Selective Deafness and Forced Mutism

The importance of listening.

Once upon a time in this column, I shared a bit of wisdom gained from a very successful individual: Standing on a soapbox and proclaiming your sociopolitical views to the world is asking for trouble.

Is it your right to do so? Absolutely. But is it smart? Maybe if your livelihood is based on it, such as being a talking-head political pundit on some not-really-news show. For most of us, however, that doesn’t apply. Instead, all you’re doing is risking backlash from people who don’t agree with you. That can range from getting your car keyed on account of your bumper-sticker to having your company blacklisted and boycotted.

As the great Michael Jordan said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” God bless you if you’re so confident in your success that you’re willing to alienate 50 percent of your customer base by saying things that will make the other 50 percent like you a little better, but I don’t know too many non-monopoly enterprises that operate with that kind of a margin.

I’ll preface the discussion below by saying this particular column isn't just about the matter of playing around on social media, by the way. This all comes home to roost for us in radiology – and healthcare at large – so tune in next week, as well, for part two.

So, last weekend, I decided to open a Parler account. I had resisted for a couple of reasons—first, I’m not crazy about social media to begin with, so using more sites/apps goes against my grain. Second, it’s not like my Twitter account is a hotbed of activity; if I got just as many followers on P as I had on T, I still wouldn’t quite have three dozen.

(Third, on a petty note, the academician in me aggravates about Parler’s name…is it supposed to be the French verb “to speak?” If so, why are we not pronouncing it “par-lay?” Or, if it’s supposed to be a parlor, like a place where guests would meet and converse, why spell it differently? End of digression.)

In any case, I was convinced a few months ago that, as a regular columnist, I should have some kind of social media presence. Even if I only have a handful of followers, I can see that my posts get hundreds of views, so somebody’s paying attention. And there’s no predicting when lightning might strike and I suddenly find myself with a much larger following. Not getting on Parler, the way things were shaping up, would diminish my visibility.

As luck had it, I established my account and downloaded the app mere hours before Parler got shut down (at least temporarily) by the combined forces of Google, Apple, Amazon, and an armada of other players. All I lost was the bit of time it had taken me to sign up and create my profile. It hardly felt like a severed virtual limb or a stifling of my ability to speak in the public square.

Others who had been using that forum (8 million as of November, with a subsequent voluminous influx—a cursory look fails to give me numbers), however, are feeling decidedly more suppressed. Many originally flocked to Parler to get away from other social media that were exercising an increasingly-free hand at suspending or banning users. Rightly or wrongly, lots of those users felt that they, and others with similar opinions to their own, were being unfairly targeted.

Their newly-adopted platform, itself, now being targeted, there’s a certain sense that an electronic Iron Curtain came crashing down. More than a little talk about what constitutes free speech and prevention thereof. Also what corporate behavior constitutes collusion, and should be reined in by antitrust laws. Not going into that here.

Being a diagnostician (radiological and otherwise), I’m more inclined to focus on root causes, how damage is being done, and, when possible, niduses of trouble that might be removed or circumvented to result in an improved state of affairs. As big as the issues referenced above, I think there’s something even larger and more fundamental that’s led to this juncture. An underlying pathology that might have made this inevitable. And may lead to worse, if not addressed/corrected. Like a patient with obesity or diabetes who hasn’t yet had a heart attack, stroke, or renal failure…but just had a scary TIA.

The fundamental issue is one you’ve heard about before: People not listening to one another. In the age of social media, with varying degrees of lockdown and physical isolation, there’s an ever-increasing ability not only to render oneself selectively deaf to unwanted voices…but now, also, to force mutism on those voices by banning, de-platforming, or otherwise “canceling” them.

Sometimes there’s a good reason for it. Someone threatening/planning violence or other criminal behavior, for instance. But I think we’ve gotten a little too comfortable with the notion of silencing others just because we don’t like what they have to say. It seems increasingly common to decide to silence them first, and conjure an excuse afterwards.

I’m sure that some folks see nothing wrong with the notion of stamping out all voices and even ideas that run contrary to their own. And I suppose it can be a heady thing if one is in ideological synchrony with the folks doing the muting—look how all the wrong-thinking villains are being squelched! That’ll show ‘em.

However, unless you’re embracing the idea of rounding up all of the people with objectionable ideas and putting them in re-education camps or otherwise “de-programming” them (I leave it to the reader to look up which talking heads floated those ideas this past week), the people you’re silencing are still going to be in this society with you. And it might not be in your long-term interest to prevent yourself from hearing what they have to say.

So, as I said earlier, this isn’t just a discussion about social media. This impacts us directly in radiology, as well, and I’ll address that next week in this space. Stay tuned.

Follow Editorial Board member Eric Postal, M.D., on Twitter, @EricPostal_MD