It is no secret that social discourse has deteriorated in recent years. We are having a harder time communicating amicably in these tense and contentious political times, and a host of reasons have been offered for the decline in our civility that implicates a variety of different culprits.
We can all point to public figures who we believe to be responsible for, or at least complicit in, the decline of decorum in our public discourse. There is no shortage of elected officials, pundits, entertainers, and provocateurs who have embraced a more brazen communication style in order to stir their constituents or audience- sometimes with lofty aims, and sometimes for personal gain.
In addition to the venom and vitriol that is bandied about with increasing regularity and abandon, there are also a variety of innovations in our media landscape which can be cited as contributing factors in our growing contentiousness. The echo chambers into which we are cordoned off, the algorithms which feed us constant content that supports our preexisting notions, the outlets that pursue agendas rather than objectivity – all of these facets of modern media compound the divides in our country and need to be analyzed and reconsidered if we hope to achieve any degree of social cohesion.
Beyond these factors, the very mechanisms of our communication are eroding the fabric of social interaction such that it is not only the content of our discourse but the format of it that is becoming problematic and counterproductive. As Sherry Turkle, Director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at MIT explains in this brief interview from the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival, there is an inherent value in face-to-face communication which is lost in our age of text and digital dialogue.
“I focused my research on what we lose when we don’t come together face-to-face, because we lost a lot,” Turkle says. Conversation is not just the words we share, but our body-language, our eye contact, our energy transfer, all of which create empathy, and all of which, Turkle posits, are lost when we engage with words alone through our devices.
Do you ever read an angry and aggressive comment on social media and wonder if its author would be so bold and offensive if s/he were communicating in person? Do you see people interacting with as much rancor and disrespect in the real world as they do so often in the digital space? We often don’t, which parallels Turkle’s findings and confirms that we need to sometimes break out of our digital bubble.
Finally, if there is a marked decrease in civility in our real world discourse, we must ask how much of that can be attributed to the type of impersonal communication that we are engaging in daily through our screens? Are we training ourselves (and our children) in a new type of dialogue that reduces empathy and deepens our divides?
Clearly, there are a variety of issues that must be addressed in order to restore a more respectful and productive exchange of ideas to our national conversation. The good news is that there are many who are conscious of the issues and are working to develop solutions. In the meantime, as Turkle’s studies indicate, less screen time and more face time will help us to reconnect not only with our loved ones who crave our attention but with our natural stores of empathy and compassion which are the key to cooperation and overcoming conflict.