Puzzle | Nov 1998

FMBR Editorial: Nov, 1998

Puzzle

Marshall Pease

Our society is exhibiting some strange phenomena. Despite the turmoil in Washington and the bitter responses of a great many people to Starr’s report, the majority of the public appears willing to move on. Most people seem to accept the facts, but apparently remain unconvinced of their significance or what should be the response. This is despite the drumbeat of opposition politicians and many of the commentators and newspapers. The opinion leaders of the country do not seem to be leading. What is happening?

The opposition politicians appear to hope that one more effort, the release of one more bundle of papers and tapes, will tip the balance at the November election. Maybe they are right, time will tell. But, as of the present time (middle October), there are hints that their persistence may even generate a backlash. So I ask again, what is happening?

Some have suggested the Web may be the reason. It provides people instantaneous access to all the public information – and all the rumors, innuendoes and opinions. As a result, people may be forming their opinions before the official purveyors can reach the airwaves. Further, so much information has been pushed on them they may have reached a saturation point and do not want to hear anything more.

A somewhat more subtle but related cause may be the degree to which the line between news and entertainment has been blurred as a result of an increasing emphasis on the “bottom line.” When news must produce a profit, then it must be entertaining. This has always been somewhat true – newspapers have always depended on advertising. However, TV and cable news now live or die according to the number of their viewers, a much more immediate measure. When news becomes entertainment, people lose interest if the news becomes boring.

On the other hand, it is just possible that people are beginning to think for themselves. Maybe they are less dependent on the “opinion leaders” whether news pundits, political leaders, whoever. There are signs this may be so. Professional people used to command almost automatic acceptance. The medical profession in particular used to be held in something close to awe. In recent times, we have come to see them as humans with all the foibles of the rest of us. Much the same is true of other professionals – lawyers, accountants, scientists, teachers, etc. Perhaps people are learning to think for themselves and taking responsibility for their own judgements. If so, this must be profoundly good, at least for the individual, as it builds inner strength. However, it also weakens the social and societal discipline. What remains is a discipline of the self – a matter “between myself and my God.” Those who see virtue as based on ancient teachings must see the change as a sign moral decay. Certainly, the change threatens the coherency and consistency of society. It is the latest version of the problem of reconciling personal responsibility and social integrity, giving new urgency to an issue that has pervaded history.

How will it all come out? Will society be weakened to a disastrous degree or will it find a way to support the rise of the individual? And if people are indeed moving to a higher concept of their selfhood, will they find ways to use that power to transform society itself to a higher level? I do not know. As has been said, we live in interesting times!

Marshall Pease