I am not sure what I expected our country to look like in 2021, but I certainly did not expect it to be so fractured and so bogged down in hate. My oldest son was a year old on Sept. 11, 2001. The wave of patriotism following that day gave me hope for the America that my kids would inherit.
Fast forward 20 years, and that hope has been overtaken by fear. Fear that our country has become so polarized on every issue that it may not survive. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. Never in America’s history has this quote been truer. In 1858, Lincoln spoke about the divide between free states and slave states. In 2021, America is divided on a multitude of issues, and most of our society is determined to expand that divide rather than close the gap. We have technology and media platforms that not only created this divide but continue to drive a wedge between us. These concerns are a driving force behind the theme of National Newspaper Week — THE Community Forum, newspapers as the foundation of our communities. Let me explain the problem and then offer a solution.
We are polarized on every issue because of the information that we consume every day. We have completely lost our ability to see another point of view. We no longer accept differences of opinion, debate, disagreement or dissent. Any division in thought is met with anger and hatred. This is in complete violation of the concepts that created America.
America was founded on the ideals of freedom, tolerance and acceptance. All men were created equal with fundamental rights. People of diverse backgrounds and beliefs worked together to frame these ideas into a new country with liberty and justice for all. They compromised for the betterment of everyone. Now, we all know our country is not perfect. It never has been and never will be. These ideals have not always applied to everyone, but the beauty of our country is that it should continue to evolve. America is a concept, a target for which we are striving. Unfortunately, it feels like we are as far away from the target, as far from a perfect system, as we have ever been.
The question for all of us is, how did we get here, and how we evolve.
The 1980s gave birth to the 24-hour news networks. These “news” networks have become Entertainment TV programming with multiple networks now fighting for viewers, ratings and advertising dollars. They each appeal to a subset of viewers with a distinct political leaning. Their programming has little reporting of the actual news, focused mostly on commentary, feeding their viewers what they want to see and hear. These networks have become 100 percent entertainment, losing all their journalistic integrity. They feed us the information that they want us to have, and most of us are unaware that we are consuming propaganda rather than facts.
The 2000s saw the advent of social media networks, heralded as a breakthrough in human interaction and communication. With a mouse click, or swipe, you can connect with anyone, or any group, anywhere in the world. This modern technology has changed how we live and communicate. Unfortunately, it is being used to further the divide the American public. Social networks work on algorithms designed to show you things in which you are interested, which explains why they are so entertaining and addicting. However, many entities are exploiting these platforms to divide us.
Social media has moved beyond connecting people to the single most polarizing platform in this country. Think about the negativity, hate, fear and bullying in your feed. No matter the subject, people are attacking each other in the most vile, evil ways. There is no discussion or civil discord, just polarized ideas of right and wrong. We say things to each other that we would never say to someone’s face. We treat each other without dignity or class. The technology and platforms that we entertain ourselves with are destroying the fabric of our society.
The very nature of social media is to connect people with shared interests, and on the surface, seems great. However, it connects people with like interests regardless of whether those interests are positive or negative. Social media platforms become an echo chamber of people sharing the same beliefs and same fears, regardless of what those are.
Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) was one man, working alone. In 2021, he would be part of an extremist social media group, spreading his thoughts and feeding off the radicalism of others in a virtual mob effect.
We need to get back to being civil with one another, treating each other with dignity. We need to listen to other viewpoints. We will not always agree, but we do not have to. Differences of opinion are not bad. There can be truth on both sides of an argument. For example, masks are a huge argument across our communities right now. Is it possible that both sides could be correct in parts of their argument? Could it be that masks may help slow the spread of disease, but at the same be detrimental to students’ learning? The issue is very rarely black and white but usually in the grey area between. We need to understand that both sides of an argument can be correct and stop fighting, hating and bullying those that disagree with us.
The first step is in our own mind. We must look at the media and propaganda we are consuming. Our minds are consuming these ideas of hatred and polarization. We need to move toward civil discussion and treating everyone with respect. To do this, we must regulate our media intake. We must turn away from the ideological echo chamber of “news” entertainment and social media around us. Open-minded people are bad for business for media outlets or social media groups pushing a certain agenda.
We need a new community forum for news, entertainment and connection with our community. Every night, Walter Cronkite told you what had happened that day. He did not give you his opinion, he gave you facts. We need the facts about what is going on in our community, and we can only get that in our local newspaper. Newspapers are embedded in the community. Local news has a much bigger impact in your day-to-day life than national/regional news. City council, zoning, school board, local elections all have profound effect on our daily life. Engaging with our local newspaper makes our community better. Attend town halls and community events. Help hold our local elected officials accountable.
Local newspapers are the original community forum, disseminating essential information, holding government accountable and engaging the community in civil discourse.
We can ignite a wave of change, but we must start local. Our government and leaders reflect our values. If we want them to change, we must change. Be part of the community forum. Subscribe to your local newspaper today, in print or online. Support local journalism, engage in activities that build up your communities.
Brian J. Allfrey
Utah Press Association