Polar Opposites

The advent of social media has really done a number on the way we interact, communicate and consume information. This point was brought home to me when I was watching/reading the “Twitter Town Hall” that President Obama held this past week. The Town Hall also hammered home a completely separate point as well – that the current polarization of those who choose to make their voices heard is smothering our country.

What do I mean about that? In trying to follow the tweetstream for #AskObama real-time, I noticed a jarring number of clearly partisan comments from both sides, often filled with vitriole or sarcasm. Now, sarcasm usually doesn’t bother me, but the caustic nature of the tweets I saw spoke to what I think is a more concerning issue.

Political discourse today seems to be dominated by extremists. Fox News and MSNBC are certainly key instigators here, but the problem is much, much larger. Media outlets seem to give the most attention to those that shout the loudest. As a result, centrists seem not only to fade into the background, they become even quieter and more reserved because they feel themselves to be out of the mainstream.

The current debate about the deficit is another example of this. With both parties declaring that [fill in the blank] is absolutely, positively, without a doubt OFF LIMITS, how can you possibly address a problem as significant as the deficit? Frankly, both positions are absurd. To proclaim that we can address our debt problem through *only* spending cuts or *only* tax “reform” is to knowingly play into ideological politics. You’re “firing up the base” at the expense of bipartisanship and productivity.

And this problem is getting worse. With the advent of the personalized web, organized according to your interests and history, this polarization is creeping out of the political realm and in to Main Street America to a degree we’ve not seen before. As a result, we are increasingly being exposed only to those opinions and ideas that are most interesting to us. Just because I don’t agree with something doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be exposed to it. I may not get into an argument about it, but I need to understand the rationale before I can reject it.

I’m a proud, self-proclaimed liberal who gladly pays my taxes and believes that it’s the government’s responsibility to attempt to level the playing field and to provide some form of a safety net. But I’m not an idiot. I’m a pragmatic idealist. I know that we can’t afford to have all the programs I think are worthwhile (just as I can’t give money to every charity I think is deserving), and I know there are many programs that simply don’t accomplish what they were designed to do.

Our world is already complicated. We live in a diverse, vibrant nation with a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Do we really need to make it more complicated by pretending that our challenges can be wholly defined by a single issue on each side?

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