On oversimplification, civility, and discourse

In my last post, I wrote about some thoughts I had on social media that stemmed from a remark made by a coworker.

Here’s another remark that I heard recently during one of my many workplace conversations that prompted me to think: “The fact that so many people today aren’t even willing to engage in constructive discourse is a much bigger issue.” This came about when we were discussing various issues that we think are important in our society today.

In a way this also relates to my last post, because so much of this non-constructive finger-pointing that lead to no solutions are happening on social media. The political tidbits that I see every single day from both ends of the political spectrum are unproductive at best, and misleading at their worst.

We live in an era in which the ability to capture people’s attention in a fraction of a second has real monetary value for businesses (and also important to our arbitrary measure of popularity as well, if we are active on social media), and the results are toxic. We are overloaded with shallow simplifications of complex issues that appeal to the blindly-following masses that lead us nowhere. Participation in political discourse in such an environment does not require us to think critically, nor does it encourage us to take the time to educate ourselves about any of the issues. We may feel good when we attack the other side. We may even earn those “likes” from politically like-minded peers. But at the end of the day, nothing was accomplished if the only result of our actions is that we’ve hurt a few people in our social circles who have differing opinions from us. If we haven’t at all succeeded in getting people (or ourselves) to consider a variety of view points or cause someone to think differently, then we haven’t even started to engage in discourse that lead to us working together to get closer to our common end goal, which is to make society better.

In California where I live, my social circle consists largely of people who lean a bit (or a lot) to the left of the political spectrum, and for many issues, that also includes myself. When it comes specifically to issues of diversity and inclusion, there is often a clear right and wrong side. We were wrong when we had slavery, we were wrong to have penned laws that treated people of different races unequally, we were wrong to have set up a society in which we elevate the male gender, and we remain wrong when we label and judge people based on their religious backgrounds or sexual orientation. However, I also challenge many of my close friends who automatically assume that everything Bernie Sanders says is great, and everything that Donald Trump says is outrageous, to actually think about the issues at hand before oversimplifying them and coming to a conclusion without ever putting forth the effort to learn more about the consequences of our conclusions.

While Fox News is quick to get the blame for spinning issues to appeal to those on the right, MSNBC is just as guilty of the same acts for the people on the left. It is concerning that people place their automatic trust in these and other news sources, or their social media feeds, to be objective takes on current events and issues.

Take the recent tax bill, for example. Someone in my social circle shared a video in which Bernie Sanders accused of it as a way to “give money to the rich.” While Bernie has good intentions for making society work for all people, such a spun statement is problematic for anyone who has a basic understanding of economics, because it is misleading. Bernie is a smart man so he actually knows better than those words, yet he still purposefully constructed his sentence in that way to appeal to certain people, and that is disappointing to hear from one of our most popular politicians on whom so many people place their trust. Taxation is never about giving money to anyone. At its core, no matter what the tax policies are, it takes money that the people or corporations have earned, and places it in the hands of the government so that they can, hopefully, set up the infrastructure and the systems that benefit everyone. Those who argue for higher taxes are indirectly arguing that the government can always use that money more effectively than the hands of the people that it took the money from, unless they are arguing that the people who had the money didn’t earn it fairly and they do not deserve to keep it, therefore money should be taken away from them through taxation. In that case, our problem is not really taxation but rather the fundamental ways in which people are allowed to earn money. Sure, if certain people or corporations are politically connected which allows them to make money that they don’t deserve to make, that is a problem, but not one to be solved through taxes. That’s like putting a bandage to treat the symptom, not the root cause. Or maybe the problem is that certain people have easier access to educational opportunities that allow them to gain the skills which lead to them making money easier than others, in which case, again, the solution is not to change the tax laws but rather rethink how we can provide a fairer access to educational resources to all people. Why is it that we have failing school in certain neighborhoods, making life that much harder for kids that come from those neighborhoods? I am not proposing here that we should abolish taxes, but I also challenge the oversimplified notion that aim to solve issues of poverty and inequality through tax policies. Whatever equality we may achieve temporarily through taxation can be for naught if we tax businesses who are currently hiring people whose well being depends on their job, but go out of business. This could very well happen, because that business could have one down year next year, and would have survived only if they hadn’t paid as much taxes on their profits this year. Before we get emotional because some wildly successful business like Walmart and its founder is getting too rich and therefore come to a super simple yet not well thought-out solution like implementing a tax law to take money from them, we must consider, what is the effect of such policy on everyone and every business, and does it lead to a net positive for the society at large?

Let’s consider another issue: health care. A friend of mine recently shared a video in which a doctor outsmarts a republican politician who was trying to prove his point that a single-payer health care is full of issues and that a multi-payer system is better. Because the politician had lacked some knowledge, failed to argue his point, and was outsmarted by the doctor who was from Canada (a country that happens to have a single-payer system), the video was shared with captions that argued that therefore a single-payer system is the way to go for the United States too. A multi-payer system is evil and must be abolished, it said. But is that really so? It may feel good to see someone who belongs to the other side of the political spectrum from us fail in trying to argue his point, but more importantly, have we even stopped to ask ourselves if that’s even a worthy discourse, to argue that one system is good and the other bad? If we take just one minute to study the different health care systems around the world, we will quickly see that there are great single-payer systems (like those in Canada, Taiwan, and UK), and also great multi-payer systems (like those in Japan and Germany), so we aren’t even having the right discussion. If we can’t get away from finger pointing and start asking the right questions, like why other countries, despite their differences in their implementation, successfully provide universal access to health care without breaking the bank, while the U.S. fails miserably in both regards (access to care for all, as well as our embarrassingly high spending per citizen on health care that profits insurance companies even as we are failing to provide people with needed care, sometimes even those with insurance), then we will never get any closer to an effective solution. We must study what the different systems of other successful countries have in common. Some people are pessimistic that the U.S. health care is this gigantic problem too big to be solved, but I disagree. If we can stop this unproductive political attacking and actually get to the root cause, we can make it work.

Another hot topic I’ve heard discussed is that of Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs). It is scary that we live in a world when technology is advancing faster than ever while most people, even those in charge of making laws that affect how the technology is integrated to benefit (or hurt) us, are not well-versed about the technologies. So many people assume, without any hint of evidence, that GMO’s are evil and we should say no to them no matter what, yet we don’t even understand what they are. Where does our universal hatred stem from, and what has happened as a result? It has become very hard for any biotech researcher to pursue new ways to engineer food to optimize for our health, while the few large companies that have already developed and patented some genes engineered only to optimize their profit are making a killing off the technology. Is that the result that we really wanted? And why do so many people believe that GMO’s are automatically bad or unhealthy, and are against any kind of technological advancements in this area? Whether we like it or not, technology will continue to advance. If we aren’t even willing to understand them or talk about productive ways to use technologies, the result may not be so good. Before so much technology was available to each one of us, it was really hard for a single person or an entity to do a lot of good, or a lot of harm. There’s only so much that a person could accomplish with their own hands. But with the explosion of technology, one person can indeed do a whole lot of good, and also a whole lot of evil. I hope that we will put systems in place to encourage us to act to better our society with our newfound powers.

The bottom line is, as a starting point, we must understand more. It is dangerous when we assume that we are correct, the other side is wrong, and that is the end of the conversation. This is especially so if we have not even attempted to learn about what it is that we think we are right about.

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Shin Adachi

I am a pianist and composer based in Los Angeles.