Those who say that media and our political leaders are out of touch with the "real" America have a point. Take the recent ABC News analysis of the last Republican presidential debate. After asking, "Who threw the first punch?" and "Who drew blood?" Karen Travis commented, "It's unlikely that Romney delivered the attacks that he needed to get the job done."
If we were watching a re-run of the famed Liston-Ali fight, this kind of commentary would have been appropriate. But instead of helping us elect a president of the United States, it undermines the political process and even the fabric of American life.
By framing everything as a fight, media encourages all of us to be combative in our interactions. To gain press coverage and political advantage, candidates take the bait. The result of this downward spiral is evident in the divisive politics of today: a surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland political landscape where everything is about winning the headline fight in today's 24-hour news cycle, and nothing worthwhile gets accomplished.
It's not just a problem with political coverage. Take so-called "reality" TV, which often is just an excuse to inexpensively produce sensational programming. It wouldn't be a problem if it didn't have real effects. Instead, the programming legitimizes conflict, and that carries over into all aspects of American life. Our children and even adults replicate the language and actions they see on TV, on the Internet and in the newspaper. Politicians degenerate into gladiators; journalists into sportscasters.
A friend told me the story of a woman on the planning committee for a large non-profit event that raises funds to support an important and worthwhile cause. During the planning of the last couple of events, she noticed her co-chairs have been increasingly disagreeable, catty and outright, publicly mean. Then someone explained they've been watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Ten years ago these women would have been horrified if they saw themselves behaving this way, but now they think it's acceptable or even normal.
It's human nature to mimic what we frequently see. When, through the media, reality is consistently reflected back to us in a distorted mirror, it just gets easier to find ourselves becoming caricatures of caricatures unless we actively resist its influence.
Fox News commentator Juan Williams wrote recently, "The excess of provocateurs corrupting public dialogue in America sets up a fight on every issue for every American."
He goes on to say, "Individual Americans are going to have to turn away from the entertainment (italics mine) associated with extremist, at times buffoonish, demagogues on the air and their imitators who are now running for public office. They will have to personally raise the bar for conversations about important social and political issues."
If we don't, America is headed down a rabbit hole into a surreal world where everything involves a fight; where we see others who oppose our ideas as evil interlopers; where we see advancing an idea as a battle for limited resources or a grab for power; and worse, where techniques such as lies, attack speech, meanness, and disrespect are considered legitimate tools on a stage where the end justifies the means.
In fact, we are already there. How do we climb out?
There are excellent examples of workplaces that foster civil conversation to get things done. At Disney-Pixar, producers present ideas to a panel of peers who, instead of "critiquing" a film, "plus" it by presenting their ideas about how to optimize the project. At Ohio's Fairmount Minerals, employees take part in "Appreciative Inquiry" summits where they dream, discuss the company's future, and develop projects that fit with their motto "Do Good, Do Well."
In these examples, others with different ideas are seen not as enemies, but collaborators. Questions are not asked to provoke an entertaining response, but to produce results. Both companies nurture cultures that foster sustainable results.
Our current conversation in America is not sustainable. By vilifying one side over the other and turning everything into a fight, public policies become intense wars that will be be reversed once the other side comes into power. The thrill of victory ultimately is tempered by the constant fight to gain more ground. And around we go again!
An America that constantly fights is an America that does not fulfill our mutual pledge for the American Dream. This Dream is based on the idea that, through hard work, fair play and equal access, even the lowest person on the ladder can achieve his or her potential. The American Dream envisions a world of "plus-ing" and sustainable progress, not one of fighting. It creates a world of expanding ingenuity and possibilities.
In the real America where most of us live and work, not a cowboys-and-Indians film or a cops-and-robbers drama, most of us strive to get along most of the time. Most of us aren't always looking for an argument.
So let's demand art, politics and citizenship that reflect the values and goodness of America and spur us to be our best. It's going to take each of us at the grass roots, talking to our neighbors and friends, extolling our leaders to be leaders, and sometimes even shutting off TV to make civility return. The alternative is a surreal world where crazy will become normal and normal will soon be seen as crazy.
To see how America's shared values can help unite us and spark this civil conversation, go to www.Purpleamerica.us
Follow Stuart Muszynski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/purpleamericaus