Truth is Not a Binary Choice Between Good and Bad
When it comes to politics, we are not consumers. When it comes to history or science or relationships, we are not consumers either. We are participants, practitioners and contributors.
And yet, we continue to be trained to express our reactions in terms of binary opinion — yes or no, like or dislike, celebrate or cancel — in such a way that every interaction becomes a tiny referendum on whether we give our consent or say no.
It happens to me all the time: I read an online post and before I’ve even reached the end, my eye has been drawn to the number of likes and comments that sit like judge-and-jury on the matter at hand.
If people have responded, I increasingly see these reactions in shades of approval or denunciation. My eyes scan for rage. In recent years, my appetite has evolved to enjoy the argument.
Such quick-glance metrics have become so commonplace in modern communication that we run the risk of allowing them to dominate what should be more complex terrain. We use these metrics to help us navigate through the endless demands of consumer choice, looking for the 5-star badge of honour that will help us choose a holiday or hire a yoga instructor, book a restaurant or watch a TV series.
As a reader, consuming rather than participating is the easier choice. But we should resist the easy allure of the furious commentator who is only looking for lazy, adulatory applause.
Why? Because guilt and innocence are rarely as easy to distinguish as we might prefer them to be.
The rule of consent-or-complain can eventually become oppressive. It drowns out other voices. If your position is more nuanced, you are likely to find yourself silenced on the sidelines.
The right-side of the political divide plays the game by picking out the most extreme and absurd positions and amplifying them so they appear to stand for all the voices of their opponents. The left-side plays the game by selective quoting and public-shaming, raking over the minutiae and extrapolating the scandal with a wagging finger.
We live in a time of pure decision. Talent contests and Instagram feeds seek our instant approval by looking or sounding impressive. Even after all we’ve been through, the allure of glitter and hostility still wins out.
It’s time to change. It’s time to adopt a third-way, one that engages with those commentators who are willing to see the complexity of the situation at its fullest, who are not trying to triumph in argument, but who remain interested in the grey zones, the boundaries, the nuances and the silences.
Christopher P Jones writes about culture, art and life.