It’s Friday evening and I’ve got another philosophical post for you. Yesterday I was browsing some of the political news sites I frequent–of which there are many–and came across this little gem. Chris Hayes, host of a show on MSNBC, had on a conservative guest named Jennifer Stefano, who works for some sort of Koch brothers lobby group. The subject was the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The article included a video clip of the show. There was very little substance to it. The interview consisted of Ms. Stefano screaming–literally screaming–her pre-scripted talking points about Obamacare. Not that it matters, but she was strongly against it. Mr. Hayes tried to counter some of her points, but was not very successful at getting a word in edgewise. There was nothing useful here at all. It was just a shouting match: her screaming at him, and him reacting.

I felt shamed and dirty when I watched this clip. I wanted to shout through my computer screen at Jennifer Stefano: “For God’s sake, lower your voice! Stop screaming! Why are you so hysterical? Do you really think this is helping you get your point across? Do you really think this is productive?”

This embarrassing clip made me think: where has moderate, reasoned opinion gone in this country? Where is the middle ground? It’s virtually invisible. It’s gone. These days, in America, if you’re for something, you have to go full-bore and pull out all the stops. If you’re against something, the thing you’re against must be not just bad, not just evil, but the ultimate evil, an absolute civilization-ender. Otherwise you won’t get noticed and your opinion won’t be heard.


Does seeing this man’s face evoke an immediate strong reaction, pro or con?

The Hayes-Stefano confrontation is not the only example. My husband follows technology news quite closely. Over the past year he’s been extremely concerned–rightfully so, in my opinion–about the surveillance practices of the NSA and breaches of personal security where it comes to data, phones and computers. But not long ago he told me that he felt reluctant to continue discussing this issue on social media and in the public sphere, largely because the anti-NSA, anti-surveillance position has recently come to be represented by, and conflated with, the views of journalist Glenn Greenwald. My husband does not like Glenn Greenwald or support much of what he says or what his fans seem to advocate. Yet, if you’re anti-NSA, it’s almost like you have to be pro-Greenwald.

I’m also concerned about NSA surveillance and our vanishing privacy online. However, personally I have both legal and moral issues with the conduct of Edward Snowden, the figure whose leaking of documents sparked the present debate. I don’t believe Snowden is a hero who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. He broke the law and endangered his country. Neither do I believe he is a traitor who should spend the rest of his life in prison. My position on Snowden is moderate. I don’t know what to do with him. He’s done some good. He’s also done some wrong.

The way the public debate about Snowden and the NSA is framed, however, my moderate position is unacceptable–or at least unrepresented. A lot of the posts I see on Twitter that are vocal about the Snowden/NSA surveillance issue come from folks who have Guy Fawkes masks as their avatars–the symbol of the “hacktivist” group Anonymous. I’ve clicked on the profiles of some of these people to see the other sort of things they’re tweeting. I would say a majority of them go far beyond merely the Snowden/NSA issue and also advocate positions I would consider to be extremist–outright anarchism, for instance, hostility to all government control or government secrecy, not just the particular policies being pursued by the NSA. Most people on social media who are very vocal about the Snowden/NSA controversy sing the praises of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks–like Glenn Greenwald, a polarizing and problematic figure. Is it possible to be critical of the NSA, lukewarm on Snowden and anti-Assange? In our hyper-partisan culture, the nuance involved in such an opinion rarely comes across.


I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of these people owning or driving the debate on Internet privacy and NSA snooping. Why can’t somebody reasonable own that issue? Why does it have to be these people?

It works on the other side of the political divide too. Try this experiment. Go on Twitter or Facebook and find a post openly critical of the ACA (Obamacare). Now click on the profile of the person who posted it. What are the chances that, in addition to being vocally anti-ACA, this person also expresses opinions to the effect that Barack Obama is a socialist, that the Benghazi affair is a critical and urgent scandal, that climate change is a hoax, or even that Obama is a Muslim or was born in Kenya? Certainly not all people who oppose the ACA hold these viewpoints on other matters, but many do. Look at the sorts of conservative pundits who are invited to do cable shows like Chris Hayes’s. I know very little about Jennifer Stefano, but given her behavior on the show I’d be very surprised if she was a moderate conservative.

I’m not just imagining this, and I’m not making a mountain out of a molehill either. Tribalism and absolutism are becoming hallmarks of our public discourse. I noted in my recent article about the virtues of changing one’s mind that, in 2008 and 2012, there were far fewer “undecided” voters in the United States that in any previous elections. The dynamics of political campaigns are rapidly shifting from persuasion to mobilization–not persuading people to change their minds, but getting more of your committed supporters out to the polls than your opponents can muster. When you read media stories about the upcoming 2014 Congressional elections, this is almost the only narrative you hear. No one is moderate. No one is in the middle. Or at least, if you are, you feel awfully lonely, because no one in the public arena is speaking for you. There’s a pressure to join one side or the other and embrace a package of positions that are commonly associated with each other.

I’m tired of people shouting about politics. Or God. Or Obamacare. Or Edward Snowden. As a moderate on many issues, I’m also tired of having my opinions co-opted and lumped together with public movements and spokespeople who tend toward the extremes. These days, if you aren’t shouting your opinion–and if your opinion isn’t black-and-white–no one is listening. This worries me a lot.

The header photo in this article is by Lisa Brewster and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. I have altered the colors of the original photo. The portrait of Edward Snowden is owned by Praxis Films and filmmaker Laura Poitras. The picture of Anonymous hackers is by Vincent Diamante and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.