How did we get where we are today? Left, right or center, everyone agrees there is a problem of civil unrest in our society today. There just happens to be a significant difference of opinion on who or what is the root of that unrest. The real problem is that we fail to understand how we got to this point, and I will offer one possible explanation.
With three separate, but sweeping social phenomena, all inside the span of less than three decades, I will outline the escalation to our current fractured cultural climate. As should come as no surprise, television and social media are two of the major instigators, but we will start with the first, the societal infiltration of political correctness. While well-intentioned, and in many instances overtly necessary, political correctness unearths and unleashes division in a large and diverse country like ours. Its necessity rests in its ability to put a name on social injustices and serve as an educational guide to continue a progressive trajectory for those that embrace the same ethos. The Catch-22 of political correctness is that not everyone embraces that ethos, as has been displayed time and time again, especially so since the start of the 2016 presidential campaign. As of right now, there is no sign indicating that a reprieve is on the way. What political correctness really does is drive deeper wedges between already disparate, if not warring, groups, leading to the silos of ignorance, miscommunication, bigotry, self-righteousness and closedmindedness we see today. While it may seem intuitive to many that we should not use certain words, behave in certain ways, or turn our back on certain peoples, alongside this well-meaning social philosophy strides an air of aloofness. The same that fight for equality and progress do so without realizing that you cannot teach the classics without first teaching the ABCs. Political correctness, broadly applied, stifles certain modes of thoughts, good, bad and ugly, and causes people to retreat further from the civil sphere to find reciprocation in their chosen camps. Those that fight for a better tomorrow do so with disregard to the people whose mindsets they hope to change.
In a series of essays and articles in the early 1990s, the concept of political correctness worked its way deep into the country’s lexicon. In the wake of public horrors like the Rodney King beating in 1991, the discussion over racism and institutional injustice needed to be addressed – yet again. And while that incident was not one focused on political correctness per se, it was implicitly about the deeply engrained feelings and polarizing viewpoints that were and are still very much alive in our country today. Which brings us to the second indicator of how we got to where we are today, “reality” TV.
While daytime talk shows and live entertainment had been around for decades, it was not until September 30, 1991, and May 21, 1992, where we reached a new low in society: The Jerry Springer Show and MTV’s Real World, respectively. It had now become socially acceptable to publically revel in other’s misfortune, to watch others’ lives torn apart for a cheap laugh – and a quick buck for the shows’ producers. Fighting over paternity, fighting over girlfriends, fighting over territory, or simply fighting because you are drunk, all of that became acceptable and encouraged. The genre is ubiquitous with home entertainment today, and while not all shows are explicitly centered on conflict, they all require manufactured drama. While perceived as relaxing and a good way to shut down at the end of a long, hard day, this type of “entertainment” is both apathy-laden and stress-inducing. We are either encouraged to want to consume more or be like someone else, root against one person or team over another, or simply fated to find pleasure in others’ failure and demise. In short, what we have been watching on TV has made its way into the “real world.” Life imitates art.
And finally, social media. The single greatest destructive element to a cohesive society, social media has beaten down an already undereducated, apathetic and beleaguered society. While many are quick to point to its ease in connecting to others and sharing moments that in the past were otherwise ephemeral, these platforms are now the quickest route to miscommunication, ignorance, anger and general distrust for those we are already wary of in the first place. On September 26, 2006, Facebook changed the way we communicated by providing the forum for us to no longer really communicate. Now we talk past one another, and often, down to one another. In the early 90s, political correctness created the hairlines that frustrated an overwhelmed citizenry that still had not learned how to be good to one another. The growth in popularity of reality television a few years later, and the schadenfreude it was built upon, furthered that fracture. And today, with the multitude of social media platforms that spread slander and lies with no penalty to the initiator, only to the public, we come to where we are today. A very public, and very ugly society, one that is not going in the right direction. No one could have predicted Trump, but Trumpism, his branded method of divisiveness, self-promotion and ephemeral indulgence, has been in the making for quite some time. So, fellow citizens, we have made our bed. Will we continue to sleep in it?