“This is lovely writing but I’m afraid it’s a little too quiet for us.” The “us” was a popular and well-respected website. I was happy of course, to have a personal response from the busy editor but it still stung, as rejections do.
Yet, as is almost always the case, the editor was exactly right. It was a little too quiet amongst headlines that read (for example*), “My Father’s in Jail and I Put Him There,” “My Open Marriage is None of Your Business,” “I Refuse to Talk to the Other Moms at the Playground.” My “lovely” essay about my son’s hair, was indeed quiet.
It’s an adjective all too familiar to me; one that I’ve been conditioned to bristle at. Quiet is not typically rewarded in our society. It’s seen as weak, lacking confidence, boring. The squeaky wheel, the loud, obnoxious candidate, the showboating athlete, the sensational headline, they dominate newsfeeds and are almost irresistible fodder for discussion. I get it. They are controversial and difficult to ignore.
I also belong to a Facebook group of expats living in Southeast Asia. Fairly frequently, there are posts linked to articles filled with gruesome photos about “What Really Happens When You Ride an Elephant” and easy answers to simply boycott these rides. These posts get many “likes” and are often widely shared.
So, when I read, The Human Cost of Elephant Tourism, in The Atlantic, I felt compelled to also share. Author Hilary Cadigan wrote an in-depth and well-balanced piece about a multitude of factors that contribute to atrocities in elephant tourism and how there are in fact, no simple answers. The article was lengthy, thoughtful and full of well-written text. It received a handful of likes and zero shares.
No one has time to read lengthy, thoughtful articles so we skim headlines, get 3 minute snippets on the news, read a funny meme and move on. But at what cost?
We live in a complex world and most of our biggest problems (social, political, environmental, economic) are highly nuanced. Yet, we also live in a world of sound bites and sensationalism. The combination of those two realities is the more dangerous weakness.
Whether it’s the policies of a madman running for President, a tragic accident at a zoo or the latest cure for our obesity epidemic, too often too many settle for easy answers. We quote pseudo-science as gospel. We jump to conclusions about the latest celebrity break up. We can’t resist driving trends as fast and as far into the ground as possible obliterating anything good that started it in the first place.
But the world is painted a quiet grey. We’re conditioned to believe that grey is boring. Grey is muted. Grey is filled with too much ambiguity. The clarity of black and white, right and wrong, this or that, is comforting. Our 5 minute news cycle, click-bait headlines and complex issues reduced to a couple of paragraphs of information force us to see black or white.
What would the headlines read if it was the child who had been killed and Harambe who had been saved?
How might we feel if we were forced to face our role in the elimination of natural habitats of endangered animals in the first place?
What if we turned our collective attention from Hollywood and towards our neighbours both near and far?
What if we stopped labeling things and instead spent the time to really understand?
Quiet is not part of our American DNA. We are generations of adventures, entrepreneurs, and strong voices. We like things big, fast and loud. We push ourselves to extremes in order to be the best. We value our busyness.
But we are drowning in information and sifting through the misinformation is becoming increasingly difficult. The biggest and loudest voices are muffling all the rest. Compelling opinion pieces are easily trumped by controversial sound bites from morons. (See what I did there?) Thoughtful, intelligent, balanced articles get buried and we’re all suffering because of it.
We can blame it on Facebook algorithms. We can blame it on the media. We can blame on our lack of time to wade through the swampy waters of the internet. But in the words of one of the most thoughtful, quiet and yet powerful men among us, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
So for me, I will remain wary of the black and white on the screen and always, always head toward the grey.
* Don’t Google these, I made them up! But you get the idea…