Monday, August 17, 2015

You Are What You Eat: Politics Edition

In my last blog post I wrote about the politics of fear, anger, and hatred that permeates much of our "civic discourse" these days, especially in election season. I find this kind of politics repulsive, and there is some indication in the research literature that I'm not alone. Independents and people without strong party loyalty are put off by negative campaigning - and because that group is growing relative to the number of committed partisans in the electorate, the fear and anger has the effect of alienating a larger and larger segment of the population.

While this is an important application of research to society, I'm writing today with a more personal reflection. Most of the anger, fear, and hatred in our politics is self-inflicted. Sure, we like to blame the parties and the demon-figures we raise up in them: it's Trump's fault, it's Hillary's fault, it's Karl Rove's fault, it's the liberal media. But in today's media environment, we have more choice than ever about what information we choose to consume and from where. Which points to a very simple conclusion: We are what we eat.

This is true biologically, of course - the food we consume (or much of it) becomes a part of our bodies. This is also true politically and psychologically - the "food" (information and discussion) we "eat" (take into our brains) becomes a part of our thoughts. If we eat lots of high-fat foods, our arteries may become clogged and we may develop health problems. If we consume lots of high-fear and high-anger ideas, our thought patterns are likely to suffer as well.

In this light, Donald Trump (to pick merely one current example, though the one getting the most attention) isn't merely a colorful candidate, or an unlikely front-runner, or a reality show masquerading as a candidate (pick your narrative). The man is poison. Most of what issues from his mouth, both the words and the manner in which they are delivered, is slathered in anger, hatred, and contempt. The more one listens to him, the more these things become part of the mental landscape, even if you disagree with his policy ideas.

Partisan Republicans are welcome to pick on Hillary Clinton for saying similar things, although I don't know that she's quite so blatant or consistent about it. But the point here isn't that one party is more poisonous than the other - that's an empirical question on which I do not have sufficient data to render judgment. The point is more prescriptive: if we want to keep ourselves politically and psychologically healthy, if we value the ability to maintain civil dialogue and the search for peace and the common good, then we are wise to avoid any candidate and any media inputs that drag us down into the sewer that constitutes much of modern politics.

I recognize that this doesn't leave a lot of ground left, and that the closer the election gets the smaller those islands of peace, reason, and civility will become against the onslaught of well-funded vitriol. The more one feels isolated in the sea of hatred, the more sense it makes to withdraw from the whole thing. Alternatively, if we want politics to be about something other than fear, anger, and hatred we need to find ways of talking to each other about ideas separate from the funded parties and candidates. Luckily, we have wonderful tools for doing so. I hope that we can create such opportunities over the next year and a half, even as the "public" conversation (where money buys the biggest megaphone) becomes increasingly toxic.

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