America has never been so polarized, so divided or so fractured—or so says the media. Many pundits and analysts have offered observations and predictions based on this perceived dichotomy that is American society. Red states and blue states, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and republicans and other designations are the rally points for differing ideologies across the nation. Issues from immigration to gay marriage, from education to health care, and from foreign policy to domestic issues are driving the debates that separate the nation. Many people wonder why America has come to these crossroads especially given the advent of the Internet and the social media that was expected to unite everyone in the utopia that is instant connectivity of shared ideas. This is not just a fallacy; it is exactly the opposite of what is happening. The Internet is actually the tool that is dividing us.
The mainstream media, ostensibly a long-time proponent of free interchange of ideas, touted web 2.0 tools such as Twitter and Facebook for their role in the 2010 Arab spring uprisings in the Middle East, which was expected to foster democratic movements in those countries. The ability to reach out and contact so many people at once is supposed to have been the cause for so many people coming together in such short order to force the revolutions and ouster of the supposed dictators of those countries.
While that may be true (and we have yet to see those Arab Spring revolutions foster democracy in any of those countries) the ability to communicate with so many instantaneously is also fraught with peril. The Internet is worldwide, to be sure. But in this wonderful wide world, there has long been a collection of disparate, different and dissonant societies, many of which who cannot tolerate those that are different. They have existed on the same ball of dirt simply because of the distance that separates them. Now that the Internet has removed that distance, those conflicting ideas ignite into hostility.
This is observable in America as well. The map of the United States shows how the divisions play out. People tend to cluster around like-minded people. This is how communities began. This is how the colonies got their starts in the 1700s. People gathered around those with whom they could identify; typically people of the same nationalities and ethnicities held the same beliefs systems. Thus the community prospered with minimal ideological conflict and churches fostered and nurtured the community.
With the advent of technology, people began travelling to other communities and clustering in cities and in those groupings, nationality and ideology were pushed aside for economic development and prosperity. But the stressors of ethnicity began a slow boil that eventually erupted into the civil rights movement. People of different ethnicities and nationalities began to bicker and fight. Legislation may have quelled the worst of it, but even today different ideologies thrust together into common geographic space breed hostility.
At the foundation of our nation, literacy was not commonplace. Only a few learned individuals possessed the tools and skills to communicate to the masses effectively. In those days, “the masses” was defined by those who gathered around the public square. Again, in those days, the public square was in a community of like-minded people with shared nationality and ethnicity and ideology. Today, anyone can say anything to anybody at anytime. Instant public speech is possible with a world-wide audience.
In England, the people were forbidden to speak out against the government. One of the founding principles of American government was the freedom to speak out against the government without fear of reprisals. It is inscribed in the first Amendment along with a line about how the government cannot dictate how individuals practice their religious beliefs. This freedom has been bastardized by those who think that it allows anyone to say absolutely anything they desire. This is not true. It just means one cannot be arrested for it. Many people have found out through lost jobs and lost relationships that speaking one’s mind on the internet can have consequences.
A teacher posted a picture in which she enjoys an adult beverage while on vacation. Her school terminated her for the posting. A healthcare worker posted a comment in which she advocated mass murder for criminals rioting in Ferguson Missouri. She was terminated by the hospital that employed her. A college professor was fired after joking on a Facebook post about hiring a hit man. Many celebrities have been called to task when they make comments that are picked up in the media and broadcast. Public outcry resulted in the forced sale of the L.A. Clippers after the owner made private comments that were made public by someone else.
In many of these cases, advocates claim these people should be protected by the first amendment for free speech. Again, none of these people have been arrested for their statements. None are facing federal charges. The first amendment is working in these cases. It is other people who are squelching the principle of free speech.
This is because people are communicating—albeit inadvertently—with a global audience and not a local community of like-minded people. A statement decrying abortion would gather great support in a small community where everyone shared nationality, ethnicity and ideology. Make the same statement on the Internet and it is likely to be met with hatred, vitriol and threats of violence.
Human beings are not the same. We still have unique nationalities, ethnicities and ideologies and many of these are incompatible with others. The crisis is the middle east is a glowing example. Ideologues from Palestine cannot abide the existence of an Israeli state and no amount of negotiation can change that. Radical Muslims will never accept any other religion and will always refer to any non-Muslim as “Infidel” and declare a Jihad to kill them.
Democrats and Republicans have different beliefs of the role of government. These differences are fundamental. The only way both can exist in governing is to be willing to surrender some of the ideals in order to achieve a greater good. This idea sounds great in theory, but those who are steadfast in their beliefs cannot abide surrender and they have the support of like-minded community members who rally around them shouting and holding signs. These people look crazy to the members of the opposing community who also rally together and try to shout down the opposition. This is where the dichotomy breeds and it is nowhere more apparent than on the internet.
We are products of our communities; we develop ideals based on interactions with those around us. The “Global Community” is a dream that cannot be realized because of the vast differences that exist between nations, ethnicities and ideologies. Perhaps in a century, if all national borders are eradicated and all ethnicities have blended into a homogenous amalgam of humanity, we might be close to a universal ideology. But don’t count on it. I, for one, would not want to live in such a world. And many in my community agree with me.