It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.
– Jerry Seinfeld
Over the weekend, I was reading an article in “The Globe and Mail” talking about how we consume news these days. I wasn’t surprised to read that most people – of generations subsequent to mine – rarely depend upon print; I had noted some years back, when I was still teaching, that, in a class of thirty students or so, roughly one third of households might be expected to have a subscription, in this area of the province, to Saint John’s “Telegraph Journal”. And that is being generous.
Increasingly, print publications are moving online. Having an online version plays well in a world that depends upon iPhones and iPads for so many things: grocery lists, tickets for the movies, maps, phone numbers, contact information, quick fact checks, etc. If you think about it, “pervasive” may rank as one of the greater understatements of recent years when it comes to assessing the penetration of the digital in the various facets of our lives.
As I’ve said in other blogs, I am no Luddite. Return to some mythical age where one and all were better educated, more aware and more involved in their world? Can’t see it. Does anyone really believe that such an era ever was? Mind you, a group will always exist that believes in a lost golden age.
That being said, the passing of print concerns me. More accurately, if iPhones and iPads could be depended upon to preserve the written word and lead to people spending more time pondering the world and the issues that confront us, I would applaud loudly. I have no confidence that such is the case, however, especially as impatience with anything much longer than a tweet grows increasingly prevalent. That impatience bothers me more than anything else.
A case in point would be when I sat down to start creating this blog. I was warned that I needed to keep it relatively short if I hoped to hold on to readers (assuming I attracted some in the first place). While I was sympathetic to the plea, it seemed at odds with my reasons for starting in the first place. I was tired of the oversimplification and narrowness so evident, in my opinion, in much of public discourse and I wanted to vent, if nothing else, my displeasure.
I do not, however, see the value in shouting loudly and hurling insults at opponents, a modus operandi that commonly seeks validation through appeals to democracy and to freedom, terms that are used with utter disregard for what they do or do not mean. As with so many things (education the example closest to my heart), the unstated premise is that the definitions of such things are self-evident. Surely we all know what “democracy” and “freedom” mean?
If you are reading this, chances are I am preaching to the choir. “Democracy”, “freedom”, “equality”: these are just three particularly good examples of complex concepts that become throwaways when people are trying to shut down opposition. We see this phenomenon at work all around us, whether in the halls of government where one side or the other is seen frequently accusing the other of perverting democracy or taking away our freedoms. If you doubt the truth of this, today’s “Telegraph Journal” contains a couple of very interesting letters. Both concern themselves with the current controversy surrounding the young Muslim woman who wants to wear a niqab at her citizenship ceremony.
I’m not interested here in who is wrong and who is right. Each writer argues a point of view steeped in a particular understanding of the issues at stake: identity, religious freedom, democratic principles, freedom of speech, citizenship, etc. If it were possible to somehow eliminate the subject matter and isolate the tonal quality of each letter, I think it would be hard to tell them apart. Both adopt a kind of moral outrage and determinacy that brooks no argument. Perhaps such characteristics feature prominently in the editorial letter format. By virtue of their limited length, such writings have to be focused in order to achieve maximum impact.
If such a lack of subtlety and nuance were limited to the letters to the editor, you might say: par for the course. But when that same deficit becomes the common mode of discourse in politics and the public arena in general, who can blame people for tuning out. “Sides” on just about any issue are united in their stridency and, at some unconscious level perhaps, we know that neither side is serving either the issue or the audience well.
We are increasingly victims of two minute radio or television spots, tweets and other social media broadcasts, and a pervasive parade of headlines, all of these – whether by design or by happenstance – providing some sense that we are informed if we just pay attention to such things.
As for paying attention, who has the time for that?