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I was reading Matt Bai’s article in his political column in the NY Times yesterday, Voter Disgust Isn’t Only About Issues, and found myself realizing that although the article was ostensibly about the Tea Party and their complaints with politicians of all stripes, it was in fact a discourse on the lack of decency in the world today.
Usually in election periods consultants rush out and beat the bushes looking for voters who are leaning one way or the other, especially in a period such as this one, where election races are tight. It turns out that in the mid-term elections this year, voters are not acting out their assigned roles. They are concerned about a lot more than who will win a seat in Congress.
They are worrying about the larger breakdown of civil society.
Bai writes about three consultants who are taking a different approach to checking the pulse of the nation this year, and the results they report will only come as a surprise to anyone who has been living under a rock for the last few years:
“..three New York consultants who specialize in corporate marketing, taking on tasks like predicting the behavior of shoppers in supermarkets, have been experimenting with a different approach. The three — Jeff Levine, a pollster who has worked for Democratic candidates, and the marketing consultants Claire Tondreau and Christopher Brace — have been convening small groups of self-identified independent voters who are friends or relatives of one another for focus groups in a participant’s living room.
No campaign or client is sponsoring the research, and no one is looking to “move” the voters with slogans or ad scripts. In fact, very little, if anything, is even mentioned about partisan politics. Instead, the facilitator asks the half-dozen or so voters to invent their own countries and to compare their idealized versions with the country they actually live in.
The focus group that met here in New Jersey on Monday included a bartender, a lawyer and a school bus driver. The dominant theme of the discussion, in which jobs and taxes came up only in passing, seemed to be the larger breakdown of civil society — the disappearance of common courtesy, the relentless stream of data from digital devices, the proliferation of lawsuits and the insidious influence of media on their children.
These voters did not hate politicians. They simply saw both parties, along with the news media and big business, as symptoms of the larger societal ailment.”
I believe we are all very aware of how personal responsibility, common decency and civic behavior have all taken a back seat to boorishness, vicious baiting, road rage and hostility. It is almost impossible these days to have a reasonable debate, either in person or online, without the debate devolving into a cavalcade of name calling and back biting.
I have an acronym for this attitude – MITY – pronounce it Mighty, and it stands for More Important Than You. You should try it on for size. Next time you are in a debate or discussion that you are struggling to win [because it's all about winning, right? Not achieving consensus,] try calling your opponent [because it's a fight,] a moron, or a bully, or “not worthy of my time you imbecile…” It works every time. You end up the winner without fail. You can wear your MITY badge with pride.
Here’s some examples of MITY folks in action:
The Prius drivers who tailgate me all the way from my home as I drive at only 5mph more than the speed limit, until the first red light, where they can pull along side and scowl at me, then floor it when the light turns green. They are MITY.
Better yet, those Portland drivers who are above the law that disallows talking or texting on your mobile while driving. They do it anyway, because never mind the danger to bicyclists, pedestrians and other drivers – they are MITY.
Yes, I’m being facetious here, but the breakdown begins at a very granular level. If the traffic cops are not going to enforce the laws that apply to tailgating, speeding and talking on a mobile while driving, then everyone who gets away with that behavior will take their MITY act to the next level.
What message is a parent sending to their teenagers in the car when they break the law in front of them? Personal responsibility does not include “getting away with it.”
From politicians on down, and especially through today’s cable TV shows, normal discourse has been abandoned. When there is no respect for the President of the USA, what hope is there for everyone else?
Here are three disparate examples of stories I came across in the news just today. In order of appearance they move from a fairly benign take on society and parental responsibilty, to a sad reflection on race in America today, to the outright horror and despicableness depicted on a TV show. Read on and make up your own mind:
Noisy kids: Where should the line be drawn? – The Guardian
The Seat Not Taken – John Edgar Wideman, a black American on the empty seat beside him as he commutes by train.
Mother Told Live On Italian TV of Her Daughter’s Murder – This takes things beyond the pale..
This is everyone’s fault. We are responsible and can take steps to change it. It’s not hyperbole to say that the future of a decent society demands it.
“..the dark genius of their film lies elsewhere, beyond the parameters of its slick intentions, in the wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is” [NY Times review of the movie Catfish]
Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet?” [Malcolm Gladwell - New Yorker 10/04/10]
“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” [New Yorker cartoon.]
Let’s not confuse society, social and community
It doesn’t seem so long ago that society and social went hand in hand. There have been many writings about differing societies throughout history – Nomadic Pastoral, Agricultural, Horticultural or simple farming societies – and there has been plenty of debate over the marked difference between Industrial and post-Industrial societies. The common thread throughout though is that they were all phases of civilization. Historically, societies have tended to form to resolve issues, effect social change or for other positive purposes.
For a society to form, likeminded social beings are required. Humans are pretty good on the whole, at being social.
Social anthropology provides so many answers to human behavior, and today that information is available via technology right at our keyboards, which, to parse Marshall McLuhan, are an extension of our fingers. And although technology has shortened the distance between millions of people, we all still skip to the thrum of our baked-in anthropological nudges.
Before I go on, it’s worth pointing out that we shouldn’t confuse society and community. This link points to almost everything you’d need to know about community.
“To feel part of a community people need to share a sense of purpose, a common set of values and beliefs. And for the community to grow and thrive it needs to draw on collective resource and a culture of support and interdependence to meet common needs and defend against shared risk.” – Olivia Knight at eatbigfish
Does that sound like Facebook to you?
Why do I say that we skip to the thrum of our baked-in anthropological nudges? Well, let’s look at Facebook with its 500 million users. That’s a half billion people. It’s also a large pool of users to study and there have been studies.
A 2009 Read Write Web article, points out that Facebook users actually interact with very few of their ‘friends’ - “According to Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s ‘in-house sociologist,’ that number is four if you are male and six if you are female. Marlow’s research indicates that the average Facebook user has a network of about 120 friends, but only has two-way conversations with a very small subset of these ‘friends.’ Interestingly, even for those users who have a far larger number of friends (500+), those numbers barely grow [ten for men and sixteen for women].”
So four friends do not a community make. And six is barely larger than most modern households; according to sociologists, a social unit larger than a household is the norm for when communities form. On another note, there’s Dunbar’s number, which is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. That number is 150. Can we call those 500+ Facebook users a “community” when they don’t actually interact with each other?