Some More-or-Less Random Thoughts

By: Alton C. Thompson

We live in a time when so much of the “knowledge” that one has in one’s head comes, not from personal observation or talking to others who have made personal observations, but from watching television, listening to the radio, or reading newspapers or popular magazines (such as Time). What one sees/hears/reads includes “news” stories, advertisements, and any number of entertainment programs, each of which tends to convey a certain “message” to those in its audience. It’s not surprising, then, that much of one’s “knowledge” is partial, lacking in relevance even if “true,” or downright false.

One is bombarded with so much “information” (defined broadly) that it amounts to overload. That is, it presents one’s brain with processing difficulties, and one’s brain tends to respond to the overload by applying filters to reduce the volume of input, and also reduce the its variety. Our brains are so constructed that they demand a high degree of consistency, and when we encounter inconsistency, our brains tend to “choose” a particular view, and filter out everything that conflicts with that view.

The matter of why a particular person’s brain “selects” a particular view is likely an interesting and important question to pursue; likely such factors as one’s early upbringing and one’s life choices are among the factors that determine it—insofar as it is determined. However, my interest is not so much in why a person’s thinking develops in a certain way (a matter dealt with by, e.g., Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, 2004) as with the fact that it does. For the significance that I perceive in that fact is that although all of us Americans live in the same society, we often have difficulty communicating with others in our society because different people are on different “wavelengths,” and a person on one wavelength has difficulty communicating with someone on another wavelength.

In part, this multiplicity of wavelengths results from the large number of “information bits” with which we are bombarded in this society. But given that we all tend to be bombarded with basically the same set of “information bits” (for ours is a “mass culture”), differences in wavelengths exist not so much for that reason as the fact noted above—that because of the overload with which our brains are confronted, filtering becomes necessary as a means to maintain sanity, and different people filter differently (for whatever reasons), resulting in a variety of wavelengths.

So much of the commentary that occurs on the websites that I like to visit seemingly fails to recognize the above point, and as a consequence, the recommendations that I tend to encounter so often seem rather pointless: They seem to assume, if but tacitly, that everyone is on the same wavelength, so that if others disagree with them, that’s because—and only because—those others are misinformed. If those others can simply be supplied with correct information, that will get them on the same wavelength as oneself.

It seems to me that such a position is foolish, and that it would be wiser to (a) recognize that others are on different wavelengths than oneself, and (b) it is so difficult to communicate with those on a different wavelength, that it is foolish even to try to do so. What one should do, rather, is identify those who are on wavelengths enough similar to one’s own to enable communication with them, and then restrict one’s communication to such people.

Granted that one’s co-workers, neighbors, even members of one’s own family, may be on a different wavelength than oneself—and one cannot avoid interacting with them.[1] Thus, one is forced to accommodate oneself to such people, and rather than talking to them about topics that really matter to oneself, one must seek a common ground—such as talking about sports. That is, one must find topics that either will not involve controversy, or will involve differences of opinion, but those differences are such that people tend not to have much psychological investment in their views. There is always the possibility that one will be able to convert some others with which one interacts to one’s own way of thinking (i.e., one’s own wavelength). But doing so takes skill and patience—qualities that most of us lack, so that for most of us, trying to convert others to our way of thinking will prove fruitless.

An important question that arises here is: “Given that I recognize that many wavelengths exist in my society, and that I am primarily interested in communicating with those others who are on a wavelength relatively similar to mine, how do I identify such people?” One’s reasons for so doing might be simply socialization—which today does not require face-to-face contact—or sharing ideas or developing plans, etc. But whatever the reasons, the question of how to identify like-minded others is the fundamental question.

Fortunately, in this age of the internet, Facebook, dating sites, etc., the problem of locating like-minded others is not a serious problem. Especially if one’s interests are of an intellectual nature in that one would like to make contact with others who broadly share one’s ideas, one can write for one or more of the fairly numerous sites (such as this one) devoted to the expression of opinions, hoping to receive feedback; and when one encounters articles on one of these sites, and can identify the email addresses of their authors, this enables one to communicate with those authors—something which I do fairly frequently.

“Theoretically,” the existence of modern communications technology enables one not only to identify like-minded others, and then initiate contact with them, it also opens the opportunity for like-minded others to engage in joint activities. However, such activities are most readily engaged in by like-minded people who live near one another, so that they can actually meet face-to-face, and engage in discussion, planning, and finally joint action. Still, it can be comforting to know that others share one’s views, and are acting on their views—even if one does not know those others personally, and has never had physical contact with them.

A knowledge of the fact that people are on different wavelengths can, of course, also be used for nefarious purposes. For example, a political party can hire pollsters to probe the minds of citizens to determine (a) what wavelengths exist “out there,” and (b) how many are in each wavelength category. Such information can then be used by party leaders to couch messages in a manner that will appeal to a majority of the citizenry, thereby increasing the likelihood that the party’s candidates will be elected (or re-elected). On the other hand, a failure to do the above can spell disaster for a party.

For example, exit polls taken during the recent recall effort of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin revealed that about 60% of the voters didn’t believe that Walker’s actions, as governor, were such as to justify a recall effort. Evidently the leadership of the Democratic Party in the state had never bothered to identify this as a potential problem for them, and as a consequence made no effort to combat this belief prior to the election itself. Given that Walker’s campaign was able to spend about eight times as much for their candidate (most of that money coming from out of state) as was the Thomas Barrett campaign for their candidate, that factor likely played a role in the election’s outcome. But the ineptness of the Democratic party also was likely a contributing factor.

Andy Kroll, in a recent article on Wisconsin’s recall election had this to say:

The energy of the Wisconsin uprising was never electoral. The movement’s mistake: letting itself be channeled solely into traditional politics, into the usual box of uninspired candidates and the usual line-up of debates, primaries, and general elections. The uprising was too broad and diverse to fit electoral politics comfortably.You can’t play a symphony with a single instrument. Nor can you funnel the energy and outrage of a popular movement into a single race, behind a single well-worn candidate, at a time when all the money in the world from corporate “individuals” and right-wing billionaires is pouring into races like the Walker recall.

Colin Millard, an organizer at the International Brotherhood of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers, admitted as much on the eve of the recall. We were standing inside his store front office in the small town of Horicon, Wisconsin [located about 55 miles NW of Milwaukee]. It was night outside. “The moment you start a recall,” he told me, “you’re playing their game by their rules.”

He continues:

The takeaway from Walker’s decisive win on Tuesday is not that Wisconsin’s new populist movement is dead. It’s that such a movement does not fit comfortably into the present political/electoral system, stuffed as it is with corporate money, overflowing with bizarre ads and media horse-race-manship. Its members’ beliefs are too diverse to be confined comfortably in what American electoral politics has become. It simply couldn’t be squeezed into a system that stifles and, in some cases, silences the kinds of voices and energies it possessed.

His “solution”:

Inthe wake of the recall losses, the people of Wisconsin’s uprising must ask themselves: Where can they make an impact outside of politics?

However, is what’s needed “making an impact”? Such a solution seemingly rests on the tacit assumptions that (a) our society will continue “rolling on,” (b) will continue in its march toward an ever higher degree of inegalitarianism, but, nonetheless, (c) is “fixable.” What’s necessary to occur is for “progressives” to realize that it is foolish for them to try to make an impact in politics, so that if they are to have an “impact” on the society, they need to determine how they can make an impact outside of politics, and then act on the ideas that they have generated.

I may be misreading Kroll in attributing to him the above assumptions, but tend to think otherwise. For me, recognizing that our political system is broken is necessary, but not sufficient. What one needs to recognize more basically is that the very continued existence of our species is in danger; because of this, the need is not simply to “fix” our society, but to adopt a different perspective entirely. I guess that the wavelength that I’m on is different from the one Kroll is on, and therefore there may be no hope for him becoming converted to my wavelength.

What that means is that I will make no effort to try to convert him, and will continue to write essays that discuss “trendular atmospheric depatternization” (TAD)—also known as “global warming”—and encourage the reader to perceive this problem as I do. As, that is, a problem that individuals need to address—acting either as individuals or as part of a small group of like-minded individuals (creating, e.g., cooperative eco-communities for themselves). Looking to politicians/politics for leadership would be an utterly wrongheaded approach, I am convinced.

Although no movement of this sort currently exists (so far as I know), I see tremendous potential for one arising, for two reasons. First, there are already many “intentional communities” in this country, laying the groundwork for such a movement. Second, the Occupy movement—which started right here in Wisconsin—demonstrates that many people in our society are dissatisfied with the society’s direction, and could be attracted to a communitarian movement should such a movement get started. The only thing that’s needed is for someone to arise as a dynamic leader of the movement. May that occur—and soon (although yesterday would have been even better!).

Endnote

  1. Although one may be tempted to view this fact negatively, one should not; for it can be helpful—for one’s own intellectual development—to become aware of other viewpoints, for doing so can help one be more flexible in one’s thinking, more willing to change one’s views as one learns of new facts and ideas.

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.

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