A friend of mine recently started a Facebook page called Political Noise. I wish he hadn’t.
Oh, I don’t mind that he (mostly) keeps his political rants on a separate page from his puns, movie reviews, and discussions of pop culture. What I mind is the title. There’s already too much noise in politics.
So much noise that the signal can’t get through.
Wikipedia defines signal-to-noise ratio (or SNR) as “a measure … that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise.” Think of an old-fashioned television set or radio. When there’s too much static, you can’t get a clear picture or clear sound. At most, you get a snowstorm of non-information or a meaningless buzz.
That’s what’s happening in interpersonal communication these days as well. It’s worse because this is an election year, of course. It seems that whoever shouts the loudest gets the most attention. The content – the message – has become irrelevant.
In fact, the content has dwindled to nothing. Words that no longer retain any meaning are flung at the heads of those who are supposed to be recipients of the message. Patriot, citizen, terrorist, liberal, fascist, tyrant, and other, cruder, forms of common words no longer have denotations (agreed-upon definitions), but only connotations (emotional content). Linguist S. I. Hayakawa nailed it back in 1941:
[W]e discover that these utterances really say “What I hate (‘liberals,’ ‘Wall Street’), I hate very, very much,” and “What I like (‘our way of life’), I like very, very much.” We may call such utterances snarl-words and purr-words.
Then there’s the problem of who’s supposed to be receiving the message, the snarls and purrs. Sadly, the answer seems to be, only those who already agree with you. Try as they might, nay-sayers’ voices will not be heard – certainly not understood. This is “preaching to the choir,” not an exchange of ideas. Multiple viewpoints not welcome.
We are all shouting across an abyss and can neither hear nor be heard. The only response is an echo.
If ideas are not in play, surely facts must be. Alas not. Facts are fungible and loaded with political opinions. Want a fact about climate change or voter suppression or welfare, or, god help us, guns? People on both sides can rustle up some statistics from somewhere. There is always a scientist who’s an outlier, or is funded by someone with an agenda. Cherry-picking and rhetorical fallacies (strawman, slippery slope, post hoc ergo propter hoc, appeal to the common man or to authority, etc.) have become Olympic-level sports.
Not only is this cacophony damaging, it is counterproductive. No one convinces anyone of anything by shouting at them. The goal isn’t really persuading anyone else – you can’t do that by telling people they’re evil and stupid. The only goal is reinforcing oneself and one’s own worldview – intellectual masturbation.
I do not think that the situation will change for the better once the election is over. I can’t believe that people will stop, take a step back, and lower their voices or the heat of their rhetoric. The only solution offered for noise is louder noise.
Some of us wish for clearer signals, less interference, a volume knob not that begins at 11. Less shouting and more hearing. Listening. Thinking. Considering. Compromising. Maybe the secret is asking questions instead of yelling slogans. What do you suggest? Why do you think that will work? Whom will that help? How can we best use our time, our resources, ourselves?
I’m not a little old-fashioned lady asking for a little old-fashioned civility here. Empty politeness is not the solution. Real work is – the extremely hard work of true communication. Sharing ideas, not screaming them. Trying solutions, instead of dismissing them. The mental work of trying to understand; the physical work of acting locally; the emotional work of finding common ground; the spiritual work of valuing one another. These are ways to get signals through the noise.
If what we really want to do is communicate, not pat ourselves on the back and vilify others, that is.