Our Talking Points Society

Rich Galen

3/27/2013 9:25:00 AM - Rich Galen

An essay in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday pointed out that as the oral arguments on same-sex marriage proceeded in the Supreme Court the use of the term "unfollow" jumped to ten times its normal frequency.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Twitter-verse "followers" are loosely analogous to "friends" on Facebook. A major difference is: Anyone can "follow" anyone else on Twitter. On Facebook you have to accept someone's offer of being a "friend."

There is a competition for followers on Twitter. The worldwide leader in Twitter followers is Justin Bieber with 36,592,950 which, as luck would have it, is exactly 36,589,121 more followers than I have.

Ok, enough of Twitter-101.

Getting back to that essay in the SF Chronicle, blogger Caleb Garling wrote, the context of the word "unfollow" was generally:

"If you don't like gay marriage, unfollow me" or telling someone with a particular stance on gay marriage, that they were now unfollowing them because of that view.

I don't know if the analytics firm that tracks things like that, Topsy.com, also tracks how many people unfollowed someone without telling the unfollowee that he or she was being tossed into the Twitter trash bin, but I'll bet it was a lot higher than usual as well.

This is indicative of a larger issue in our society: We no longer want to hear, see, or read both sides of a discussion. We only want to be exposed to the people with whom we already agree.

Thus, Conservatives tend to watch Fox News Channel. Liberals tend to watch MSNBC. They are very likely to not just hear people with whom they already agree, but when someone with an opposing view happens onto the set, they expect them to be roasted by the studio host - not unlike throwing rotten vegetables at a helpless Quasimodo in the stocks in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Small wonder that the comparatively straight reporting on CNN has caused it to lose viewers to its two more politically focused rivals.

Think about the impact on public discourse of the constant, throbbing drumbeat of cable news, talk radio and politicians' social media operations pushing, not just a point of view, but inviolate political doctrine hour after hour, day after day.

Think, too, about the people you hang with at the coffee machine or at the after-work bar. I'll bet that they are generally on your wavelength on matters political or, as in the case of same-sex marriage, matters social. And if you happen get on a subject on which you disagree, you will tend to change the subject rather than explore each other's arguments.

I don't believe this is reflective of a dislike of disagreement. A debate doesn't have to be ill-mannered nor the debaters disrespectful.

Disagreeing with someone's position on an issue requires that you listen to that person's position and formulate a response that successfully counters it.

Most of us just don't want to spend the time or energy (a) examining our position to the point that we can comfortably defend it, or (b) don't want to concentrate for very long listening to a position with which we disagree, or (c) either.

When I am on a cable chat show I know the entire segment will last about 4 minutes - give or take 30 seconds. If there are two of us plus the studio host that means I will get something on the order of a minute and a half, maybe one minute and 45 seconds, to make my case.

I don't have the time to counter my opponent's argument, all I have time to do is to make my own case, so I go into the studio with the points I want to make. I can talk about anything for a minute 45 - particle physics or quantum theory included; not against a physicist, but I can hold my own against another political hack.

We have all been reduced to communicating exclusively in Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, and talking points.

And, don't send me an email saying you disagree.