Trolls, Public Opinion and Conscience

Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is THE BEST. - F.Z.

America is drowning in raw information. The news media has become a filtered feed of all the junk on the internet complete with cat videos and conspiracy theories. The spigot is turned on and off with corporate money. Our leaders and institutions dance to the rhythms of public opinion. Trolls are everywhere in the online discussions. Some trolls make videos. Some of the trolls actually have TV shows. Some of them are running for president. How have we come to this?

I attended the public school system of this country. I guess you can say I am one of its by-products. Like so many of us I have experiences not unlike what is reported in teen high school movies. And it is no surprise that things are not that radically different outside of high school just a little more complicated. It’s a matter of figuring out at which table the “cool kids” are sitting now that they have grown up. Or finding out what replaced the 7-11 where “those guys” used to hang out and avoiding it. Clearly there are groups within our society that parallel the social orders from schools and childhood. And the much larger society makes it possible for these groups to splinter into subgroups.

For democracy to work requires people to make informed decisions and this means studying the issues that face us. But something happened. Something has gone wrong. It started in school when I was young. It started in civics class. There was a genuine desire to teach us children about democracy and it started with a simple concept. Everyone has a right to speak, and everyone had a right to voice an opinion. Somewhere along the way though, the idea of everyone having the right to voice an opinion turned into the idea that everyone’s opinion was equally valid. Everyone’s opinion needed to be taken into consideration. Everyone’s opinion had to be heard. That is clearly wrong. While no minority, even a minority of one, should have their right’s violated there is a difference between the right to a voice, the right to express oneself and my and everyone else’s right to ignore total bullshit. Somewhere the line got crossed. Guys who barely passed high school science class feel their opinion on climate change should be heard. Too bad their opinion is just parroting what they heard from some drive-time talk show. People are introduced as experts who are no more expert than the average listener and in many cases represent vested interests. The media feeds a need to hear any and every wild statement made by any fool. And after presenting it to their audience, doesn’t call it batshit crazy for fear of offending someone (and losing their advertisers). Public opinion is not well considered or based on facts at all but instead driven by its entertainment value. It has reached the point where the New Yorker jokes about a strain of fact resistant humans. It is not a funny joke at all when you consider the New Yorker seems to have helped breed that strain right here in the U.S.

How to fix this? First of all everyone needs to admit to themselves right now that not every opinion (even their own) is necessarily worth hearing. Often you are wasting valuable time if you listen to an idiot. Let’s face facts. Hanging out with stupid people poses a health risk. Letting the uniformed dictate your direction just gets you lost. We need to value some opinions more highly than others and I’d suggest that taking a person’s experience, knowledge and the facts into account would help. You can’t just listen to some demagogue, or some pundit with a fancy job title and think it sounds reasonable. You should not found your opinions on fear. You need to check the facts; check sources and follow the money.

Secondly opinion itself needs to be informed and also accompanied by a conscience. Something a lot of trolls lack entirely. A friend of mine once advanced a theory of conscience. It very neatly explained the source of ethical behavior, its development and evolution into wisdom. The key component of conscience is the ability to imagine yourself as another person. Empathy, sympathy, whatever you want to call it, the ability to actually imagine the issues, feelings and problems faced by someone else is what is required to develop a conscience. And along with that empathy you need an idea of what is right and wrong. What constitutes a good outcome for everyone? What is good and what is evil? Clearly outcomes that hurt you are bad, and therefore if you have truly put yourself in another person’s place you can see what outcomes are bad for them as well. Ethical behavior begins when you search for actions that are beneficial for everyone, or at least neutral in their results.

Also notice that I spoke of developing a conscience. Key to my friend’s theory was that a conscience is not something built-in but a skill that must be learned, trained and exercised and thus it can be improved upon. This is where ethical behavior and wisdom enter the picture. Because as you alter your actions, sometimes you will find that changing your actions changes outcomes in ways you did not expect through your own lack of experience. The more you exercise this ability to choose what is the best outcome, the more finely tuned you become to others around you. At some point a skilled conscience allows you to begin to make decisions that can be described as wisdom.

Finally because a conscience is a skill we must recognize that some people have never developed that skill. Some are simply novices and need guidance. Some simply are not and will never be that skilled. Some have no conscience and never will. These are the people that need to be avoided. And we certainly should not select a leader who lacks a conscience.

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