Matt Dickerson: My biggest wish for the new year
It seems that we live in a time of extremes.
Looking out our window this morning at several inches of fresh snow, I had my first hope of some cross-country skiing. Then I got to the breakfast table and looked out the big window. The precipitation had changed to an ugly mix of sleet and rain.
The weather report on VPR was even less hopeful. And I’m not speaking only of the local forecast and the prospects of Nordic skiing. The meteorologist spoke of extreme weather all over the country. While a shot of cold momentarily slapped the Northeast, some places in the country were experiencing record-setting heat, and still elsewhere unusually strong and damaging storms.
This is a Super El Nino year. We have the strongest El Nino conditions in the Pacific Ocean in half a century, with the effects perhaps intensified by climate change. Extreme weather is the theme.
And that, it seems, is also the metaphor for so many other things in the country. We are growing increasingly polarized. I read a recent report about the current front-runners in both major political parties. Being “front-runners” means the polls show the highest percentage of expected votes cast in their favor. But the same two candidates also have the highest disapproval ratings. People either love these candidates or hate them. There doesn’t appear to be much moderation. Which is to say, candidates and positions of moderation don’t seem to do well in the world today.
Just how far-reaching this polarization — and, some would say, hostility — is, and how deeply it has permeated our culture, struck home for me in a new way this summer. I avoid political discussions on social media. They tend to be venues for ranting and abusive language, with little listening or reasoned discourse. The occasional thoughtful voices get shouted down and drowned out.
Strangely, the same is true even in sports media, which ought to be about light-hearted entertainment and recreation. Judging by what is popular on radio, though, fans of sports media prefer angry vitriol to thoughtful discourse. I have even seen a few snippets of cooking television shows that featured famous chefs belittling participants and ridiculing their efforts. I guess angry shouting is supposed to be entertainment? Maybe this explains the current political discourse (or lack thereof).
So this summer I joined a couple online social media sites devoted to fishing. I thought it would be a safe way to escape the online animosity. A social media site is just a community. Subscribing or becoming a fan is thus joining that community. And based on the descriptions, these seemed like communities bound by a common passion for the outdoors and fishing, nature and conservation. I thought they would be peopled by folks who were warm and welcoming, interested in sharing stories and photos, and more generally sharing their common passion.
I’m sure my expectations were shaped by my years of involvement in the New Haven River Anglers Association, which really is such a community. Though the members represent a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and even different approaches to angling, they are congenial and fun and respectful. It is not a place of angry shouting, finger-pointing, and judging. And, to a certain extent, that also characterized the online communities of anglers I had joined.
But one day I made the mistake of posting what I thought was an innocent comment about a broad region where I had caught some wild brook trout. I mentioned the names of three famous rivers that span a couple fishing regions and run a combined length of some 200 miles. I made no mention of what specific area I fished. No names of famous fishing holes or highway numbers; nothing to narrow the search to less than several hours of driving time and several years of fishing.
I got blasted for my post, by an angler who happened to enjoy fishing one of the already famous rivers in that region. He was bothered that my post might bring a few more anglers to his river. In fact, I was very sympathetic to his concern. Nobody likes crowds on their home river. Still, I was taken aback by the level of animosity expressed on a “friendly” discussion group, given how little information I actually posted; nobody who didn’t already know the rivers I mentioned would have any clue where I had fished, and anybody who already knew the good locations would have had no need of my information.
Still, I stopped posting for a while and observed several more hostile exchanges on various sites, mirroring the sort of polarization I had come to expect in politics, but had not expected in the world of fishing. Fly-fishers took aim at spin-fishers, and vice versa. As somebody who enjoys both, I couldn’t understand why the two groups would despise each other so much.
And the examples continued. Anybody who posted a photo of a trout with even the slightest hint that it might have ended up in a creel would get the online equivalent of a tarring-and-feathering from the catch-and-release crowd. The angry exchange would then prompt those who at times keep fish for consumption to fire back equally inflammatory comments along with pictures of fish in frying pans, presumably to incite more animosity and increase the polarization.
Fly-fisherman vs. spin-fisherman vs. bait fisherman. Catch-and-release vs. an ethic of responsible harvest. It reached a new high — or, rather, low — a couple weeks ago when a debate began over whether fly-fishermen should be allowed to use the popular steelhead strategy of nymph-fishing with strike indicators. A group of anglers who prefer to swing streamers or fish for steelhead with dry flies took aim at what they consider an unfair and unsporting strategy employed by other anglers. So even among fly-fishermen all committed to a catch-and-release ethic, there is growing polarization. It was like the Republican debates had spilled over into the fly-fishing community. Or like political uncivil discourse and reality television shows have become the model for all life interactions.
It’s not all bad news. I still think the majority of members of the communities are friendly and respectful. I see lots of beautiful photos, gentle appeals for conservation, and engaging stories. I even have a fun social media “friendship” with a fellow angler I met on a river several years ago and have not seen in person since. But we still exchange photos and stories, and engage in discussions — sometimes with different opinions respectfully expressed.
Still, my wish for 2016 is for a little less polarization. Actually, a lot less. In politics. In news and entertainment media. In social media. In person. And I guess, like most wishes, that will entail some responsibility on my part.