What Can I Possibly Say?

Like many of my fellow Americans, I cannot wait for November 7. At this point, I don’t even have the strength to qualify that with any sort of “as long as” modifier. Election cycles tire me. They anger me. Not, mind you, because of the expression of opinions and ideas opposed to my own. The freedom to hold one’s views, idiosyncratic as they may be, without constraint from any outside agency, governmental, religious, or social, is the essence of true personhood, and personhood is the essence of democracy. Indeed, without idiosyncracies it could be argued that democracy has no meaning. So, by all means, voice it loud and voice it strong!

At the same time, though, voice it constructively. Voice it in such a way that people are inspired to listen (or at the very least, so that they are not inspired to show up at your house one dark and dreary night with an armload of torches and pitchforks). This requires a return to what might be called universal statesmanship. Too often, we call down curses from heaven on the heads of our major political candidates for behaving like so many feces-tossing primates on campaign tours and in campaign commercials only to log right on to Facebook or Myspace or Twitter–pick your poison–to do the exact same sort of thing ourselves. Each of us has the right, even the responsibility, to engage in political debate. However, we also carry the responsibility to engage in said debate in a manner respectful of all the others out there who are attempting, as we are, to make themselves heard.

It has been suggested that during this election cycle, social media users are losing friends faster than they can make them, to a large degree because of political commentary AND THE WAY IN WHICH THAT COMMENTARY IS PRESENTED. It is as if we have forgotten that in the end we all want the same thing, for ourselves and our friends and families: a good life in a prosperous country, playing an appropriate role in a peaceful world. We want our lives to mean something. We want to be proud of the nation we inhabit, the country that we share. No one in this conversation is intent on voting in the destruction of the United States, no matter what any given news outlet may insist on telling us. In the end, we all want the same thing. We just want it from different directions, and with different emphases. And in that realization lies the seed of useful debate.

It has also been argued by some that the proliferation of social networking is a booster in the development of democratic expression. I could not disagree more. When I am willing to say something to another human being in a vicious and hateful way simply because of the physical distance created by Facebook or Twitter, I would suggest that perhaps that something does not really need to be said, or at the very least might benefit from rewording. Remember when our parents used to say “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, it’s better to say nothing at all”? In the information age, when we are freed by technological advances to insult others and run away, when all that’s required to belittle our fellow Americans is a user name and password, I think a new adage is in order: “If it’s something you wouldn’t say to a person’s face, you might want to reconsider what you’re saying.”

James Madison supported a multitude of voices because in that cacophony lies the greatest preventative measure against tyranny. The person with two eyes sees better than the person with one, and the person with two ears hears more clearly than the person with none. We tend to attack that multitude because it keeps us from getting our way, from seeing our pet project ushered onto the national stage. What we must recognize is that the voice that stymies us is also the voice that protects us. If I somehow am able to silence you, then another’s ability to silence me is increased through my own efforts. The harder I try to hurt you, the greater the likelihood that I will end by hurting myself.

I will not argue the assertion that Facebook may be the means of our salvation (at least in the area of civil discourse), but that all depends on how we use it. If we use it irresponsibly, it may also be the means of our destruction. No greater engine of democratic debate has yet been imagined than that of social media, but the truth is that Madison was only half right: the multitude of voices in and of itself can be as dangerous as it is helpful. If that multitude thrives on and is fueled by anger and hatred, if it becomes one more field of battle in the “us against them” war that is contemporary American political action, then it can only harm the interests of our nation (not to mention our personal relationships). If, however–and this is the IF that counts–the social network is able fully to embrace the “social” side of its existence, if it is used to connect us with each other rather than becoming another reminder of all the things which supposedly divide us, then we’re onto something. Then we’re headed towards a healthier, more fully fleshed understanding of what democracy ought to be: a conversation among equals in the interest of a better world.