If you are one of the many wondering why public political debates, both from politicians and passionate citizens, have become so polarized, so damaging, and so unproductive, you have the sound byte to thank. The sound byte has terrorized political arguments, because they can single-handedly take a politician hostage. They are simply too damaging.
A sentence is made up of letters and spaces. When arranged correctly, letters make up words, and these words carry meaning. Remove a few letters from a word and the meaning is lost. Words placed together in a certain way create a sentence. Sentences have meaning. Taking out words adjusts that meaning. A sound byte is precisely this; a part of a sentence or thought that is purposefully removed from its context for broadcasting and proliferation. Because attention spans are shortening like the Arctic ice-shelf, people try to communicate everything as quickly as possible, often at the expense of true understanding.
Context, which is fundamentally crucial to human understanding of language, can be removed by choice, and a sound byte can be repurposed. The demands of today’s media competition mean that anyone with editing technology (which is pretty much anyone) can take a few words from a speech or debate and provide a brand new context, thereby creating a story or a specific impression. While something like this should be illegal, it unfortunately is not.
The result: rational arguments which acknowledge the strengths of the opposite position are impossible today. A candidate or politician cannot be heard saying, “my opponent is right about this, that, and the other.” The candidate cannot actually work towards a real and possible solution based on compromise. If he or she does, all the media will take from it is “My opponent is right.”
Because of the above-mentioned factors, negativity has crushed optimism. It is much faster to say: “My opponent doesn’t know what he’s doing,” than to say “I agree with the following points, however I disagree with his approach to…” Instead of getting a constructive debate such as: “Candidate X is right about the problems with our immigration system, such as the cost of illegal immigrants on our health care system, but I feel that the answer lies in naturalization and not deportation,” we get “illegal immigrants are ruining our country and we must get rid of them.”
The technology that records everything and allows any amateur to become James Cameron is irreversible. News agencies will not stop cutting out sound bytes and spreading them around the public. So the change must come from the public itself to demand proper context for quotations and clips. We must retake our understanding, even if it takes a few more minutes.