I was in my high school debating society a long time ago, a place I loved to hang out purely for the ideas that wafted in the air and for the intellectual stimulation it gave me. Anything and everything was debatable, as long as we followed the rules and norms of debating: make your case, let the other side make theirs, and sum up. Then debrief, extract the learning, and share it with everyone interested. And always show respect for the opposition, for without them there would be no debate and no forum.
That form of debating carried into my adult life. When I read newspapers, there were always opposing viewpoints juxtaposed on the same page; journalists featured two sides of the coin in their articles. Even the so-called left-leaning or right leaning magazines had a limited opposing view. Television featured multiple viewpoints in debates and discussions, and the same occurred in newscasts and talk shows.
Over the last ten years I have seen that duality or multiplicity of viewpoint erode. Everyone has taken up a position and wants to stick to it, and wants the audience to think like them as well. The newspapers and TV news channels have become increasingly polarized and identify as either right wing or left wing. If you tune in to CNN or Fox News you know pretty much what you are going to get. The same with the Toronto Star vs. the Toronto Sun.
It got worse after social media went mainstream and the “like and share” culture came into being. The power of partisanship became total. How could you get the maximum likes and shares if the audience didn’t like or share your view? I started to hear the term “echo chamber” being used more and more. And the fickleness of social media—where you could be deleted from friendship and followership at the disenchanted click of a button—made it difficult to call out the thorny issues to a diverse audience; someone was likely to get incensed and delete you. I tried once to engage Facebook friends in respectful debate, which resulted in some heated exchanges and my account being deleted and blocked, not to mention me being cursed and threatened. I ended up being an armchair cynic instead.
When I think of the arms-length relationship that once existed between the four estates—the legislature, executive, judiciary and press—and between them and the barons of commerce, this may have created the original conditions for balanced debate involving multiple viewpoints. The erosion of independence between these bodies over time, has caused the resulting polarization. In many jurisdictions today, even in the ones that were proudly founded on the separation of powers, the executive has tended to subsume the other estates, and the corporate world in turn seems to have subsumed the executive. Now we have those in power vs. those without, and they change colours with every election cycle, and debate has now been reduced to one side shouting at the other. Thank God, there are still elections in these jurisdictions, or else we will have Orwellian states.
I’m wondering whether we need another Age of Enlightenment to dawn before we can re-develop honest debate? Or whether the social media companies could restructure their huge membership bases to demolish echo chambers and replace them with productive debating forums? And as for the newspaper and TV companies that complain about shrinking viewership, could they look beyond their narrow partisan bases to broader ones that embrace all sides of an issue? I know this utopian thinking flies in the face of market segmentation that all media companies strive to maximize, in order to operate at a profit. But if media is in the broader business of disseminating knowledge via the exchange of ideas, then it needs to realize that a diversity of opinions is what is valued and not the narrow targeting of a right or left wing echo chamber. In the meantime, I continue to look for a few hardy souls to have an intelligent debate with, and look to bury my reputation as an armchair cynic on Facebook