It’s 2017, and so far the best thing that can be said is it’s not 2016.
This past year was one many people would like to forget, for a number of reasons. There were the deaths of icons from Muhammad Ali to Arnold Palmer, from Merle Haggard to Prince, from Antonin Scalia to John Glenn. There were the terrorist attacks on commuters in Brussels, the gay community in Orlando, Bastille Day revelers in Nice, Christmas market shoppers in Berlin. The sniper shooting of police in Dallas. The continued butchery in Aleppo.
And there was that little election we had. Regardless of how one feels about the result, it was inarguably nasty and divisive, a contest to see which candidate’s glaring flaws would be most easily ignored. The 2016 election featured computer hacking; claims of “rigging” by both sides; disgusting attacks, especially of the anti-Semitic variety, on social media; friendships ended over political Facebooking; and the advent of “fake news.”
None of us can stop the grim reaper or the evil in man’s heart. But we can do something about our poisonous politics. If you’re looking for a resolution in this new year, try more skepticism and less cynicism.
These are not the same thing. Skepticism is wariness of the truthfulness of an assertion; cynicism questions the motives of the one who asserted it. We need more of the former, less of the latter.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the fake-news phenomenon. How many times lately have you been a part of a conversation that went something like this:
Person 1: Did you see that story about Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton being a foreign agent/serial killer/drowner of puppies?
Person 2: No, where was that?
Person 1: NewsYouWontBelieve.com.
Person 2: Umm …
Never in history has there been so much information so readily available to so many people. Yet, increasingly, we will eschew the slightly hard work of checking the veracity of what we read or hear if it aligns with our prior beliefs about the subject, whether good or bad. “Too good to check!” used to be the sarcastic response of journalists to a sensational story that surely would fall apart under scrutiny. More and more, it’s the actual mantra of “news” consumers.
Skepticism keeps us from falling for stories about people on “our side” that are too good to check. Cynicism makes us unwilling to believe anything good about the other side. They only harden us in positions that the facts, and ultimately we, cannot defend.
Of course, part of the reason for this development is just how widespread is our cynicism and how selective our skepticism. We no longer confine our knee-jerk distrust to this or that political party, or this or that politician, but this or that news outlet. The New York Times wrote it? Liberal claptrap! That was reported by Fox News? More like “Faux News,” amirite?
Never mind that the Times broke many of the big, early stories about Hillary Clinton’s private email server and conflicts of interest at the State Department. Or that Fox News anchors went after Donald Trump harder in the debates aired on their network than most anyone else.
If you’re going to be skeptical of the disagreeable things you read, just be sure to extend that wariness to the items that fit more neatly with your perspective.
This lack of skepticism toward too-good-to-check stories from unvetted sources seems to be worse on (but hardly exclusive to) the conservative side of the spectrum. So let me put this 2017 resolution in Reaganesque terms: Trust, but verify.