Ignorance isn’t bliss
by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird May 2022)
There’s an old Twilight Zone episode in which a man is suddenly able to hear other people’s thoughts. In “Penny for Your Thoughts,” Hector B. Poole is at first confused, but then uses his new ability to try to prevent crimes he thinks his coworkers are planning, blackmail his boss for a new position, and end up with the girl of his dreams. In a typical Twilight Zone twist, what seems like a great advantage has unintended consequences.
I don’t think I would really want to know what other people are thinking. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone reading my innermost thoughts. Although I believe strongly in the importance of honesty and integrity, some things are better left unsaid. My mother taught me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. And there is an old saying that one should never discuss politics or religion in polite company.
When I was serving on active duty in the Navy, we were strongly encouraged to vote (for me, it was always through an absentee ballot) but discouraged from discussing politics. In fact, political activity for anyone serving in the military is severely limited. Consequently, my perspective was that we didn’t have to talk about politics. A good citizen researched the candidates and the issues on their own and voted according to what they felt was best for their community and the nation.
Our democracy depends upon participation by the people. And I always believed that through the ballot box, our system would, in the end, result in a better world. I felt that political differences were just varying takes on how to achieve what was best for the country and its citizens — that collectively, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the electorate would help bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.
Like those of us in the military, elected officials all take an oath to support and defend the Constitution. To me, political speech was all about hearing competing ideas to find a balance of when the government should regulate something and when government should get out of the way. But I was a bit naïve in my belief that the system of checks and balances would always protect our form of government.
There have always been those who use the government for their own personal gain. Corporations and the wealthy have worked for decades to dismantle the programs put in place after the Great Depression that regulated business, provided a social safety net, and built the infrastructure that improved the lives of the average American. Since the early 1950s, there has been a concerted effort to convince people that, as Ronald Reagan put it, “government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
In the 1990s, Rush Limbaugh and Rupert Murdoch’s media companies demonized mainstream news as leftist, socialist, and anti-American. And those sustained efforts to undermine the trust in media have been effective. Attacks on objective truth have become so common that in many respects, we are a nation divided into alternate realities of alternative facts.
Politicians — far-right Republicans in particular — have become so effective at disinformation and bending the truth that, despite the lack of any credible evidence, a majority of Republicans still believe the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. The concerted effort to overturn the election that led to the insurrection on January 6, 2021, and the attempts since then to hide the truth of what happened, are a direct attack on our constitutional form of government.
The echo chamber of social media has shown me that the veneer of polite conversation which avoids talk of politics and religion masked the depth and extent of our political divide. Although it is certainly more complex than just Republicans versus Democrats, the growing belief of so many that the other side is the enemy means that we can no longer work together for the common good. It is no wonder that Congress is so dysfunctional, and that any significant legislation is nearly impossible to achieve.
The pledge of allegiance describes our nation as indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. But the battle for truth and power shows that we are not as indivisible as we think. The rise of authoritarianism, the push for a single party autocracy, the attack on fair elections, and restrictions on the right to vote are all direct threats to our democratic republic.
So, what can be done to counter this threat? I recognize the dangers of demagoguery and disinformation, but I still believe in the power of free speech and open debate. Our First Amendment protections can be used to restore objective truth. We can fight disinformation with fact checks, use tools to evaluate media bias, and call out hateful and divisive rhetoric when we see it.
But the power of confirmation bias, echo chamber media, and click-bait algorithms will continue to push us apart. The monetization of social media has created some of the wealthiest companies in America by driving a social wedge through America. Perhaps the power of social media could also be used to counter the spread of disinformation.
A coordinated effort of both private sector and government actions to disincentivize the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation could turn around this trend. Some work has already been done to de-platform the worst offenders that spread lies and promote anti-government violence. Disinformation can be flagged. Action can be taken against disinformation similar to the way we hold companies accountable for lying about the products they sell. Sources of disinformation can be identified and foreign influence through social media can be regulated. And all of this can be done without compromising our freedoms under the first amendment.
Some of my friends have abandoned social media because of the toxic environment it can become. I respect that. I have tried to limit my own use of social media. But I appreciate that I can also see what others are thinking and posting, and I can see first-hand how divisive the comments can become.
I don’t have to read minds to understand how people are thinking and I can see the effects of the polarizing rhetoric on our nation.
I don’t want to suppress the speech of those who see the world differently. I want to listen to those who may have a better idea of the role government should play in our lives.
I want to live in a world where our political speech and debate are based on facts and objective truth.
Is that still possible?