Friday, May 3, 2019 is a day that I likely will not forget anytime soon. It’s the day that I saw a poll on twitter and was incredulous about the purported results.
How, I asked myself, could 90% of people responding to this poll not know that we use the “Hindu-Arabic” numeral system, and how could they not know that we already “force” schools to use it? That was, after all, the question posed by the original poll.
It asked: “Should schools in America be forced to teach Arabic numerals as a part of their curriculum?”
I figured that this had to be a fluke. It had to be nothing more than a mix-up. I mean, it had to be … right? This must be due simply to a lack of education as to what Arabic numerals were.
So, I decided to make that poll the subject of an upcoming school paper. That required a thesis statement, so I decided to see how my Facebook contacts and their friends would react, and also decided to see if they would change their votes after learning what “Arabic” numerals were.
So off I went and posted the poll — with the definition of “Arabic numerals” in the comments.
It went along alright at first. I was watching what I thought would happen, happen. Where it took off to next, however, has literally decimated my hope for civil discourse and peer-to-peer education in our country.
The 10 days since I posted my poll have consisted of 10 days of watching the very worst that America has to offer. Some were offended that we would teach Arabic numerals and not “American” ones. Others were offended that people did not want “Arabic” numbers in their school (though they themselves didn’t realize that we already do). Yet others were just upset that the American public education system had failed to teach something as basic as where our numbers come from.
(On a side note, I wonder if they still teach that our alphabet comes ultimately from ancient Proto-Sinatic or Semitic letter system that originates in Egypt… but I digress.)
To say that the streams were filled with vitriol and hatred would be an overwhelming understatement. The poll went viral and has continued on social media platforms far beyond the original two that were used. It remains a hotbed of debate that has far eclipsed the 26,000 people who responded to the Facebook poll. And those comment threads? They are far worse and far uglier than the one that I shut down.
Charges of bigotry, racism, xenophobia, treason, sympathizing against America, and all kinds of other hateful rhetoric have flown freely and without pause. I am watching people who are simply unable to contain their emotions spew some of the most venomous poison on each other, and you know what? I find myself heartbroken, heartsick, and many other things, including being infuriated at myself for not seeing this coming, but the one the thing I am not, is surprised.
You see, this is what America has become. This great melting pot of humanity has become a balkanized state of racial, political, lifestyle, and religious tribes. Most are members of more than one tribe, but they identify strongest with one or another, and they’re ready to fight for it.
That is who we have become: a nation of civil warriors, each fighting for their side. No one’s talking, not really. We’re shouting, or we’re talking at, over, under, and around each other, or we’re talking about each other. But the one thing we’re not doing is talking TO each other.
We have locked ourselves in our own echo chambers and have rejected anyone unlike us – and may the Lord help whoever it is that doesn’t fit in our circle.
So someone doesn’t know that our numbers are Arabic … so what? Do you think that calling them names will actually shame them into changing their mind? Do you really think numbers are important in today’s violent geo-political landscape?
Likewise, if someone is acting out of an interest to help another group who have been targeted recently by religious persecution, so what? Does that truly make them a treasonous person for standing up for the rights of their fellow citizens?
I know that the answers to these questions aren’t black and white, but they do serve as a starting point for asking yourself what the other side might be feeling and thinking. I hope that’s not asking too much, but it increasingly feels like it is. Asking anyone to restrain themselves and/or to be civil in today’s world appears to resonate like a big brass gong from the 1970s Gong Show.
No one’s interested in doing so; in fact, they feel not only justified in tearing another human being to shreds verbally, emotionally, and psychologically, but they also revel in it. It’s social rupturing that leaves real wounds and only entrenches people in their own position. It doesn’t help; it only hurts.
And that brings me to the point that I am the most disheartened about: They don’t care. You see the demonizing and de-humanizing on both sides has worked so well that we no longer look across the aisle and see people who disagree with us; we just see a shapeless, faceless, and formless “them” that we must defeat.
The name calling – calling people things other than human? I’ve seen that before. When I went to war. It’s a coping mechanism to help soldiers deal with the reality around them, and that is where we are as a nation right now. We are in a war. No, not a physical one, but its effects are just as significant. Brother against brother, sister against sister, parent against child, and on and on it goes. These last 10 days have convinced me of that, if nothing else.
So, I lament. Not for the lack of education, for we can overcome that, but I lament for the lack of civility and communal peaceful coexistence.
Wes Trueblood III is a former resident of Greenville who now lives in San Antonio, where works in the nonpro t sector and as a pastor and minister while he earns his bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry.