Well, here we are in 2016, a Presidential election year, and — man, oh man — it’s going to be a weird one! High waters from several rivers seems to be converging to form a flood unlike any we’ve seen in modern politics. And while that’s kind of fascinating from a sociology perspective, as a citizen some of it seems kind of scary.
As I write this, actual rivers are flooding Midwestern cities in the USA, but the rivers I have in mind are reality shows, the interweb, and our social environment (where global unrest and terrorism is a primary topic). The flood here is a lack of sense, nuance, and thoughtfulness.
My question today: When did we so fully embrace lies and illusion?
I don’t necessarily do it on a yearly cycle (like a New Year’s Resolution), but from time to time I pick a topic to think about when my mind is otherwise idle. The topic the last year or so has been Waste, and that will lead to some posts someday. Before that, the topic was Lies & Illusions.
Specifically the Lies & Illusions we practice as a society. Advertising is one fertile ground, politics even more so, especially during election season. (And there is no better example of that (literal) nonsense than the current Republican front-runner.)
“What’s wrong with people?” many ask.
Well, I tell you (and this is my short list):
Assertion as Fact. Just because someone says something, that doesn’t mean it is factual, logical, or even sensible. Given the failed education system, much of what many people say isn’t any of those things. We seem to care more about whether assertions match our preconceptions or politics.
Very, very few people seem to challenge their own thinking, yet it is in the challenge that we grow and improve. What’s true for muscles is true for minds!
The news media has done society a disservice in not better debunking the crap that people say on their air time. (Because they’re cowards. If they really did push back, many of their talking head guests wouldn’t show up.)
Opinion as Reality. Everyone has the right to their opinion, but not all opinions are created equal. Some of them are bat-shit crazy, some of them are downright evil, some of them are born of ignorance, fear, or greed. Some are, at best, uninformed.
There’s an old saying about opinions: They’re like assholes. Everyone has one, and they all stink. (Mine, of course, have the odor of roses and vanilla and just a hint of cinnamon.)
Here, again, the news media does a poor job in separating wheat from chaff.
In fact, I’ve decided they really aren’t cable news shows so much as real Reality Shows (starring real people and real issues, plus it appears daily on several channels). Kind of like Jon Stewart minus the humor or the clever.
Emotion as Thought. I’ve talked about this many times before. Operating at the level of emotion makes you no better than an animal. In fact, it essentially makes you into an animal, as we’ve seen in various riots all throughout last year.
Emotions push us, but our heads must do the steering. When they do, the combination of thoughtfully driven emotion can accomplish great things. We need only look to our own history to see this (consider the American Civil Rights movement, for example).
Rejection of Facts (& Science). When your personal beliefs require you to turn your back on facts and science and logic and truth, you have become worse than an animal. You’ve become a zombie or a robot.
And a problem for society.
If you doubt me, just consider the Middle East. Religion to the exclusion of the physical world (which, presumably, God also created) leads easily to the kind of religious fanaticism we see there.
Or here, when it comes to bombing Planned Parenthood clinics.
Black & White Thinking. Lack of Nuance. We seem to live now in a world of icons, tweets, and bumper sticker thinking. “If not A then B!” (Which ignores 24 other letters.)
Perhaps the world has gotten so complicated that many feel they can’t keep up, so they don’t even try. (I know a lot of people who’ve just unplugged from any source of news. I don’t really blame them, but I think it’s the wrong response.)
The thing is, when the world gets this complicated, that’s exactly the time when we really need to put on our “thinking caps” (as they used to say back when people actually respected thinking).
Too Much Hyperbole. Ever notice everything is either the “worst” or the “best”? Do people even know what those terms mean anymore?
Trump is Mr. Hyperbole. Hillary Clinton was the “worst” Secretary of State; Bill Clinton was the “worst” abuser of women. Words have no meaning anymore.
[On a side note, how does someone as savvy as Ms. Clinton step in it so badly by calling Trump “sexist”? Mistake! Hit him, and hard, on what he actually said — and there’s plenty — but the vague (and possibly incorrect) label of “sexist” was a huge misstep that played right into the clown. The truth is he’s a boorish vulgarian (or at least he plays one on TV) with little apparent regard for truth or nuance (or reality), but he’s probably not a sexist. Neither, I suspect, is Bill Clinton (although he may be a hound dog, but, hey, politics and sex (and get over it; jeeze, it’s just sex), and let’s be honest… no red-blooded male is going to turn down sex in the Oval Office).]
Appeals to Vox Populi. Cartoonist Berke Breathed gave his character Opus the Penguin a famous line that I’ve cherished for decades: “If two-million people do a stupid thing, it’s still a stupid thing.”
The popularity of, say, the Twilight books and movies has nothing to do with their quality as stories (which, from the clips I’ve seen, was abysmal). More relevant now is that leading in the polls doesn’t have any connection with being right (as one example, IIRC, ~70% of Trump supporters believe Obama is a foreign Muslim).
Confusion of Popular or Successful with Right or Good. This is what happens when we take vox populi too seriously. A democracy has to proceed on this basis, but it’s been often said that democracy is merely the “least worst” form of government. It’s not great, but it’s better than most others.
For one thing, it can lead to what’s called the Tyranny of The Masses when the lowest common denominator controls things.
The truth is, given the state of education in this country, perhaps a meritocracy would have, um, merit. Maybe we should elect our leaders on the basis of their abilities and merits rather than their popularity? Just a thought.
Redefinition (or Total Lack) of Character. The end result of all of this is that we’ve either redefined (or lost) the idea of Personal Character. One thing Trump makes absolutely clear is that personal character — as we have defined it in literature and in our own past — is no longer viewed as a vital trait.
So there’s my New Year’s Resolution List… for many of you. Resolve to see the world in thoughtful, nuances terms. Reject assertion and popularity as drivers. Learn that opinion is not fact, and successful is not the same as right.
In particular, challenge your own thinking. Remember, Evil Doesn’t Question Itself. You avoid personal error by constantly asking yourself: Am I right? And by assuming you might not be.