Adventures that Enchant the Mind and Liberate the Soul

Political Parley

Parley (noun): "a conference between opposing sides in a dispute, especially a discussion of terms for an armistice."

Oxford English Dictionary

If you can't handle one more political rant, please skip this post, and know that I respect your decision.

I can't handle one more political rant.

Throughout this post, I suspect many of you will be trying to guess which side I am on.

My answer is: neither. Mostly. Both sides terrify me.

I'm an optimist, and I'm dreaming of a better future. One far from where we are today.

I've watched politics in the US rip our nation apart. Over the last four years, I've watched good people on both sides devolve into name calling and insults.

I heard one of the most tolerant people I know say that he felt 50% of the United States was "irredeemable." I was devastated, because his tolerance appears to be only for those he sees as like himself.

This amazes me.

How did this happen in a melting-pot country?

Could a business get away with saying they would not do business with women? Haven't we had tremendous uproars when a business refused to do business with a minority?

Isn't this behavior we generally accept as wrong?

Then how can we be proud when a business refuses to work with 50% of the American population based on their political affiliation?

For good or ill, this country is split down the middle. Each recent election has been won by a frighteningly thin margin.

I find the broad numbers fascinating, because they seem to be more like what we'd expect from a coin toss than a disagreement. In the Civil War, the Union population was 3 times larger than the Confederacy.

There are those who suggest that we are on the verge of a civil war. I pray this isn't so. If we are to avoid it, we must all work together.

For a moment, I want to try and parley with my friends on both sides of the political chasm. Because I do have friends - dear friends, people I love - on both sides.

To understand what I'm going to say, I'm going to ask you to consider several superficially unrelated concepts.

Political Tactics

When I was in school, we studied political tactics. Methods specifically designed to manipulate the minds of voters and encourage them to vote the way a particular group wanted them to. That link is to a random article that reviews some of these tactics for those who have no idea what I'm talking about. I urge you to research them for yourself.

The principles I'm most interested in: Overstating the other guy's crimes, lies, and rhetoric.

These tactics are a normal, though disgusting, part of politics.

I don't care which side you are on, your party engages in these tactics.

Advertising Algorithms

I started to write a blog about why these algorithms terrified me a couple of years ago, but didn't have time to do the research and documentation that such a thing required. If you haven't watched "The Social Dilemma," start there.

In brief, we have designed algorithms that monitor our attention as we access the internet. Free services have access to information related to our likes and dislikes, our wants, desires, and goals. These algorithms were not designed for evil, but rather to effectively market products and bring relevant content to consumers.

To understand how much information these algorithms have available on you, just consider heat maps. That is only one piece of tracking data available to website owners and the massive data collectors that control what we see on the internet.

Or, simply run a test. Go to a shopping website and search for something you are not really interested in. Maybe put it in your cart. Leave without buying it. How long before you are seeing ads for that on your social media? On other platforms?

Secondary test: how long before feel a need or desire for the thing? Resist buying.

As a web developer, I've studied how to manipulate shoppers on a website. How to "convert" a visitor to a customer. As a writer, I've studied how changing one word in a passage can change a reader's response.

Studies show that you need to see a product between 3 and 12 times before you will buy it. (The quality of the exposure will change how many exposures are needed.) So if a company can manage to get their product in front of you on different sites, it will feel like it is popular, and you will be more likely to buy.

We are being manipulated every day.

Most of us know this. Most of us also know that the internet can be used to radicalize individuals.

What many people have not considered is that these algorithms do not have a conscience. They do not target only the weak minded. Anyone can be radicalized. All it takes is time.

If you want to understand how these two concepts can be combined, I suggest watching an old movie from 1981 called "The Wave." The video quality on that link is not great, but the movie is powerful and worth the hour. It was based on a true story.

The point of the movie was that anyone can be manipulated. In the 1980s, it was terrifying. It still is. And more dangerous than the pandemic.

I have absolutely no data to back this, but I am very curious: would a large amount of money poured into the advertising algorithms on two competing products result in a 50/50 split of people choosing each product? If anyone knows of any studies on this, please share!

Two Party System and Voting

Let's review how elections are held in the United States. Each of the two major parties puts forth their best candidate. Yes, other parties have candidates, but if you vote for anyone other than the top two, you might as well not vote at all. (I've seen interesting studies about how good 3rd party candidates can actually cause a bad candidate from one of the two popular parties to win.)

There are people on both sides of the last two elections - at least - who voted not "for" a candidate, but "against" the other candidate.

For a bit of levity in this heavy post, here is my favorite video about voting in the United States.

Put the Pieces Together

Political parties buy ads. Those ads use the algorithms. Political parties use political strategies. Some of those strategies involve making deliberately misleading and manipulative statements.

The algorithms cause content to gravitate towards the extremes, the alarming, the attention grabbing.

Those political accusations become so prevalent that they feel like facts.

People happily repeat the rhetoric of the party they choose. Many don't even understand that they are being insulting, because their circle of social media influence isolates them from those on the other side of the divide.

Both parties have done this. They've done this for years. What they didn't count on was that the algorithms would combine with social media's inherent leaning to form these social bubbles in such a way as to radicalize huge portions of our population.

People have migrated away from the middle and become polarized.

One Horrifying Example

I'm not sure some people throwing words around like shrapnel even know what they mean any more. For example, let's talk about racism.

I heard a white person say that any black person who voted for a particular candidate was clearly deranged.

Please take a moment and think about that sentence. A person - who was claiming NOT to be a racist - was calling a black person deranged. (This reminds me of a post I wrote years ago.) I'm sorry, but that statement makes no sense to me.

Guess what? A person of any color has the right to vote however they want and not be labeled insane.

We can disagree with how a person voted, but we need to remember that the person made that decision based not on one issue, but on their entire life experience. People choose the candidate they feel best represents their interests.

Anyone who takes the time to vote deserves respect, regardless of who they vote for.

Racism in America

Let's talk more about racism for a moment - taking this example just a step further.

I do not believe that 50% of the United States is racist. We elected a black president, and he is still beloved and respected by people from both parties. Our incoming vice president is a woman of color.

When the Black Lives Matter protests occurred, people from both political parties supported the movement.

And yet a friend recently told me they were sad that 50% of the US was racist, based on a belief that only racists could vote for Trump.

A wise man told me this: of those who voted for Trump, some were racists. Some were not. Some don't know if they are or not.

I have no data, but I suspect that the numbers on this would more closely resemble a standard bell curve than the political divide would like us to believe. I think most issues would probably fall into a similar bell curve pattern.

If this is true, then hard-core racists are probably only 20% or so of the nearly 50% who voted for Trump. Making the level of true racists in the US probably closer to 10%. Again: this isn't based on any data I can point at, but just my own experience of life...biased as that is!

By making racism the only visible separator between the parties, we create a false classification that has dire consequences.

Most frighteningly: Racists now believe they have more support than they actually do, and they are vocal and violent.

I have no idea how this is affecting those who don't know where they stand. I fear the radicalization tendency of the internet may be causing great harm.

Dialog Begins with Respect

In a democratic country where we value freedom of speech, we've lost the ability to hold a civil dialog.

I've heard folks lately talking about "those people" (anyone on the other side of the political divide) as living in a bubble. I recently watched two friends accuse each other of living in a bubble and not seeing reality.

They were both right, and neither recognized the irony. Neither of them had retained the ability to see the other person's point of view.

Even the term "bubble" is offensive. We used to refer to these situations as spheres of influence. The important point is that those inside the circle are seen as "good" and those outside are seen as "misguided" or "stupid" or "evil."

This is a tactic commonly used to bring cohesion to a group. But what happens when that tactic is applied on such a large scale and wielded not by individuals but by algorithms?

One thing I've heard from everyone that I've talked to about American politics recently: they're afraid.

And that fear is pushing people towards a sense of hopelessness. Hopelessness is breeding violence. Violence like what we saw in the BLM protests and in the capitol riots. Some people believe that the only way to be heard is to resort to violence.

Fear may not be the best place to start, but it is common ground. And sometimes we simply have to work with what we've got.

I don't think we can rely on our government to sort this out. Both parties are trying, but neither seems to understand how to reach across that divide and calm the fears of all involved. Force is not the answer. Censorship is not the answer.

Parley may be.

I believe that people need to feel that they can be heard without resorting to violence.

I urge my friends to take a step back and breathe deeply. Look past party lines. Reconnect with those on the other side.

Ask difficult questions, and then listen to the answers.

Don't listen with judgement or an ear to how you can convert the person to your view. Don't be thinking about your response, but focus on their words, their experiences of life.

Listen.

Try not to share your opinions unless asked, and then make sure you are using your own experiences as examples rather than anything you've heard.

Remember that this is a person you care about, a person who has value.

Show respect.

Set aside political rhetoric and polarizing algorithms, and think for yourself.

Slowly, try to extend this concept of parley to include strangers. Because each person has value, whether they agree with you or not. That's how a democracy is supposed to function.

At the end of "The Wave," there is a heart breaking moment where the characters are forced to deal with their actions during the experiment. I hope that a similar moment is coming for our country as people on both sides awaken and consider the people they've hurt.

I've been called a hopeless optimist. In this case, I am clinging to my optimism like a life raft. The alternatives are too terrifying.

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2 comments on “Political Parley”

  1. Deleyna, you’ve written a fascinating post on how media manipulates our thinking, and thus our behavior. Your sobering message about the insidious side of consumer research and data mining is one that touches all of us. It’s a precarious path you’ve chosen with this piece. Yet it conveys your beliefs, backed up with facts, evenly and with respect to all sides. This is something terribly lacking in current society. Bravo.

    I’d like to touch upon your very important point about listening to one another because I think that is where the core of your post lies. My own beliefs and values place me firmly on one side of the political spectrum but in spite of, or perhaps because of that, it is my obligation to listen carefully to rational discourse from the other side, as well as from the middle. The key word is rational. Rational discourse conducted in good faith. When I listen, I almost always learn something – whether or not I agree with it. But it isn’t the agreeing that is important. The importance lies in listening to points of view with which I disagree. That is where learning takes place. Learning is necessarily uncomfortable and sometimes even offensive. It requires questioning ourselves and our beliefs. Maybe we adjust our world view. Maybe not. But it is in the questioning, the self-examination conducted in good faith, that our knowledge grows. It’s good medicine. We discover that we can take the existential punch to the gut. We become better people. Acquiring new knowledge in the pursuit of bettering oneself is the basis for our humanity. It is our moral duty to engage in that process for the sake of human progress and improvement. When the listening stops, when the lines of rational discourse are closed, the learning stops. And when the learning stops, we cease to better ourselves as human beings. We risk a regressive slide toward an abyss I can only imagine as hell on earth. That, to me, is the frightening part about the algorithms you speak of. They steal our humanity.

    I believe you are correct – algorithms are used to divide us and inject chaos into our society, thereby breaking down the social order. It is within that realm of division and chaos where revolutionaries and tyrants operate. They are more easily able to exert control and engage in malign influence. We know this to be true because we have seen it happen over and over, just in the past century. Algorithms fit perfectly into that realm. None of us are untouched by this phenomenon. Every time an algorithm creates division in society and every time we succumb to that division by denigrating our fellow human beings for statements made in good faith, we lose a piece of our humanity.

    Yet I, too, am optimistic. Your post gives us the best reason I’ve seen to come together, no matter what part of society we inhabit. We may be in disagreement on certain issues but we have a common enemy and that is the people who devise and use these algorithms and the divisiveness they cause to gain wealth or power over others. People who deliberately seek to destroy our individual humanity, and thereby destroy humanity itself, are evil. I hope every person who reads this understands this. We must combat the evil by rejecting the common enemy – recognize the forces at play and refuse to be manipulated, refuse to attack others merely for thinking differently. We must continue to engage in public discourse despite our disagreements.

    And here is why I am optimistic. I’m optimistic because you, Deleyna, and others like you see the danger and have the courage to speak out about it despite the hostile blowback. I believe that more and more people are in agreement with your belief that open dialogue is key to defeating our common enemy. I hope that every person who reads your post joins with you in denouncing this artificial manipulation. I know I do. We must win the battle against this evil if we are to survive as people. No less than thousands of years of human progress are at stake.

    1. I think you're so very right, Vicki. When we listen, we don't always hear what we want, but if we can connect to the humanity in the other person, we're a step ahead.
      We won't always agree. But we can learn to accept another viewpoint as equally valid, even when it doesn't agree with ours. Democracy involves finding a way through that jungle, finding a way to live and work together in peace, in a way that values differing opinions while not invalidating either side.
      Computers think in 0s and 1s. One side or the other. People can see compromise. And that's where we can be better than the algorithms, as long as we learn not to be driven by them.
      I appreciate your encouragement! It means a TON to me!

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