Way back in the 1970s, I went to a liberal arts college in North Carolina and graduated with a degree in Politics. Not political analysis or political behaviors – that would have been instantly useful.
No, my area of study and fascination was more theoretical. It was all about learning how to “read” a culture and understand the conditions necessary for a “people” to choose to live within an autocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, anarchy, democracy, or socialist society. It was a somewhat esoteric pursuit, but at least I got my Water Safety Instructor’s certification so I could be a lifeguard after college.
Forty years later, after a career spent in public affairs, or as I like to call it “strategic storytelling”, I’ve become a student of human behaviors and the ways to engage various “publics” in understanding, valuing, or caring about issues important to my employers or clients. And I’m worried.
This grand 240-year-old experiment in democracy that we call America needs our focused attention now as it appears to be at risk based on some public behaviors and basic disregard for the tenets of our form of government.
What do I mean? Historically, vibrant democracies relied on the engagement of an informed populace in making selections and choices at all levels of government. How will that be possible in a “post truth” era?
Yes, the Oxford dictionaries selected “post truth” as the international word of the year for 2016, saying, “Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
As I’ve noted before, those of us involved in public affairs have always known that – but there was a certain amount of honor in deploying emotional appeals that were grounded in actual fact. Those days are over.
Now it appears bald-faced lies based on pure fiction can be turned into emotionally compelling online memes that are spread with abandon – and to great effect. That is a great risk for a democracy and for a country that appears to be quite reactive in its responses to inflammatory lies.
What to do?
1 - We need to aggressively protect truth – and be respectful in how we do that.
In this age of online fact checking resources, it’s relatively easy to check sources, check “about” pages to see who’s paying for those sources, and then use our well-founded American skepticism when “facts” align with the “interests” of those sources. Then call it out wherever you see it – with care. (Confession here – I saw a note on a friend’s FB page that I thought was an attack, and I called it out rather harshly. I was wrong, it was pure parody, and I apologized.)
2 – We need to support organizations that support our core values.
If you’re concerned about the future, support the organizations that specialize in protecting those assets. The environment – clean air, water, climate change? The Environmental Defense Fund is a highly rated choice. Ongoing access to reproductive health care for our sons and daughters? Planned Parenthood remains an important investment. Are you worried about protecting our constitution and the rights enumerated by our founders? (Now is a good time to check out the constitution by the way – easy to find online) The American Civil Liberties Union is a solid protector – I may not agree with all of their issues, but the solid protection of the constitution is admirable.
Concerned about Americans who may be vulnerable to hate crimes? As a Jew married to an immigrant, this one hits close to home for me… well, I’m donating to the Southern Poverty Law Center this year – they are strongly vigilant on this front.
There are others organizations, and I suggest you check any charitable contributions with Charity Navigator, an aggressively accountable website that reviews 501 c 3 non-profits and how they spend their (your) money.
3 – We need to get out of our “cluster bubbles”.
Humans tend to cluster with people who are alike. I realized over the past month that we tend to spend our time with people who are pale creative types with multiple degrees and financial security. While we really love our friends – and family – it’s time to break out and listen to those whose “pursuit of happiness” is distinctly different than our own.
We live in Minneapolis and have easy access to Somalis and their restaurants. So one recent Sunday night, we grabbed some friends for a meal. Big deal, you say? We were the only pale people there – and we were greeted with big smiles of welcome, great food, and yes – we’re going back. Choosing to spend time in a place where we are the “other” is a good exercise in understanding the common humanity in all of us.
It’s also an important lesson that anytime we classify groups of people as having a specific characteristic – “all Somalis are…”, “all Midwesterners are…”, “all Southerners are…” - we’re missing a core principle of our world’s great religions - that each of us is unique in our ability to contribute.
4 – We need to practice aggressive, assertive kindness.
While our traditional – and non-traditional - media channels are being distracted by tweets, we can manage the interactions we have that are right in front of us.
Many of you know the story of the old man walking the beach after a huge storm has washed hundreds of starfish ashore. A young girl watches as he throws one starfish after another back into the surf. After some time, she approaches the old man and asks, “Why are you doing that? You’ll never be able to save them all.”
“Maybe not,” he said. “But I made a difference for this one, and now this one, and…” well – you get the idea.
Few of us can wash away the irrational craziness we’re experiencing right now, but we can make a difference by protecting the pursuit of truth, contributing to organizations that protect our core values, befriending different cultures and people, and practicing kindness – although I’m not a Buddhist, I have great respect for the Dalai Lama, who says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”