BOB GARFIELD: The Pew Research Center recently reported that America is more divided along partisan lines than at any other time in the past 25 years. As a society, their research reveals we’re more divided by politics than we are by class, race or gender. So, thank goodness we have an Internet to prey on our weaknesses, or maybe help diminish them.
Developer Pascal Rettig has created a website where you input your phone number and your political stripe and you are paired up telephonically with someone on the other end of the ideological spectrum. The site is called PoliticalScreamingMatch.com. Here’s a tape of a call between two people who disagree about President Obama’s healthcare overhaul.
MALE CALLER 1: Socialists!
MALE CALLER 2: Hel – hello?
MALE CALLER 1: Socialist, it’s making us all socialists.
MALE CALLER 2: But why am I a socialist?
BOB GARFIELD: Rettig says Political Screaming Match is actually designed to help save the world, rather than destroy it. It’s designed as an experiment to see what happens when people who disagree talk privately and intimately.
PASCAL RETTIG: I just wanted to see what would happen. Just like you get a comment on the web, you know that chances are the person behind whatever horrible thing was written is not a deep-down bad person. The question is, you know, what makes them turn into that sort of horrible person, and what can we do to, to prevent that from happening?
BOB GARFIELD: Mm. And what was your best guess as to how this would play out?
PASCAL RETTIG: I thought it would sort of go in the middle. I thought – you know, I, I’ve actually been surprised that I haven’t seen any crazy calls. Well, every time I press Play on one of the recordings, I sort of wince and ask myself, what have I done and, you know, what is about to hit me. [BOB LAUGHS] I’m sure there’ll be – there’ll be one of those. But so far, so good. Apparently, you know, the Internet trolls, they don’t want to give up their cell phone numbers.
BOB GARFIELD: We started with a snippet of a conversation between two ideological opposites. It began a little confrontational, but here’s the same conversation a little bit later.
MALE CALLER 2: Why am I a socialist?
MALE CALLER 1: I thought that’s how we played this game.
MALE CALLER 2: Oh – wait, wait, wait. You’re a – fascist. [LAUGHS]
MALE CALLER 1: Well, you’re a - socialist! [LAUGHS]
MALE CALLER 2: I am though. I like literally am a socialist – well, a Marxist.
MALE CALLER 1: Oh, oh - that’s what all – all my friends are. Some, sometimes I think I am.
BOB GARFIELD: Now they seem to have calmed down a bit.
PASCAL RETTIG: The conversation sort of goes – even though it was originally about Obamacare - sort of goes all over the board and, you know, by the end they’re sort of talking about some finer points of a whole bunch of different issues.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you say that you’ve heard some fairly thoughtful conversations from people who you would have expected to be caustic and bitter and dismissive. Have you seen the scales falling from anyone’s eyes? Have you seen enlightenment, a whole change of world view, based on one of these conversations?
PASCAL RETTIG: So I haven’t, unfortunately, seen anyone’s world view change, but I – I think I have seen people at least understand where the other person was coming from, you know, that there hasn’t been, necessarily, been agreement but, you know, someone might say, I’m – you know, I understand coming from where you grew up or where you did this, why you feel that way. That’s a good first step. I don’t think anyone’s whole – position on anything has been changed but at least maybe there’s a little bit more understanding.
BOB GARFIELD: So there’s, I think, two ways to consume political media. One is to filter every single thing that you read, see and hear through your own world view, your own ideology, your own immutable doctrine, and the other, which is the one that OTM kind of subscribes to, is to pay attention and learn stuff and see what effect that might have on your thinking. When you name a website PoliticalScreamingMatch.com, don’t you more or less foreclose on the possibility that people who subscribe to the second media consumption philosophy are never going to log on?
PASCAL RETTIG: You know, I think there’s that possibility, although I think that people who subscribe to the second idea are more interested in the meta game, you know, interested in the discussion about the discussion, you know, and that might attract them to it. But I think, you know, that the people who look at it through, you know, red- or blue-colored glasses, you know, also are probably the most interesting to listen to go at it.
BOB GARFIELD: You mean, from a voyeuristic point of view, right?
PASCAL RETTIG: Unfortunately, yes.
BOB GARFIELD: You get a sick and perverse pleasure in just watching the insanity unfold.
PASCAL RETTIG: Yeah but I mean, I think there’s also a bigger possibility for one of the sides to learn something. Coming into Political Screaming Match and having, you know, sort of this, you know, anonymous call with someone might, you know, open you up to something that otherwise you might not be willing to, because you never really talk to someone from the other side; you only hear the sound bites.
BOB GARFIELD: Pascal, thank you so much.
PASCAL RETTIG: Thank you.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Pascal Rettig is the programmer and founder of PoliticalScreamingMatch.com.