Sunday, March 22, 2020

So Much Noise

Daily in this election year the personal and political portions of life have become difficult to separate. President Trump dominates the airwaves and the dialogue, as his Tweets are disseminated further on every newscast.

Political news is everywhere we look—in restaurants, doctors’ offices, my phone’s notification stream. A conversation with friends too quickly slips into one that betrays what one thinks about the man, negative or positive. Friends are lost.

We are being slowly herded into personal silence.

Historically, silence has been a tool of dictators and autocrats. In other countries we have seen repressions, arrests of political opponents, executions—literal silencings.

Now that social media can be manipulated toward political ends, however, we have an alternative, the silencing that results from overkill. From political noise.

We Americans are not used to a constant political bleat, at least not in between election campaigns.

This orchestrated noise affects our health as well as our sense of well-being. We react to the shock of daily news—melting ice caps, the novel coronavirus, Australia burning, earthquakes, floods, as well as the usual death and destruction in the Middle East. Politicians threaten Medicare, a literal lifeline for older citizens, and the news is hidden in the noise, if not twisted.

Small wonder that studies along with anecdote confirm a rise in popular anxiety following the election of 2016. Blood pressures—easy to measure—rose. Medical complaints referring to anxiety increased, as did prescriptions for anti-depressants.

Opting out of Facebook and Twitter is one way people cope, but that complies with the goal of political noise—to silence coherent discussion and the ability to communicate freely.

The excuse for leaving social media is the stridency of argument and personal attack it allows. Both sides—Left and Right—engage in this.

Republicans, however, have displayed greater skill at the strategic use of new technology. Their supporters are better at amplifying a targeted message from the coordinated set of megaphones they have positioned throughout the public sphere.

It has required many years—decades—of Movement Conservatism, lavishly funded, to create this network, the right-wing messaging universe: Talk radio, FOX News, numerous internet-linked interest groups, message boards, along with bot banks that spread false information. (“Political Bots and the Right-Wing Hijacking Of Social Media,” WBUR, May 18, 2017)

The manipulation of text and videos by technology has made it even harder to isolate even a manifest truth. This is another aspect of the engineered political noise intended to silence us.

We hear a lot of commentary on underrepresented voices, silenced voices. Often this refers to segments of society overlooked by the nattering cohort of coastal pundits, mainstream and right-wing.

But what about self-silencing?

That’s what we do when we pull out of social media. Or when we avoid discussion and the opportunity of listening to our neighbors.

It’s also what we do by slicing the views of candidates and issues too finely, then defending our slice as though it were home territory.

We see the result of that reaction in the Democratic debates where, except for longtime socialist independent Bernie Sanders, so many presidential candidates vary so little in basic convictions. Democratic heads don’t wear white or black hats. They wear hues of gray, pink, purple—well, a rainbow of nuanced positions.

The election to date, however, shows how those nuances can add up to fragmentation. The Democratic Party is divided into rough-edged parts. Although those parts interpenetrate, they do not blend into one mass, moving in unison behind one candidate. At least, not yet.

And it becomes harder for them to find that unifying catalyst in the presence of so much noise.

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