Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
I belonged to my high school debating society a long time ago, a place I loved to hang out for ideas and intellectual stimulation. Anything and everything was debatable in those days, as long as we followed the rules of debating: make your case, let the other side make theirs, and sum up. Then debrief, extract the learning, and share it with everyone. And always show respect for the opposition, for without them there would be no debate.
That form of debating carried into my adult life. When I read newspapers, there were always opposing viewpoints juxtaposed on the same page; journalists featured both sides of the coin in their articles. Even the so-called left-leaning or right-leaning magazines had limited opposing views for contrast. Television featured multiple viewpoints in debates and discussions, and the same occurred in newscasts and talk shows.
Over the last ten years, I have seen that diversity of viewpoint erode. Everyone has taken up a position and sticks to it, and wants their audience to think like them as well. The newspapers and TV news channels have polarized, and identify as either right wing or left wing. If you tune in to CNN or Fox News you know pretty much what you are in for. The same goes with the Toronto Star vs. the Toronto Sun.
It got worse after social media went mainstream and the “like and share” culture was born. Partisanship became fashionable. For how could you get the maximum “likes” and “shares” if the audience didn’t like or share your view? “Echo chamber” entered the vernacular. And the fickleness of social media—where you could be deleted from “friendship” at the disenchanted click of a button—made it difficult to address thorny issues to a diverse audience; someone was likely to get incensed and delete you.
When I think of the arms-length relationship that once existed between the four estates—legislature, executive, judiciary and press—and between them and the barons of commerce, this symbiosis created balanced debate involving multiple viewpoints. The erosion of independence between these bodies over time, has caused the resulting polarization. In many jurisdictions today, even in the ones that were proudly founded upon the separation of powers, the executive has tended to subsume the other estates, and the corporate barons in turn seem to have subsumed the executive. Now we have those in power vs. those without, and they change colours with every election cycle; debate has now been reduced to one side shouting at the other—didn’t we see that at the recent Presidential Debate, an example set by the highest office?
Does another Age of Enlightenment need to dawn before we can re-develop honest debate? Or could social media companies restructure their huge membership bases to demolish echo chambers and replace them with productive debating forums? As for newspaper and TV companies that complain about shrinking viewership, could they look beyond their narrow partisan bases to broader ones that embrace all sides of an issue? This utopian thinking flies in the face of “market segmentation” that all media companies strive to maximize, in order to operate at a profit. But if media is in the broader business of disseminating knowledge via the exchange of ideas, then it needs to realize that a diversity of opinions is what is valued and not the narrow targeting of a right or left wing echo chamber.
In the meantime, I continue to seek out honest souls to have an intelligent debate with—unfortunately, I won’t find them in the usual places.