the state of us: in defense of context

Jon Stewart is a brilliant thinker and satirist, and in my view the public sphere is less informed without his voice.  When Stewart ran Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, pollsters claimed that a majority of millennials looked to Stewart for primary news; he was their information source.  Many older Americans decried this as a sign of the decline of our country’s intellectual rigor, or of the lack of seriousness and discernment young people possessed.  To be fair, Stewart himself adamantly claimed he was not, nor did he try to be, a trusted source for news.  He is a comedian, and that is all he claimed to be.  However, I think Stewart regularly offered us something news agencies—and most people—lack: context.

How do we come to know the things we know? Could the answer illuminate the sources of our alleged divide?  Our fractious citizenry is a result of our inability to contextualize our unique realities.  We live in circles largely segregated along economic, racial, ethnic and political lines.  These lines, invisible though they may be, are powerful, and they keep us from interacting regularly with people whose experiences and backgrounds are largely different from our own.  We love to yell about the problems this insulated living causes. “Get out of your echo chamber!” “You live in such a bubble.” “You only reached that conclusion using confirmation bias.” The list of accusations goes on, even though our divided communities ensure many of us DO live in bubbly echo chambers. 

The work of self examination required to recognize my bias, to trace its roots, and to mitigate its impact, can be exhausting.  Nevertheless, we cannot be responsible stewards of our citizenship without contextualizing our experiences with the experiences of people who live very differently than we do.  For instance, if my view of police is based on the positive experiences of white friends who live in safe, wealthy areas, then I might passionately defend all policemen as dutiful servants who are patient, respectful and levelheaded in every instance.  On the other hand, if my view of police is based on the negative experiences of black friends who live in a part of town overlooked by investment, then I might passionately accuse all policemen of being overly aggressive and suspicious, more likely to use force than to have a conversation.  Without the context of another’s point of view, our perspectives become reactionary.  In every interaction, we need to recognize our own perspectives and then intentionally contextualize those opinions with the thoughts of others.

The way we access information also demonstrates our need for contextualization.  Increasingly, we are consumers of “the media” rather than informed citizens who advocate for important ideas and people.  We are reactive to sensation, rather than intentionally engaged in the diverse realities of living in America.  I don’t blame us for this reactionary living.  The onslaught of information to which we are privy is overwhelming.  Most of us lack the capacity to curate which information is helpful or necessary, so we give that job to trending social media feeds, and to companies who own news stations and papers.  Without knowing we have done it, we allow them to decide what is necessary, or what angle matters.  Some do a better job than others at providing context for the information they share.  However, we often consume what they present as isolated fact, rather than discovering an independent, historically rooted and thoughtfully framed context.

The point here is not to demonize “the media.”  As David Dark often says,  “there is no the media.”  Rather, we are all implicated in a system that keeps us uninformed, spoon fed with snippets that make us furious, stripping away both nuance and context.  We are implicated because we consume our news in this way, like cows huddled in a corner rather than exploring the expansive field before us. 

How might we shift from passive acceptance to actively contextualizing our views of the world? A few thoughts:

1)   Take inventory of the ways you engage news.  Do you spend energy informing yourself, or do you accept arbitrary knowledge of the school board, affordable housing accessibility, limits to religious freedom, state of welfare, and the condition of your state’s guns laws? Observe your pursuit or avoidance of “news.”

2)   Think about that pursuit or avoidance.  If you avoid the news, is it because it feels too “political” and somehow dirty? If this resonates with you then know you are surely not alone. However, consider this: The ability to insulate yourself, protected from any policy decision your government makes, is a privilege not enjoyed by many who struggle pay check to pay check.  It is also worth noting here that when you make a habit of giving your political power away, it is very difficult to get it back.

3)   If you think most news sources are terribly biased, consider sampling all of them.  Rather than repeat attacks of, “Fake News!” or “They have an agenda!”, take time to listen to a variety of sources. If you believe that a certain outlet is overtly biased yet successful, it behooves the informed citizen to spend time getting to know those powerful voices.  When you listen to disparate voices it might make you angry, but it could also provide context for you to understand the many forces at play around a given issue. Such exposure might help you communicate well with people who lean differently from you.

We live lives largely contextualized by the people we know best, and by news sources we find agreeable.  Such self-referentially rooted context is no context at all, and leads to the passionate defense of positions not fully explored.  As citizens who share a country, we fundamentally understand we share spaces with others.  As long as we value only the opinions of those who are the most like us, we will continue to react badly to those who have a different way of experiencing or seeing the world.

Note well that the forces around you do not provide context; indeed, if you are weary of today’s reactionary blaming, do the work to contextualize your own experience with the experiences of others.  Contextualize your acquisition of news with outlets who spin in service of a different power.  It is the job of each of us to build a bigger table, invite others to have a seat, and then share our experiences.  If we do, perhaps we can stop reacting with anger and blame for people who dare respond differently.  Offering your story to the stories of others will bring insight to our shared concerns.  As Jon Stewart once mocked cable news, “This portion of our program is brought to you by… Context. It’s the shit you have in your tape library that gives seemingly isolated instances perspective.”

the state of us: citizens or consumers?

With midterm elections hovering, we are inundated with phrases that remind us we are “more divided than ever” here in America.  We are accused and accuse others of playing with identity politics, and we are told to recognize our place in an elected official’s “base” or in our “voting block,” rather than as an interdependent people sharing a continent and a government. Call me contrary, but I am tired of being told how I vote, or what I care about or who I hate.  Before we can tackle if or how we are divided, I’d like to first examine the ways in which many of us engage in the public sphere.  For the next few weeks I will explore the divides we sense, the injustice we decry or ignore, and ways we respond to all of it.  

First though, my hypothesis for how we got here: Many of us have passively traded our duty as citizens for rights as consumers.  We are all driven by economic concerns. Whether you desperately scrape to gather money for this month’s rent or constantly worry about whether you will retire with six digits or seven, money consumes us.  In fact, I believe consuming has become our dominant approach to life.  We experience peace when we pay off our car or vacation home.  We beg others to “consume” us by “liking” our images or thoughts.  We feel valuable and find dignity when we can buy the things we want.  We feel like our government is working for us if we can consume what we want without feeling taxed or burdened by debt.  These truths demonstrate the fact that our relationship to consuming has taken priority over our relationships to one another as citizens who share a country.

Everything is not a transaction. 

As consumers, we reward the places where our dollars best stretch.  Indeed, we frequent businesses that sell cheap stuff because many of us can only afford cheap stuff.  Even if we earn high wages, most of us feel entitled to buy more with less.  We have forgotten that we are citizens, not consumers.  A citizen asks what governmental policies lead us to have stagnant wages, a growing pool of working poor, and the growing wealth of the top 1%.  A consumer starts to pay attention when bills are due.  A citizen starts to pay attention when companies move jobs and tax shelters overseas, using American infrastructure without paying into the economies that build and support that infrastructure.

We are not only consumer-minded first as citizens, but also as towns and communities.  For decades, we have chosen to compromise our tax base to lure businesses and professional sports to our towns.  In our metro councils and state legislators, we govern like consumers, not like citizens.  We allow ourselves to be victimized by companies who say they will only choose our city if we give them a tax free decade, for instance.  Think about the nation-wide courting process of Amazon, who is looking for a location for their second headquarters.  Cities and towns can’t lower taxes fast enough for them.  Sure, these companies bring jobs, but if those jobs pay low wages in a town that had to cut services in order to woo the company there, citizens are damaged in the process.

A recent episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley is a hilarious parody of this trend.  Gavin Belson, a morally bankrupt CEO, comes to an American town that rolls out the red carpet for him.  He announces to the crowd that if their mayor loves them, he will agree to all of Belson’s terms, ensuring Hooli, his Google-esque company, builds a factory.  Sounds patriotic, right?  The CEO wants nothing more than to build his plant in good ole’ Murica.  The catch, however, is that the CEO will bankrupt the town in order to secure a deal that protects his expected 80% profit margin.  The mayor agrees to the terms because he wants to say he brought jobs back, but the town is destroyed by the decimation of its tax base. 

In the same vein, we often buy the lie that business could pay employees more if they weren’t so strapped by regulation.  Regulations are expensive, yes; regulations also keep people alive.  A cursory look at the industries of coal, automobiles, paints, or tobacco should remind us that regulations are always loathed and also created because people die when profit margins are the loudest voice at the table.  Companies rightly complain that regulations cost them money, forcing them to create safe working environments, to sustainably source items, to more aggressively test products before they are available to the public.  This is expensive, and there are surely absurd regulations on the books.  Industries complain that all regulations, rather than protecting customers, actively hurt them by forcing prices to increase dramatically.  When the public joins the cry that “Regulations kill jobs!”, we dramatically shift from citizen to consumer.  In advocating for blanket deregulation, we prioritize our desire for low prices over our right to health and safety.  A citizen would demand every American company not sell products that are dangerous or are made in environments toxic for their employees.  A consumer simply wants more things made cheaply.  In short, we have exchanged our role as citizens for our need to consume.   

The abandoning of citizenship impacts other aspects of our engagement as well.  This shift has damaged our ability to share our cities as it has removed the ideas of mutual interdependency and shared sacrifice from our ways of viewing each other.  Consumers want to pay for what they want and get out. Citizens, on the others hand, have to have a conversation about what works for the many. Citizenry demands we acknowledge that America is a shared space, and therefore compromise is necessary.  Everything is not a transaction.  If you shift from consuming to civically engaging, then you have a vested interest in seeking out many sides of an issue.

Our government, at least in theory, provides space for every voice to matter. What if we collectively decided to call America’s bluff? To step out of our comfortable role as passive consumers, striding together down the road as engaged citizens, advocating for a more perfect union.  If you are frustrated by those who decry the terrible “direction of the country”, then evaluate and actively change your position and behavior. We are citizens, not consumers, and it is time we start acting like it. 

may: the best of times, the worst of times

May is a month of celebrations. Of graduations and finishings, launching into new things and embarking on adventures. Houses sell best in the Spring and more people move in this time of year than in any other. If one pays attention to the natural world, these rhythms make good sense.  The earth, long dead by harsh temperatures, kept fallow by lingering frosts, miraculously comes again to life. May in Tennessee is a green, lush wonder.  The miracle of the world around you makes you want to slow down, sit on a patio, find the nearest hammock, and just stop moving.  The air feels so right most days that you can't tell where your skin stops and where the world begins.  It is lovely.

And yet, May can be the WORST.  All these new beginnings, accomplishments, adventures and celebrations apparently require a ceremonial something to mark them.  They require reservations, last minute trips to the store, stolen moments from work, and weekends so full of the "good stuff" that they leave you grumpy and exhausted.  The miracles we notice are not the tulips budding, but the fact that we actually made it to every freaking event to which we RSVP'd.  We squeeze each minute to such an extent that we assume we are living the good life...we're busy having fun, and that counts, right?  We settle for an instagrammable photo to prove the significance of our time, because if we stop, we might realize that we more closely resemble robots than we do people.  I have become such a victim of my schedule that i regularly show up for things, knowing I can stay approximately 12 minutes before I try to gracefully exit.  I have begged more rides for my kids than a good mother should, and I've skipped so many meals that hangry me just feels like 2pm on a Tuesday. 

And yet, for whatever it's worth, I want to plea with all of us to take a note from the natural world.  Life in America in May demands productivity, so if you find an unscheduled moment, may I suggest you walk outside and just look around?  In a month of formal endings, beginnings and celebrations, may I suggest we look for informal moments to breathe and wonder?  We love to celebrate a well-earned accomplishment, but wouldn't it be fabulous if we paused to celebrate the hope that fills the air when buds begin to bloom on a breezy afternoon?  I recognize the absurdity of that sentence, and yet I think celebrating the act of breath outside on a gorgeous spring day might restore us to our best selves. 

In this manic month of May, do your best to elevate gratitude, to take a minute to breathe and look around when you can.  To just be.  Not everything worth noticing took a ton of work.  This month, notice beauty around you.  Observe the scenery as you dash from event to event. Pay attention to the honing device in you that longs for a drink on a patio.  If you try to make it to everything on your calendar, commit to showing up, and then stay in that moment until you have to dash to the next.  If you are supposed to appreciate a teacher, thank them in the context of investing in your child everyday for 9 months, rather than in the context of your overcommitted May-self. 

May offers us a dozen reasons to remember renewal is real every day.  When you see it, grab it, and hang on.  This month provides us with an interstitial space that pops up between a world full of new wonder, and a habitual world full of sadness, drudgery, or even fun overcommitment.  The gorgeous thing about such a space is that there is room to figure out who you are and where your gaze rests.  Will you look mostly to the wonder of the world around you, or will you focus on the sadness, stress and fatigue? Shifting your gaze to the good in the world, to trustworthy people, to evidence of redemption, to the hope of renewal, is not a betrayal of the hard stuff. It will remain.  If May offers you a break from the hard, seize it!

For a few moments every day, the beauty of the world will give you pause.  From one struggling human to another, may i humbly suggest, stop and take it in.  Shift your gaze.  Slow you roll.  As far as it is in your power, commit to more hammocking, and less multitasking.  Maybe May is the month of celebration for a reason...

Happy May.