This idea for an essay all started when I had a long conversation with someone at my office one day about, of all things, people. In a very large and general sense, people and where their motivations lie and if people, in the construct of a mass group, actually have any motivation driven by virtue as opposed to self-interest. She was a bit younger than me, 24 to my 30, not many years on paper but a lifetime to live through. And not to discredit her position based solely on her age, but much of what she said sounded very familiar to me. It reminded me of my own youthful pessimism.
This might be an odd construct, typically youth is paralleled with idealism and age tends to follow realism and pessimism closely behind. My growing up experience was different, especially while I was in college. Living off a healthy diet of Propagandhi records and Henry Rollins books, I was a ball of over-academic rage who wrote open letters to Glenn Beck and Thomas Lukaszuk, convinced these public figures with differing opinions of me were my mortal enemies and were cowardly for not engaging in intellectual debate.
Teeth clenched and knuckles white from tight fists, I devoured hours of MSNBC during the Wisconsin protests when Governor Scott Walker tried to make unions illegal, when Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona, and during the Republican Party primaries. With consuming this much media, it’s easy to understand why my view of people, especially people in masses, quickly deteriorated. My optimism grew during the Occupy months, but when I started hearing the oratory rhetoric of some of the self-claimed leaders of the sit in, I quickly realized this demonstration grew directionless and became a self-parody, and once again I was left questioning the motives and virtues of people.
This is where this particular individual was at the time of this conversation. She was still angry. And this anger fed into her views of people. And worse, when I tried to counter her argument, pointing out all the good and amazing things people are capable of, she called me naive.
I don’t think my optimism is grounded in any naivety. I’m far from a well-versed expert on the world and even farther from the kind of person whose wisdom stems of years of experience. I haven’t even been out of university for that long. But my university writing life had me exploring the failings of so many prevalent aspects of society: the failures of truly supporting the arts, the failures of big-agriculture, the failures of luxury commodities that I as a true writer and artist would never be able to afford. My post-university writing life has me exploring the small seeds of social change being planted into the ground and slowly growing to seamlessly create new standards and normals in western culture. From my magazine internship, through my freelance career, and into my current career working with not-for-profits, I’m faced every day with individuals and groups working off of a crazy notion that what they do might make things better for someone else.
Hearing about the awesome things people are working on is kind of rare. Good news stories aren’t all that sexy and people are more drawn to the kinds of stories where someone is murdered, someone is arrested, or someone is the centre of a scandal. Those are the kinds of stories that garner clicks and earn online publication advertising revenue. I was impressed when Metro newspaper put out an all positive edition of their press across Canada to battle against the influx of click-bait news headlines and may be the start of a different approach to print and online publications. That’s not to say that online publications who focus on more positive outlooks to news stories don’t exist, but the old adage about news stories, “if it bleeds, it leads,” despite being a gross stereotype, still resonates for a reason.
This idea about the kinds of news stories that tend to garner the most attention I also find stands with online comment feeds in the stories. I usually take the time to read the comments, even from online news sources that I know is biased and slanted. I want to know what people think and how they react to things. Especially in my role as a professional communicator in my real job, knowing how people approach and will respond to stories and information is fascinating to me. At the same time, though, I have to question if comment feeds are the best places to be gauging public discourse. On the surface, it seems like the best place to view the activity of the masses. But, I have to question, what proportion of the masses do the comment feeds represent?
After reading through so many comment feeds, you start to see recurring names and recurring messaging. Spam bots are commonplace nowadays and it doesn’t take much to program a system to automatically comment on certain newsfeeds. This is why you see CAPTCHA fields as a part of some news sites’ comments requirements. Those without the CAPTCHA fields are obvious with comments from anonymous users either trying to sell Oakley sunglasses or repeating certain politically slanted messaging on multiple stories.
From my own explorations of comment feeds, once you filter through the robots, I realized that those who sit on online news stories, placing controversial comments onto stories and anxiously waiting for the replies they can refute with name-calling and reductions to political affiliations, represent a very small proportion of people involved in public discourse.
My optimism points pushes me to believe that the vast majority of people don’t comment on stories or share news stories to their Facebook feeds looking for arguments simply because they are far too busy working to make the world a better place. They don’t have time to sit on online news stories. They don’t care what other people think about their political views. But, they do occasionally read what others post and this can skew their viewpoints. I empathize with these people, though. Because they approach things with only the best of intentions.
I pride myself in being culturally inclusive and open and curious. I try to go out of my way to ask questions rather than pass judgments. This approach has led me to a lot of really great conversations and learning experiences I carry with me to this day. I’m from perfect and it took a lot of embarrassing and shameful moments on my own part to help me develop this philosophical approach to cultural aspects I don’t understand a lot about. Not everyone approaches things this way, and by no means is this the best approach for everyone, but not asking questions is what creates things like confirmation bias and can create an air of xenophobia that can cause a lot more damage than good.
When you consume media and you only see small snippets of things that seem foreign and unknown to you, it can be scary. When people are scared, they rationalize odd things. But at the end of the day, this fear is coming from a genuine place of care and concern. They care and are concerned for their children, their community, their country, so they react fearfully and, often times, aggressively to the unknown. It’s a misinformed reaction that could be quelled by an open mind and a willingness to ask questions as opposed to blurting out opinions. But it being misinformed doesn’t change that it comes from a place of genuine concern and care.
Even with all the hateful rhetoric and actions I frequently see through news stories and in comment feeds, I try to stop myself from my own fearful reactions and force myself to ask why. Why is this person saying this? Why does this person think this way? What information could this person use to help ensure that he is forming the best informed opinion possible? And I know I can’t be the only one asking myself these questions.
I am ever the optimist about people. I don’t know if this person from my office will ever let go of her anger and pessimism and it’s not particularly my place to judge either way. I do hope she sees all the amazing things in the world that I see. In my own attempts in working to make the world a better place, I’m going to keep asking questions, trying to understand everything I possibly can and try to foster dialogue and discussion over forming opinions and drafting diatribes. Because I know the vast majority of people come from good places with everything that they do.
I don’t think the archetype of the super villain who wakes up each morning to plot their evil and hostile takeover is nearly as prevalent as the amateur political pundits on comment feeds would have you believe. I think people are continually scared of an ever-changing world that leaves them confused as to what to think. Even my own essaying now is really just a tool to help me sort out my own thoughts, redirect me, and refresh my path. It helps to remind me to continually approach everything, and especially people, with the utmost understanding and optimism.