It’s been almost two months since I escaped a flaming ferris wheel, taking leave from the carnival where opinions circulate amidst truths, lies, and everything in between. I had long been a passive participant at the Facebook Fair, ducking in and out of its various houses. I found the fun house enjoyable and silly, while the haunted house was both scary and oddly engaging. The house of mirrors forced me to look at myself from different angles, in ways that I had never before imagined. But my visit to the carnival took a dark turn when I rode the ferris wheel high into the night sky, megaphone in hand, ready to shout at anyone who was misbehaving.
To my dismay, the fairground was littered with toy soldiers—armies waging wars of words across the midway. It didn’t seem to matter if their words were true, so long as they were loud and persuasive. Some of the soldiers held pictures that spoke even louder than their words. And the most savvy and sharp-dressed of them showed films on large screens, their messages amplified by loudspeakers in surround sound. My megaphone, by comparison, felt hopelessly archaic.
Somewhere in the midst of the chaos, I saw tiny people on tiny soapboxes, their lips moving but their voices too quiet to be heard. Philosophers, academics, scientists, poets—all trying to share their wisdom. But their messages were dull, quiet, verbose. They lacked the polish and flair of the toy soldiers, so their voices fell to the ground like snowflakes, silenced amidst the bustle of the midway.
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We live in an age of rhetoric, shared 280 characters at a time. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is also the heart of persuasion. Curated words, fed to the masses in bite-sized chunks that plant seeds of doubt or fear—primal emotions which a thousand rational words cannot undo. A convincing Tweet or meme is capable of sparking an uprising, like a careless flick of a cigarette can ignite an entire forest.
It is easy to see why the world is so divided today. We invest so much time building fences, then erect platforms high enough that we can yell over them. Even the language of everyday business is the dialect of competition, shouted from ever-higher rooftops. Terms like “competitive advantage”, “superiority”, and “differentiation” fuel our economy and spur our so-called growth—along with our growing sense of division. If we spend our days trying to out-maneuver people who are trying to out-maneuver us, how can we expect to turn off that competitiveness in other aspects of our lives?
When we get caught up listening to voices that sound like stronger versions of ourselves, we forget to look deeper into the crowd—to listen to our opponents or seek out quieter voices loaded with knowledge and intuition. In the verbiage of the attention-challenged masses of 2020, the dull and lengthy monologues of researchers and journalists are all too often written off as “TL;DR”: Too Long; Didn’t Read.
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When I climbed onto the ferris wheel a couple of months ago, I already knew that it was on fire. And I knew that fire, like passion, is a powerful force that can be used for good or evil. What I failed to recognize is that fire is also a relentless search for fuel, capable of consuming anything—and anyone—in its path.
As I cautiously re-enter the midway, I see that it is every bit as chaotic and overwhelming as I remember. This time around, I’ve bought one of those annual passes that will let me come and go, consuming the mayhem in small doses. I plan to play a few of the calmer midway games—maybe that bowling ball that teeters so infuriatingly on the hump before rolling back to me. I might enjoy some mini-doughnuts or a sweet cloud of cotton candy, but I’ll steer clear of the wild rides and the haunted house. You’re most likely to find me standing on a homemade soapbox in a quieter corner of the fairground, talking about something I find to be interesting and/or important.
I admit that this post is a bit of a rambling mess—my own TL;DR hodgepodge of mixed metaphors and random thoughts. But it’s a first step in my new and improved relationship with social media. Since you chose to drop by my soapbox, I’d like to invite you to share your own wisdom with me, too. After all, the best monologue is merely a gateway to meaningful dialogue.