Essays, Politics-Government.

Citizenship: Making sense of hysteria

With the never-ending wave of hysteria being promulgated daily in the news media and on the internet, how do we make sense of it all? How do we deflect the emotional pull of anger, greed and hate, all cousins of fear, that are often brought to us by those who wish to drown our better selves in the worst emotions, so as to persuade us to think or act in some certain way? How do we find a way to think and act responsibly when our politicians, pundits, preachers, programs and parents promote their agendas, at times with little regard for truth or ethics or morality, while with the deepest irony, and sometimes cynicism, couching their points of view in the language of truth and ethics and morality?

To be an effective citizen of a representative and liberal democracy is to wrestle with these questions. (Note: A liberal democracy is one that provides essential individual liberties, such as the U.S. with its Constitutional Bill of Rights.) An effective citizen is one who considers not just their own interests, but those of their community, country and the world, and does not allow emotion to dominate their decisions but uses it to help identify which issues are important, and then thinks rationally about solutions to those problems.

These questions point towards individual self-awareness, which is where responsible citizenship starts. So how do we answer them?

We should examine the emotions that we are being asked to embrace: Does an argument appeal to our worst instincts, or our best? Are we being asked to fear or hate something? There are things that we should legitimately fear, but fear is also the most common tool used by self-interested demagogues to manipulate us, so we especially should question appeals to fear. Look also at appeals to the better side of our nature, those that are couched in care, charity and love. Positive appeals are more likely to be less manipulative, but do need their own examination; it is not unusual that these are used to promote the agenda of a particular group, at the exclusion of others.

We should acknowledge the importance of patriotism, which is a legitimate expression of the interests of your country, but guard against the excesses of jingoism: “My country, right or wrong.”

Perhaps the most difficult of all is to seek understanding, not self-validation, by examining all sides of an issue. We should listen to or read someone we disagree with, and try not to be put off by emotional argument, but seek an understanding of the underlying reasons. We should try our best to persuade others with considerate discourse and careful argument, and be prepared to be persuaded in turn.

The more important an issue is for us, the more important it is to set aside time to think about it. Jonathan Franzen suggests that "We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we've created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful. The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world."(Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist, Time, 8/12/2010) 

Listen, think, then act: This is much easier for us to say than do, but it is vital in the pursuit of effective citizenship, for those who seek to manipulate our worst instincts are always self-serving, but often not a friend to us, or a friend to our community, country or to the world.

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