Short Form Civilization

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When everyone in the room is yelling, no one is heard.

The 2016 American presidential election was particularly nasty. It brought out the worst in everyone participating in politics. Politics has always been a bitter business. But something seems excessively bitter as of late. I’m seeing more and more analysis regarding the lack of social graces and the quick to dehumanize “others”. We can’t get to the arguments being made because the cloud of shaming and name calling blocks forward progress on important topics. And if you have an opinion on one thing, people assume you agree with numerous other things, guilty by association. In other words, just after you put your piece on the board, your next move has already been anticipated and criticised.

For instance, if I argue that government regulated healthcare is a bad idea, some people think I favor the super-rich and screw the poor. I’m not sure how that happens without mind reading and joining frayed threads. But this one example demonstrates that more assuming is being done than asking for clarification.

I was at my gym the other day. I was using hand weights and during a rest period in between sets, I put them down temporarily where they didn’t belong. A minute later, another patron carrying the weights that belonged in the spot I put mine in, removed mine, tossed them to the ground, put his in their rightful place and walked away. My first thought was that he was angry, passive aggressive, purposely trying to piss me off. That was my first thought. My second was that considering the probability he didn’t see me place mine there, considering he was wearing headphones, considering he never looked at me, considering he demonstrated no look of disgust or otherwise hostile behaviors, the more probable explanation was that he put his weights in their rightful place but didn’t bother to look for the rightful place of mine (which he didn’t know were being used).

The point is that what appeared to be hostile at first probably wasn’t. And if I spoke up, threw out my chest and got huffy, he might have been a bit embarrassed, apologized and then I would have been the hostile idiot.

Anyhow, without asking more questions, without taking in other factors, this is pretty much what online political discussions look like. A person makes a statement, and instead of asking for the who, what, when, where, and why, the conversation turns immediately into assumptions about the person’s character. In fact, there’s no conversation at all. It’s shaming and name calling and…and maybe it’s the result of short form, limited space. Can we really be having meaningful discussions at one-hundred-forty character limits? Or through the Facebook comments section?

Many of us are typing out comments with cell phones. Do we really have the time to form well thought out arguments while we hunt and poke on small keyboards where misspellings are so common auto correct is necessary to form any coherence?

And probably the most important factor is that online discussions are quite often anonymous. Even if full names and real avatar photographs are used, if you don’t know the person in real life, it’s a lot easier to be mean, to shame, to not care at all, to write someone off as a (insert derogatory name here).

Look at the Federalist Papers. During a time in American history when the Constitution was being debated on, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison wrote long form arguments promoting it. Can you imagine if Twitter were around during this time? The Federalist Papers might look exactly like how Donald Trump currently uses Twitter! Maybe the preference today for information in bite size is the culprit.

The hostility, the identity politics, the shaming, the quick-to-judgement, the bullying, I believe is the direct result of the Short Form Civilization.

My own interest in politics has been best described as “long form”. I’m particularly drawn to well-reasoned arguments, bringing in supporting data and historical precedent. In conversation, I prefer someone direct me to further reading or a presentation or speech. This involves some work. It involves investment and time. These virtues are lacking in the Short Form Civilization.

My partner here, Alan J. Sanders, and I have been running this blog for five years and writing mostly in long form. But it wasn’t until a meme was posted on our Facebook page that our following skyrocketed. And ever since then, I’ve noticed very little interaction with essays and articles but lots of interaction with one-sentence memes. Interesting.

A pattern of preference for short form for short attention spans is presenting itself. With people resorting to texting instead of phone calls, with services like Twitter and its one-hundred-forty character limit, with more people watching television rather than reading books, maybe the long form is being relegated to a minority of users. Or, perhaps the long form has always been for a minority and only now, in the Internet age, has an avenue opened for everybody, allowing those who did not participate in deep subjects to now have a voice. Donald Trump has chosen Twitter as his outlet for communication with the public. No detailed, well-argued written opinion pieces, no fireside chats. The American president for all intents and purposes communicates via slogans and memes. Imagine his presidential library compared to Thomas Jefferson’s. Yikes!

Some subject matters are fine for short form. Comedy, for instant is perfect. In fact, the shorter jokes work the best. No one likes a joke that takes fifteen minutes to tell. Except for the Aristocrats joke.

Politics is the study of how a society should be ordered. It’s the study on how best to run a community. And that’s where the problems come in. Everyone has their own ideas on what is best. But the only way to really know what is best is to take a scientific approach; that is, evaluate things issue by issue and review the results. Is government welfare better than private charity? We can evaluate that. Is Social Security better than individuals planning for their own retirement? We can review that data too. Does this sound like a subject matter that can be discussed in short form? Short form should be used to direct your audience to more detailed reading and analysis. Short form is probably the worst format to make the entire argument. Attention spans don’t live there.

When everyone in the room is yelling, no one is heard.

My recommendation is this: Prepare an argument in any format you want. Write it out or prepare a speech for a podcast or upload to YouTube. And then use the short form to direct an audience to that. True, readers and listeners will still act like mind readers, claiming you’re saying something perhaps you’re not. Misinterpretations will still come about. But it’s better than starting from scratch, from a one sentence comment on social media. And after you release it, take in the criticism and take the time to either change your mind or formulate a rebuttal, in long form where you can be detailed, provide examples, etc.

Ask yourself before bogging down in short form on a big topic, have you ever changed someone’s mind? Or have you had your own changed? Maybe. I’ve yet to see it work to statistical significance. The only tried and true format I’ve seen is taking the time to really invest in the big subject matters like politics. That takes books, essays, face-to-face conversation even and pondering by yourself over a good glass of scotch.

But I’m not one to tell people how to spend their time. If you enjoy the short form banter, feel free to continue. I prefer the other. And because of that, I’ve been less interactive on social media as of late regarding important matters. Matters to me.

Thanks to those who keep reading the blog. Follow me through various other outlets as well, magazines and guest blogs. Maybe I’ll do a podcast one day. Maybe.

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