming, brainstorming and joyfully exploring the world around us – is stifled. We're actually 40 percent less productive.

We become stressed-out automatons, more prone to breaking down thanks to hypertension, fatigue and burnout. But we've fashioned a world for ourselves where we seem to have little choice. It's a world of diminishing product value, increasing health problems and rising frustration – a world where style hasn’t merely surpassed substance, it’s supplanted it.

Welcome to the assembly line. Welcome to the future.

The Matrix has us all.

You ought to be setting aside large chunks of time where you just think. Einstein was not multitasking when he was dreaming up the special and general theories of relativity.
— David Meyer, University of Michigan cognitive scientist

Overcoming prejudice is child's play; we adults can do it, too

Stephen H. Provost

I’m going to tell you a short personal story, one that my parents told me because I was too young to remember it – even though I was one of the central characters. Both my parents are gone now, and I wanted to preserve this story, not because it says anything about me, but because it says something about how we learn to hate and fear those who are different ... or not, if we've got good role models. 

When I was 3 years old, my father got a one-year job as a visiting professor of American politics in Sydney, Australia. On our way there, we stopped at a South Pacific island and were greeted by a bellhop at the hotel. He was a tall, bearded man with dark skin and a friendly smile. He was probably in his twenties or thirties.

I know this because I’ve seen a picture of him. In the photo, which is probably stored away in the attic somewhere, I'm standing next to the man, holding his hand. Dad enjoyed taking photos (a favored pastime he handed down to me), and he liked to show this one as part of his living room slide shows long before the era of PowerPoint and YouTube.

Anyway, the story, as my dad told it, went something like this:

We were checking into this hotel, and the aforementioned gentlemen asked to help us with our bags. I stared up at him and pointed, then turned to my parents and said, “He’s different.”

Mom and Dad were aghast. They thought sure I’d noticed the man’s dark skin and had made the kind of rude remark that children who “don’t know any better” tend to make.

But the next words out of my mouth immediately put everyone at ease: “He’s got hair on his face.”

What if I had remarked about the color of his skin? Is there really anything wrong with acknowledging our differences? I don’t think so … as long as we also acknowledge our common humanity.

Children who “don’t know any better” are too often taught to “know worse” by adults who use differences as an excuse to demean people who aren’t like them.

I’m thankful my parents weren’t like that.

A funny postscript to this story: My dad, the following year, grew a beard of his own. I later followed suit, not to be like dad, but the opposite – to be different. At 17, most other guys in my high school didn’t have one, and I liked the idea of having my own identity.

Identity is important. So is respect. I may not have known that yet when I was 3 years old, but my parents taught me that over the years.

We can celebrate our differences and our commonality at the same time. It isn't hard. A child can do it.

Author's note: Dad’s birthday is coming up this month, and it will be the first year I won’t be able to celebrate it with him. You’re still making a difference, Dad, even if you’re no longer here to see it.