Live Large by Thinking Small
Politics runs downstream from culture. This oft-repeated principle seems to perfectly summarize our modern environment. In our information-rich, yet insight-deprived, landscape, the tempo of our political conversion seems to derive its rhythm more from Twitter than the hallowed halls of Congress. Our current leadership feels more like the carefully constructed caricatures of the professional wrestling federation than the thoughtful and respected voices of seasoned diplomats. It reminds me of a funny story told by an Anglican bishop about two young Australian sailors who get sauced one night in a London pub. As they stumble out of the bar, they encounter a highly decorated and renowned British Naval Officer on the street. They wait until he is within speaking distance and one stammers out, “Say, bloke, do you know where we are?” Offended at the lack of respect, the decorated Naval officer shouts back, “Do you know who I am?” Upon hearing this, the other Aussie sailor looks at his friend and says, “Well that’s great, we’re really in trouble now. The two of us don’t have a clue where we are, and this guy doesn’t know who he is.” Sadly, such is the state of our political environment. As the dumpster fire blazes, we’re forced to choose whether to join the fray of the bizarre fever dream unfolding before us and assume our role as a fellow drunken sailor or figure out a way to find the high road and forge a new path.
In the choosing, it helps to pause and reflect on how we arrived where we are and inspect our compass to determine if it’s time to recalibrate. Though I’m quite comfortable experimenting with the instruments in today’s hyper-technical tool-kit, I’m admittedly unfamiliar with the newest weapons of modern rhetorical warfare—aka, social media. Although I choose not to engage directly, I still feel the tug-and-pull of the social media rabbit hole. It beckons like the voice of the crafty peddler on the midway or the melodious Sirens’ call seeking to lure unsuspecting sailors off their charted course. The more we reward these “free” platforms with screen time, the further down the rabbit burrows. Soon, you find yourself immersed in an information-arcade, overwhelmed with customized, emotionally charged anecdotes masquerading as news in hopes you will continue feeding the media machine enough coins to keep the echo chamber alive. Put simply, we have been duped. As a savvy pundit once said, if you’re not paying for the product or service, you are the product or service.
I’m the first to concede that social media has its merits, but it is imperative to keep this insatiable animal on a tight leash. My abstinence forces me to track birthdays or special occasions on my own, and I have to ask more probing questions to hear the details of the exploits and travels of those beyond my inner circle. This is a trade-off I am more than willing to make to avoid daily exposure to the bait resting peacefully at the base of the trap. With each picture you click or blurb you read, the platform’s algorithm learns more and more about your habits and preferences. As the hourglass turns, the machine-learning code tunes its precision with one primary objective: customize the user experience to ensure maximum screen-time (I highly recommend The Social Dilemma on Netflix if you’d like to dig a little deeper into this subject). Again, this has its ancillary benefits, but don’t delude yourself into believing that you are the lone enlightened soul who is beyond the reach of the advertisers’ web.
Though the bait is highly customized, there’s no magic behind the process of content creation, and therein lies the rub. In order to attract the widest possible audience with highly effective content, users find themselves wading through information of national import. Sure, there is enough localized content to keep you engaged, but in order to properly arrest your attention for the long-term, the platform must serve you a steady diet of provocative stories which appeal to the largest possible audience. Said another way, the advertisers and social media platforms attempt to maximize profitability by using customized propaganda to entice you to consume the same basic content it delivers to other platform users. They attempt this even if that means showing some patrons the ‘heads’ side of the coin while it rails against the ‘tails,’ only to flip the equation and present the opposite argument to the rest of its customer base. This is why politics is so tantalizing to these platforms. It is a ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ proposition with a national following which can quickly inflame the passions and dampen our rational faculties.
Countless articles have been devoted to the potential dangers of the digital snooping capabilities of social media, and I’m unqualified to contribute any meaningful addition to the narrative. I’d prefer to simply address the less discussed, yet subtly harmful, consequences of the unyielding emphasis on national content. While social media platforms attempt to maximize their effectiveness to the largest possible audience by feeding them carefully constructed content, it is an illusion, similar to how tract homes spring up seemingly overnight in large metropolitan areas with exactly the same design using only the color of brick and the orientation on the lot to break the monotony. However, in this context the orientation directly impacts what grabs your attention and fills your consciousness. Before you realize it, you find yourself saddled with the heaviness of highly polarized, pressing national issues, and since vigilance is not an inexhaustible resource, issues of local concern are crowded out and receive second-billing.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, we’re actually living smaller lives as our focus expands to broader concerns. This concept was masterfully addressed by GK Chesterton, the larger-than-life British apologist, over a hundred years ago. While addressing the grandiosity of small things, Chesterton writes:
If we were tomorrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First, he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born, and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive.
Stories of national prominence have a crafty appeal. They provide an outlet and an escape. We’re afforded the opportunity to channel our passions and project our frustrations toward the familiar, yet impersonal. There is freedom in the disconnection. We can verbally assail the distant villain without feeling the responsibility of meaningful engagement. Conversely, there’s an undeniable compulsion to act when confronted with the humanity of our neighbors. It’s much easier to wail against “the rich” with your keyboard than it is to confront Mr. Rich from down the street; it’s deceptively enticing to blame “the young” on Facebook but more striking to the conscience to verbally accost Sally Young from your local church.
So, what’s the solution? I’m certainly not advocating for ignorance on global issues, but I am recommending our primary focus be reserved for matters closer to our own backyard. Cut back on Fox News and pick up a Texarkana Gazette. Close your CNN app on your mobile device and watch the local news. If the detox from a national emphasis tests your mettle, escape to Narnia in the pages of C.S. Lewis. Find what was rotten in the state of Denmark from the words of Shakespeare. Become more politically astute through the time-honored lessons of Montesquieu, Madison, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill. You’ll marvel at the relevance of antiquity. Worry less about what’s happening in Washington, DC and make the effort to attend your local city council meeting. Focus on your circle of influence to the exclusion of the broader circle of concern. In sum, live large by thinking small.