“I would never die for my beliefs … I might be wrong. “ — Bertrand Russell
The longer I live, the less I feel I can really be sure of anything. Where I used to have strong opinions, I now find myself questioning all of them in the widest of senses. I can trust data (okay, okay … only sometimes), yet I can find holes in the way I, and we, interpret it. There’s almost always context missing, and the more context I absorb, the less inclined I am to pass judgment on anyone or anything.
Take kindness for example: we can’t even seem to agree on if it’s good or bad anymore, or if acts of kindness qualify as genuine kindness. Those who definitively can feel either way about it are probably missing context or, worse, improperly assuming a type of context that may or may not be the actual context.
As I mentioned to a friend and fellow Medium writer: I believe we’ve likely become so distrusting of fellow humans, because of the exponentially proliferating fire-hose of information available to us about history, intention, and institutions, that we’ve become incapable of accepting basic kindness without skepticism, and those who do are labeled “naive.”
I also think (only think, not know, of course), to a worrisome extent, we’ve now gone so far as to stigmatize acts of kindness as some sort of insidious form of manipulation. (Ex: “nice” guys, quid pro quo, economic self-interest, doormat syndrome, or “they must be hiding something.” Perhaps one or more of these are true in some cases, yet perhaps none of these are true in *every* case.) “At least assholes are transparent,” we tell ourselves, and yet who is to say if even that holds any water: there’s plenty of opaque assholes — which, of course, was the name of my proto-punk band when I was in college (this tidbit, while adorable, is also not true).
I get that skepticism is healthy to an extent, and so is kindness. And yet I think now there might be no real way to delineate genuine kindness from a ruse, nor healthy skepticism from jaded cynicism. Of course, it all exists on a continuum, and myriad other contextual factors play into it, and that continuum is likely three-dimensional or more. Do you see my point yet? How can we be sure our interpretations of anything? I cannot.
I think in 2019’s “dunk” culture we’re incentivized to have strong opinions. I don’t think we can realistically have them if we wish to understand or get to the heart of anything. Perhaps our hot takes are scorching the Earth upon which we walk.
The New Yorker posted an expose on “The Making of the Fox News White House”, which — rightfully — painted the media giant as a polarizing propaganda machine: a brutal, capitalist empire built on the backs of exploiting people’s fear for ratings and profits.
Oh, how well they’ve poisoned the well. New York Magazine’s The Intelligencer aggregated a series of stories of people Fox News has transformed and set adrift beyond the pale. The harrowing tales of families ripped apart, spouses divided, by the network’s blatant fear-mongering and myopic rhetoric.
This was one of the most fascinating and relatable — their programming’s re-programmed people close to me — pieces I’ve read in some time. I often wonder if there is yet a way to compassionately reach these people and bring them back.
I’ve thought about this a lot lately: about how we begin to believe the things we believe. And I’ve sort of done, at least an obtuse pivot, on this. I am beginning to think these people aren’t all ignorant, nor even necessarily hateful at their root. I think those who qualify as consistent FOX News watchers believe two fundamental things:
1. The world is zero-sum and transactional, with winners and losers, givers and takers, life and death, right and wrong. (Some non-FOX News watchers believe this, as well, for those not yet privy to the infighting and blue-wave types on the left.)
2. That human life, fundamentally, is worth nothing. All takers and losers are overhead. All winners and givers are profit-centers. (This line of thinking, curiously, does not apply with regards to fetuses.)
These two doctrines underpin their now entrenched views on social, environmental and economic matters. Naturally, if you view life as transactional and human life as fundamentally (but, importantly, not relatively) worthless, you will feel threatened by “others”: takers, losers, foreigners, or anyone you deem as “different.”
More importantly, if you have been “left behind,” either because your views have fallen out of favor, or perhaps you’re not doing as well as you once were on a relative level to other groups, you will begin to feel taken from, wronged, hoodwinked. And you will seek validation and connection for how you feel.
I’ve seen this phenomenon grip a growing number of self-monikered “Flat Earthers” — people who literally believe that the Earth is flat — as presented in the brilliant and frustrating Netflix documentary “Behind the Curve.” Perhaps their curiosity about Earth’s curvature started as “hearing both sides” (of a sphere!), or cynicism with regards to NASA and the elite scientific community, yet their community emboldens and solidifies their theories into hard-boiled beliefs.
Enter FOX News — the entity that soothes the existential longing for connecting with someone — presumably someone credible — who shares and strengthens your viewpoints. You can find your kinfolk. You feel less alone — less forgotten. And, with a President on the same page, and vast internet communities of people to connect with, and a system of churches that (sometimes) give these philosophies a divine inherent inalienable-ness and the community they too provide, the fear crystallizes into something more impassioned, charged and ultimately amplified. Some call it hate. Some anger. Some rattle off a list of many of the -isms of the right. The frightening ends, in some cases, range from wealth concentration and arms hoarding, to unrest and violence. That is, of course, not 100% true across the board. Yet it’s true enough to be more than concerning. I, too, share that concern.
I know it’s trendy for many self-described liberals, leftists, progressives, socialists, anarchists and so on to shame and dunk on these people. Perhaps it’s warranted, and it certainly feels good: in my angry years on Twitter, I certainly did my fair share of ripping into the unenlightened. Yet, based on recommendations applied to debating with Flat Earthers, I’m beginning to think the shame siren fans the flames. It’s possible only genuine empathy will bring them back. Some call this civility, and many decry civility as capitulation to the inmates currently running the asylum. Perhaps it may be. I still can’t be sure.
I think the misled and hateful could be mostly lonely and afraid, like their brethren, and so they seek comfort: in the news that lends zero-sum and zero-worth thinking credence, the President that emboldens them with his authority, the churches that provide them divine right, and their communities that give them the connection they crave.
They’re sympathetic characters in a way. No, not in the same way a migrant baby cries without her mother in a camp, nor a mother who just lost her black son in a shooting at the hands of police, nor a father who lost his daughter to opiates, nor a woman who’s been brutally assaulted by a man she once trusted, nor an entire rust belt city decimated by income inequality and a flat-lined job market. Yet all these sympathetic characters harbor one common defining characterization: they’re all now more afraid than they were before.
So now, parsing the degrees of sympathy worth dishing out, it’s now a matter of asking one thing: Is your fear real? Or does it merely *feel* real?
Where FOX News is so toxic to American political discourse and, therefore, to our stability as a society in aggregate, is they’ve convinced people who are already afraid that the reasons they’re scared are valid. Of course, framing the lens through common Egalitarian doctrine, they’re obviously not: Life is not transactional; it’s an investment. Life is not fundamentally worthless; it’s priceless. And that’s why we’re paying such a steep cost now in both dollars and lives: because when you’re afraid, no price is too high to make you feel safe, and there’s always a gleeful shyster all to willing to prey upon that fear, and profit from it, because he’s ultimately just trying to win, and trying to take, because after all, to him, life is worth nothing without his net worth.
Sadly, that’s just one example of my own inquiry into just how true is truth.
Tiger Woods, 43 years old and back on top of his game, and the game of golf in general, won the Masters Tournament — America’s most prestigious prize on the links.
This man, like many others, is a human Rorschach test. I think we see what we choose to see in him, and I think so much of that is colored by how we are predisposed to viewing the world, as so much of his own view of the world is colored by the sum of the data points he’s observed and experienced himself.
Tiger is gifted, privileged, misogynist, black, competitive, southeast Asian, broken, redemptive, tragic, metronomic, erratic, eccentric, fiery, male, infidelous, compulsive, ambitious, rich, important, problematic, compelling, victorious, cold, inauthentic, transcendent and spiteful. Very few among us know how to hold all of that in our heads without striving for a definitive judgment, without trying to grade on a binary, or even on a letter-specific scale. This makes us uncomfortable, as we don’t all do well in cases of extreme ambiguity, and potentially causes us to overlook the data that doesn’t fit our respective theories.
I know it’s a global compulsion to have opinions about Tiger Woods. I do not. That’s not because I choose to ignore his transcendence or transgressions, but because I choose to ignore none of the data, and leave open the possibility to for so much of his life story left to unfold. I’m not assigning him a letter grade — he’s far too all-over-the-spectrum to fit neatly anywhere — and so I give feel compelled to give him an “incomplete:” In the same fashion that I would try to judge most people who exist so publicly, and in the same way that we are all incomplete so long as we choose not to harden ourselves or give up. No one exists in a vacuum. There’s always new waves washing ashore, and so as the sea shapes the coasts, the coasts shape the sea. I don’t know what else to say about the man, because most of what I would, or could, would say more about me than it would about him.
I inhale. I exhale. I shake my head. Everything is so complex, nuanced and layered. Even basic things. Even important things. Even compelling things. Perhaps that’s why they’re so basic, important or compelling. I’ve spent 2,000 words drawing no easy conclusions — talking around things and through things instead of about them. I could’ve easily spent another 10,000 doing the same.
And yet, all the words in the world feel like never enough to get to absolute truth: The more I seem to understand, the less I seem to know. Perhaps that’s the course of intellectual inquiry. Perhaps that’s the magnetic north of the writer: to fill in shading and context, to guide people a little closer to truth — whatever that looks like, and no matter how many among us take solace in believing it.