Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Can we talk? No, really - can we?

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Virtually every day, I go out on a dog walk and start putting together the start of a blog post in my head. But I never get them written.

It’s not so much writer’s block getting in my way as a feeling of pointlessness.

My schtick is persuasive writing, which I had the great pleasure of doing for almost a decade in Victoria’s daily newspaper as a columnist and editorial writer back before I gave it all up for a chance to get closer to the action on social-justice issues. Now I do communications work and lots of writing for non-profits with noble visions of a better world, because I want to be doing that, too.

The draw of persuasive writing as a tool for social change, however, is the presumption that there are people out there open to being persuaded. It’s a means of bringing important things to people’s attention and maybe shifting their thinking a little.

It did used to feel like that was possible in years past. Yes, people who hated what I had to say would phone (and later email) from time to time to bury me in a stream of horrible invectives, but we’d often work around to finding some shared views on the issue at hand. As much as I disliked being yelled at, I came to love the challenge of seeking even a bit of common ground with the people who most disagreed with whatever I’d written about. And sometimes, they shifted my thinking as well.

But that was then. We all seem so far apart now. At this point, it feels like anything I write will get read only by people who already think like I do. That’s not just because we’ve entered into a worrying new state of polarized opinion on every single damn issue, but the reality of algorithms that push us ever deeper into our corners and make us even less likely to interact with – or understand - anyone who doesn’t think like us.

How will we ever build bridges across the cavernous divides in opinion these days? We’re like the human manifestation of climate change, full of extreme developments and dramatic overstatement. When some issue of the day needs a little rain to cool things down, we bring a hurricane.

Those of us who found their greatest writing happiness in trying to convince people to think a little differently are crushed about this. Where is the motivation now in writing about the critical issues of our times when the only readers are people on the same side of the “war” as me?

I embrace them as brethren in a frightening new world, of course. But we’re already singing from the same songbook. They don’t need convincing. And it’s pretty clear by now that preaching to the choir is not a successful strategy for social change, because otherwise we’d be there by now, right?

A kind fellow I ran into on a dog walk this week remembered me from my columnist days, and told me I’d had a knack for putting things a certain way that got people reflecting even if they didn’t share my views. Nice of him to say, but neither here nor there when applied to this very different period of time.

The people who I liked to aim my writing at 20 years ago in the hope of influencing their thinking ever so slightly wouldn’t even see my words nowadays. The newspaper industry was in serious decline even then, but the Victoria Times Colonist was still the media outlet that a lot of locals counted on for their news. Every column I wrote put my thoughts in front of a potential 70,000 readers.

Sure, untold thousands would choose not to read me. But there was at least the chance that any of them might. Their eyes might have drifted across the headline, or the first few words. They might have read a paragraph or two, called me up to yell, and ended up in a brief conversation with me that left them thinking.

Today? Even if I was still writing for a newspaper, everything has changed. The years when the daily paper was a person’s primary news vehicle is long, long gone. We’ve splintered into a thousand online news sources, some of them still striving for journalistic neutrality and others so opinionated and cross-eyed that the content is largely fiction.

I don’t know what to do about it. There are still so many things I want to bring to people’s attention, but it’s hard to motivate myself when it’s almost like talking to myself. I used to be able to post a link to a blog post on Facebook and get a fair jump in readership out of it, including a few people who wanted to yell at me like in days gone by. 

But things have changed there as well, and the almost complete absence of interaction that now occurs just reminds me of the pointlessness again.

Dear reader, I tell you all of this partly because I’m sad to be trapped in this state of mulling big and important issues over in my head on every dog walk, still looking up all the history and stats as if I was going to write something but never getting it written. For me, writing never feels better than when I can put it to use as a tool for social change, and I don’t like it that the tool is failing me.

Ultimately, however, this issue is so much bigger than one person’s whine about feelings of writerly pointlessness.

It’s about all of us now listening only to the people whose views we know won’t challenge our own. It’s about people going down rabbit holes and not even noticing how narrow the view has become. It’s about algorithms trying to make us happy by surrounding us with like minds in all our social media interactions, but in actual fact destroying any chance we might have had of talking things through long enough to find common ground. 

It’s really about an end to civil discourse, and it leaves me wondering how social change will come about in a world where we can’t tolerate each other’s views enough to try to find compromise on the points we disagree on.