Everything you see on this screen is a manifestation of billions of 1’s and 0’s. It is truly one of the great discoveries of mankind. If you create a large enough pool of binary inputs, and push those inputs down far enough into the most minute detailed elements of an environment, you can create complex computer programs that can do things. They can store massive amounts of information. They can talk. They can control airplanes and operate nuclear power plants. They can monitor our health. They can connect us to other humans. We can make programs so complex, they actually start to mimic human intelligence. But at their basic forms, they are still, 1’s and o’s. Entirely at the mercy of our design. Because we, as humans, have consciousness and the capacity for original thought. Unlike the programs we create, we are not binary by nature. We are not forced into a variable of 1 or 0 by our designer. We are unlimited in our capacity to explore and wonder. Our thoughts are limitless. If you looked at my social media stream right now though, you wouldn’t know it.
Within minutes of the San Bernardino shootings two weeks ago, threads started to appear on my Twitter feed advocating for stricter gun control laws. As soon as Syed Farook’s name was released as the shooter, the Muslim-o-phobia thread took over. Within 48 hours we had a burning debate about what was to blame. Was it guns? Or was it Muslims? When you really think about it, it’s kind of an odd point-counterpoint. It’s like choosing between walking to school or taking your lunch. It’s not really a choice. But it’s how the dialogue went, and still is going weeks later. Like we have with so many other complex issues, we’ve boiled it down to a binary debate. Pick a side: Minorities or cops. Health care or liberty. Regulation or economic growth. Abortion or privacy….you get the point. It’s a thing that we do. But why do we do it, when clearly we are capable of so much more?
Why so binary?
There’s a lot that goes into why we do this. It’s actually not because most of us really feel this way. There are forces at work here. Let’s start with what it’s actually not though; our politicians. Our politicians aren’t causing the problem. They’re not helping. But they’re not why it’s happening. For the most part, they’re stuck in a somewhat binary loop themselves that they can’t escape from as a function of who they are and what they are charged with doing. They can either be for something, or against it. They can’t be both. We may desire to try to squeeze moderation into the mix. But moderation doesn’t work right now. Again, it’s not their fault. There’s massive headwinds to being reasonable in politics. And it’s not the political machine. It starts somewhere else.
Look no further than our $285 Billion media market. You will hear over and over again that the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court in 2010 is ruining our democratic process by opening up campaign fundraising to corporations and other donors that are eliminating the voice of the people. It’s become a “boogie man” for all things that are wrong with our political process. Don’t bite that hook. It’s a red herring. I’m not saying we don’t need campaign finance reform. I’m simply saying that campaign finance processes aren’t doing what we tend to say that they are doing. Campaign finance money tends to exist in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Which sounds like a lot to you and me. In a vacuum it is. When it comes to moving the needle of national consciousness though, it’s nothing.
Here’s something to consider. The National Rifle Association, that massive evil empire and ultimate antagonist to democracy, spent $28.2M on campaign contributions in 2014. It sounds like a ton of money. In media land though, it’s nothing. It’s $1.8M less than the cast of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory made during the same time frame. It’s a million dollars less than the Washington Nationals paid their bullpen in 2015. Which means that more money gets spent on relief pitching in Washington then gets spent on the gun lobby. And the Nationals didn’t even make the playoffs. If you’re going to get the attention of the media market, you don’t do it by throwing $28M at it. You do it by doing things that American people can’t stop paying attention to. You do it by driving clicks and ratings. Because that’s what makes the media work. And it’s not new. But it is bigger than any other force in our political system and producing content at a scale never seen before. And it’s sucking the oxygen out of every reasonable political thought we may have. So they die. And we’re left with what’s left. Point and counter-point. A 1 and a 0. We’re being programmed.
The Human Binary…
We are addicted to outrage and conflict. That part isn’t new. Just like computer programs, outrage and conflict work best when you can focus them on the least amount of variables. Clearly, you can’t have outrage and conflict with one perspective. You need at least two. And more than two is really hard to package. It’s why team sports work so well. It’s why we have “pairings” for pro golf tournaments on the final day. It’s why the main good guy has to kill the main bad guy in the end. It doesn’t work if the villain dies in an unfortunate cycling accident en route to the gun fight. There’s no drama in that. Conflict is delivered and consumed easiest in twos. One against the other. Good and evil…right and wrong. Conservative and liberal…It’s what we’ll watch. It’s what we’ll click on.
Here’s the problem with that. These issues we’re debating aren’t sports and entertainment. The media serves them up like they are, but they’re not. People’s lives are impacted by them. These things matter but we’re not entirely sure how to differentiate them from entertainment. We don’t have to settle for it though. In fact, this stuff is too important to settle for it. We need to demand more of ourselves.
We’ve evolved past our basic nature in many ways. When our urge for conflict was harder to feed, before the information age, when you had to go find someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about in order to engage in debate, we did this better. As a result, our political machine was less polarized and more effective. There’s good news here though. We did this once. And we can do it again. Because doing it is actually pretty easy. All you have to do is break the binary code. Break the programming.
What we have to be willing to do better to be better at what we need to be better at?
You can do that with the most powerful thing that we have, that computers don’t; good old fashioned human curiosity. The greatest force the world has ever seen is our ability to wonder about something. Wondering leads to questions. Questions are most useful when we ask them to inform what we want to know instead of consume answers to other questions that are fed to us before we ask them. When it comes to critical societal issues, there’s one great question you can ask to break the binary code. One basic infinitely powerful question.
What outcome do you seek for this issue?
If you can try to refrain from jumping to what you believe is right and what is wrong, what you identify with and what you can’t, who is agreeing with you and who isn’t and answer that first magical question to identify the outcome you want for an issue, you’re on your way. If we paused and did this in aftermath of San Bernardino, we would be two weeks into a much more productive debate. Here’s what it might look like.
What do we want out of a resolution to the issue of radical Islamic terrorism? I believe that the answer is that we want Americans to be safe. Not just from Islamic terrorists. We want Americans to be safe…period. Which means we have to spend a little time on defining safe. One question leads to the next important one here. Are we safe? Relatively?
We would have to lose 15,000 people this year to radical Islamic terrorist attacks or gun violence to match the per-capita murder rate in 1992. That’s how far violent crime has dropped in the last 25 years. That’s about five more 9/11 attacks, this year. Or, three San Bernardino attacks every day, for the whole year. Just to get to 1992. I remember 1992. It wasn’t that horrible. That’s not to say that this isn’t a problem. Or that we should be satisfied with backsliding to relatively more violent times. Every single person who has lost someone will grieve forever at the individual tragedy they’ve suffered. Nothing I can say can help that. But if what we want is for Americans to be safe, it helps to understand how close we are to that goal. The truth is, we’re kind of there already. No matter what the media tells us. The facts are clear. We’ve never been safer.
We’ve broken the code. Our curious minds have taken us outside of the boundaries of the scripted debate. Once you do it, you may never go back. Because it becomes painfully clear that most of what we hear is just binary code programmed into our daily focus to drive a behavior that benefits those that provide it to us. It’s not designed for an outcome. In fact, it’s designed to keep the debate alive. It’s designed for clicks and ratings. You can choose to be a machine and follow it blindly. Or be a human being and ask your own questions. When you get to that point where you can decide what you want from something, try to remember that there are a lot principles that we Americans hold dear as a part of our culture. Not every one holds the same importance for every person. When you are standing on a burning platform of outrage, it’s important to understand if it’s actually on fire or not. Otherwise you’re doing things like trampling on religious tolerance or threatening Constitutional rights because someone coded the debate for you ahead of time. And we can be better than that.