Please Stop Yelling in a Little Box

I really don't know how to feel about all this NSA stuff. It's complicated and nuanced, and I find myself going back and forth. Am I the only one? I can't imagine I am, and yet every time I turn on the TV there's someone in a little box yelling in a way that suggests they know exactly how I'm supposed to feel.

And by "little box" I'm not referring to the TV itself. TVs are no longer little boxes. They are giant rectangles mounted in all manner of places including, increasingly, outdoors. Because what's a BBQ without a giant orange legal analyst yelling at you about the government?

No, by "little boxes" I referring to all the talking heads beamed onto the screen at once, yelling at each other and you, often all at the same time, like a monstrous Brady Bunch fever dream.

There was a time when having a nuanced, measured, well-considered take on something, one that didn't fit neatly into a, well, box was appreciated. Those days are gone.

Today you have to turn your opinion into a slogan and make it as loud and attention-grabbing as possible.

It's not that the news, despite what cynics say, only wants to present one side. It's that it wants to present one side per person. Instead of having a single voice canvass the issue, which feels calm and mature, the preference is to have two or more people -- best if they hate each other -- go head-to-head with the goal of never agreeing. Like a blood sport.

And it's a real shame because this process takes once intelligent viewpoints and exaggerates them to the point they're no longer recognizable, pumping them full of hot air and stripping them of subtlety. If opinions were people, these ones walked in looking like folks you went to high school with and walked out looking like the Real Housewives of Orange County -- giant lips, big boobs and kind of entertaining to watch, but what the hell was that?

I don't understand why we've abandoned the idea of complexity. It's the one best suited to the world we live in. Complexity exists in pockets -- newspaper articles that are TL;DR (an online acronym for "too long; didn't read"); dry NPR broadcasts; people who speak in British accents. But you really have to seek these out.

By contrast, opinions that are simplified and yelled are everywhere. The media have turned into a live breathing all-caps 24-hour Twitter feed.

And I'm not just talking about what I witness as a spectator, I've been on the inside of the opinion factory and I've seen how the opinions are made. It happens like this: A producer of a news show contacts you and says the host wants to do a segment about a certain issue and they need someone to argue a certain side. Is that you? And then if you say yes you will be expected to be frothing at the mouth to argue this one side. Should you allow nuance into your argument you will feel you've let them down just a little. They wanted a cockfight. You gave them rhythmic gymnastics.

And the thing is, everyone involved actually will actually understand what happened, because they know they've simplified something complex into opposing bits of pabulum, they themselves probably fall somewhere in the middle as any sentient being would, but you see they didn't bring you on to be sentient or to be a human being. They brought you on to sit in a box and yell.

It's a shame because it's not as if we, the public, demand this oversimplification. The popularity of shows like Mad Men, Game of Thrones and The Sopranos prove we're very good at hanging out in the uncertain middle ground, exploring the space between the extremes, calibrating our sympathies and affection for people and worlds that are very clearly both good and bad. In fact, we enjoy puzzling through contradictions.

But back to the NSA stuff. I find I'm just not as appalled as I get the feeling I should be. Is it because the ramifications are so abstract? Or because I suspected this was going on anyway? Or because I have nothing to hide?

And yet it's not as if I'm totally fine with it either, because I don't think we really know yet the full scope of the surveillance and in what way it's been wielded.

I have to assume there are more of me -- people who are somewhere in the middle -- than there are of them -- people whose extreme certainty knows no bounds.

We just aren't yelling about it.

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