Exploiting Extremists

We have a problem in the modern debate on – well, basically everything.  In a world where we’ve given everyone a multitude of platforms to express every random opinion on any and every event, issue and discussion, we’ve become enamored with extremists.

Extremists are more exciting than ever before because they provide the greatest opportunity for the greatest response.  In the ever increasing attempt to not only have an opinion, but to express it and have it received, reinforced and spread to the largest audience we can reach, we embrace the extreme because we can express our strongest support or strongest aversion to the most extreme – and that is most likely to garner the most attention for our own expression.

Extremists have the strongest advocates and the strongest foes.  Extremist statements receive the greatest support or opposition from normally centrist individuals.  Commentary about extremists in turn receives the greatest reaction.  The most comments on the Huffington Post or Facebook, the most retweets, the most likes, the most shares, the most everything.  We’ve fallen in love with extremists we support and extremists we oppose because they in turn lead to the most reaction and attention for ourselves.

And it is ruining debates of every kind in the public forum.  Even normally level-headed compromise-oriented individuals, myself included, feel the need to comment or weigh in the current extreme controversy in order to remain engaged in the day-to-day zeitgeist debate.

The result is that real discussion of real issues that could lead to honest debate and practical and applicable results is traded in for the feel-good reactionary attention to the most offensive and controversial moment of the day.

Blackface.  Ted Cruz.  Ann Coulter.  Sex scandals.  The N word.  The Westboro Baptist Church.  Obama’s a Muslim.  And an endless parade of others fill the priority place headlines, Twitter trending topics and articles shared entirely too many times across the Facebook feed on a daily basis.

The problem with engaging when extremists provide some insane opportunity to react to them and collectively dividing down the middle in support of or against them is that it almost never moves to the “and what are we going to do about it?” phase anymore.  We express our feelings on it, we rail at those who disagree and cheer those who support our opinion and then we move on to the next one and start all over again.

Our obsession with the most extreme thing of the day keeps us from actually creating progress and it turns the vast majority of compromise-oriented individuals into reaction extremists in order to be heard.  It leads to a collective lack of patience and inability to hear those who would say, “I disagree with some, but not all of this,” or “the delivery is bad, but there is something here we should genuinely be talking about,” or even more simply “does this matter?”

Because so often it doesn’t.  And the originator of the controversy should not be given the amount of airtime, attention and reaction they are given because they are ridiculous.  And we all know that.  But we jump on the bandwagon making whatever the particular variety of lunatic for the day is newsworthy by our very reaction.

For example, should the Westboro Baptist Church ever be news again?  No.  No half-decently intelligent person thinks there is anything credible in their actions, they don’t represent anyone else in the country with their methods, and yet the Huffington Post or another outlet puts up the photos, we share them and collectively shake our heads and talk about how terrible they are, and pull the discussion of the day to a subject that does not, and should not, matter.

Complicated issues evoke complicated responses and require lengthy debate and analysis of viable options.  And what’s fun about that?  Education reform.  Immigration reform.  Tax reform.  Campaign finance reform.  The minimum wage.  Banking regulation.  Healthcare reform.  These are ugly, challenging, exhausting subjects because the reality is, there is no simple answer.  To any of them.  It’s much easier to scream about a ridiculous statement that someone made on one of these issues than it is to discuss the actual substance of the issue.  We obsess over an incident of “blackface” rather than continuing to have a complicated discussion of race relations in our country.  Then a day later we forget the blackface story for some new insanity, and race relations are still a problem not being addressed.

Healthcare reform is the issue of the moment.   The news and politicians are obsessed over the website.  Every story, every headline and even the testimony before Congress is about the implementation and the failure of the website.  The website is the perfect launching point for an extremist discussion.  It’s easy to talk about it, it’s a simple focal point and it completely misses any intelligent discussion of the nature of healthcare in our country.

The website is a huge problem, but the real issue is the legislation and the website is merely the implementation of part of the legislation.  But it’s easy to point to and say “Obamacare sucks” because a website is failing, rather than get back into the specific issues in the Affordable Care Act that people on all sides support or take issue with.  The ACA should by no means be the end of the healthcare discussion or the end of legislation related to healthcare.  It will need monitoring, continued debate over the aspects that succeed or fail and adjustments made accordingly.  But that’s not sexy and it’s hard to scream about monitoring and moderation.  So we don’t talk about that, we scream about a website – and accomplish nothing.

We stop at the extreme moment, have our reaction and it’s over.  For our society to grow and move forward, if we are going to react to extremists, it has to be to move to the teachable moment and the reasonable discussion and debate, or the reaction serves no purpose.  Announcing “I think that’s awful” and listening to like-minded individuals say “me too” ad finitum feels good and does nothing but clog the public forum with mindless responses.

Extremists are important because they help everyone in the middle realize where the limits are.  They help us see where the cliffs are at both edges of any debate and that’s an important element of progress and compromise.  Pointing to them as examples to encourage levelheadedness is beneficial; gawking at them hoping they will do or say something even more ridiculous that we can respond to in lieu of having a discussion is not.  No matter how many likes or shares it gets.

Of course, if I could say all of this in one tweet, I’d probably get more response to this too.

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