Things are getting weird in American culture. Of course, it's always been a bit weird – there have always been a bunch of weirdos and a fierce streak of independence that borders on (and crosses the border into) complete nonsense. But I've been thinking about our degraded public discourse these days, and I think it's important to note just how weird it's gotten.
This is a hard thing to point at, but let me begin at an important place: news. There is little desire for consensus reality in America, which isn't great, and the economics of cable TV allowed people to make money giving people what they wanted instead: to be told they're right. People want this very badly, and will seek it out, and so once someone offered it in a compelling way, everyone got what they want.
The internet can deliver this even more potently, but let's stick to the story as best as we can understand it.
At some point, one of the three or four major viewpoint realities would get access to the levers of power, and this happened in a bit of a strange way. Because, of course, the people who seek office, we'd expect them to actually want to know what's going on in the physical world we all inhabit. This desire is comparatively weak, and once enough people who vote prefer a more complementary reality, it made more political sense for them to abandon even attempting a firm grip on this material plane in favor of their ideology. Truth no longer matters to them, insofar as truth can be objectively understood. There is only rhetoric, and people who want to destroy what you believe in. Because they know you are wrong, the same as you knowing they're wrong.
And so once rhetoric has substituted for reality, it became a much stranger place, where if you can make someone act foolishly, even if they don't think they're being fools, you win. It just proves their reality is based on misunderstandings. Trying to actually look out a window and see what's going on is secondary to the factional dispute.
Now there is a President of the United States that is, perhaps, best known for saying insane and stupid things, waiting until some critique of him by people in the rival group steps a bit too far, and then his whole group attacks. They couldn't defend his statement, but they can attack a mis-calibrated critique. The conversation is more important than the object level questions, asking what's right and what's wrong, because the factional war is the only thing that brings people like that to power.
So the President finely crafts his tweets to produce hysterical reactions from people, usually by writing hysterically bad ideas. His goal is, in no small part, to destroy American public discourse. And he's largely succeeded.
I recently saw a Jewish periodical, all they do is talk about what's going on in the community and promote Zionism and such. It's their one major policy issue, aside from not liking Nazis, I suppose. And they're saying it's not the time to speak out against Black Lives Matter's anti-Israel statements. So when I say that destruction of the discourse is coming from both sides, remember that it hit a publication with essentially one thing to say, and it's not even the thing everyone is fighting over.
We don't have room for a sincerely held belief to be defended, for fear of the results of opposing a group that viciously defends their newfound orthodoxy (I heard a liberal reporter had his phone stolen by a gang at a protest and was told he wouldn't get it back until he said Black Lives Matter).
I think we should all stand up for what's right, and there's plenty of wrong in the world. But it might be worth saying, we can get pretty far when we just defend high-quality conversations. Where everyone says their thoughts respectfully, and when people disagree, they just disagree. I'm not saying we all have to listen to each other. But we can model better behavior, and it's desperately needed right now.