We Can’t Keep Going Like This
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We Can’t Keep Going Like This

R. James Carter
R. James Carter

All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.
~J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

In response to the recent Texas legislation, a two-year-old PSA re-surfaced featuring a lineup of popular actors—celebrities who have yet to find disfavor in the public eye for whichever backroom allowances their fame has so far leveraged. The spot is typical: impassioned pleas, heartstring music, actors delivering clichéd phrases in turns, all cast in black-and-white and looking directly down the camera lens. This message, delivered by the cast of The Handmaid's Tale, is about abortion rights. The last one was about environmentalism, and the next one will be about the next thing.

I don’t know who is at fault for our national failure to grasp this irony—the professional performers contractually obliged toward sincerity, or those of us who have paid them so religiously for it. More mysterious still is the question of target audience: Who is this for? No-one was swayed by this message; at least, I can’t imagine anyone having withheld their opinions on the matter, waiting for their favorite celebrity to pitch in. Even the ostensible call to action seems more like an afterthought, barely warranting a few unvoiced seconds at the end.

Perhaps there is an argument to be made for the subconscious effect these videos might have. “Women want him, men want to be him,” so goes the Mad Men-esque thinking. The modern rebuttal goes something like, “Stay in your lane.” We are perfectly happy with Lebron James as long as he’s endorsing shoes, not political platforms. Shut up and dribble—but only if you’re saying something I don’t like.

The strongest argument for the persuasive power of these celebrity spots is that of a potential “sleeper effect,” a phenomenon documented by Paola Pascual-Ferrá. This theory holds that initially objectionable messages tend to fester in the mind and soften up opinions about a topic over time. However, even if the effect could be reliably replicated—which, as Ferrá would be first to point out, it can’t—this in no way represents a profitable strategy of persuasion.

But persuasion was never the goal. Those who already disagree with the message only get further incensed by such things. “Hollywood and their liberal agenda,” is the rallying cry from pulpit-pounding Republicans. Although this is nothing to the self-oblivious fervor incited among Democrats who already agree with the message and eagerly use the video as confetti ammunition.

After all, they reason, it is The Right Message, and if these celebrities have a platform and a following it is their responsibility—nay, their duty—to use it to effect some good. And they have a point, I suppose, in a Peter Parker-adjacent sort of way, which is why they keep getting away with it, even though the said “good” effected is little more than space provided for an Internet comment-section mud-wrestle. But all this isn’t for the message—not really.

It’s not for the greater good, or the “right side of history,” or whatever other cardboard bucklers we love to hide behind either. It’s a little bit for the actors—they get an easy paycheck, earn a modicum of goodwill from their fans, and get to tell wary producers, “See? I won’t get cancelled.” It’s also a little bit for the sponsors, to impress the next potential donor who for some reason wants to see powerful, symmetrical faces next to a logo before collecting on their tax write-off.

Really, though, it just gives us something to talk about. The video itself may have all the inspiring authenticity of painted styrofoam, but this and things like this do just what they’re supposed to do. They get our attention. And that’s all they need to do: recoup the costs of production by pinning our eyeballs to the screen and getting our fingers furiously typing out some earnest or outraged response in the comments. It’s all the same to them, those who have learned to profit off the last square foot of real estate left in America.

The modern lie is that we believe in what we’re doing. Our online discourse betrays a national distrust matched only by our disingenuousness. Movements can gain no ground. Whatever is the cause du jour is little more than a façade, at best a convenient pretense for viral content hopefuls. The best ideas are lost to the next comment, the next thread, the next day. Our society is mired in stalemate.

A more civilized time

The latest presidential address is illustrative. Political speeches, too, often feel rote, generic, and even tone-deaf at times, though without the redeeming factor of having monetized our souls. This one was about an infrastructure plan, among other things. Last time it was about vaccinations, and next time it will be about the next thing. But, again, the specifics of the message are largely irrelevant. Much more interesting are the responses which the president’s remarks elicited.

In what I can only describe as a miracle of rhetorical efficiency, the president apparently said not a single correct thing during his address. This was according to Fox News which, well within its 24-hour anger-stoking business model, had produced an immediate and scornful rejoinder to every point the president made, from each member of its news team. As it turned out, these particular news people had, in fact, warned us all along of this administration’s incompetent malevolence; not that we needed a warning because of course we, too, have known all along.

There’s no need to substantiate the Fox approach to world events—generously called news—with quotes. The point is made well enough without citation, and not more than a minute on a search engine is needed to gain a sense of the cultural climate: responses from likeminded conservative sources are comparable, and responses from liberal sources are exactly the opposite. The reverse was true two years ago, and all responses take some form of “He’s right, and we should all support him” or “He’s wrong, and he’s destroying the nation.”

Contrast this contemporary media circus to the following excerpt from the Washington Post’s coverage of the 1958 State of the Union address delivered by then-President Eisenhower:

The State of the Union atmosphere seemed to demonstrate beyond peradventure that no matter what has befallen, they still like Ike. The Republicans like Ike, the Democrats like Ike—although one of the most violently anti-administration of the latter offered this amendment: “They still like Ike—and they only wish they could afford him.”

Cherry-picked for your comparative pleasure, certainly, but not an anomaly for its time. In not many ways do “the good ol’ days” hold up, but in this one regard I’m afraid we’ve done worse than our grandparents—theirs was a time of more civilized civil discourse, and their country a place of generally held respect for national leaders.

Our national distrust

Theirs was a time of generally held trust, too. The last time we trusted our government was, according to Pew data, in 1964, at the beginning of Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. This data point contradicts the prevailing wisdom that our antipathy to authority can be blamed on Richard Nixon, who supposedly broke our trust in the White House while simultaneously providing our parents with their favorite buzzword for every scandal in every national arena thereafter.

While it is true that Nixon’s behavior did future White House public relations few favors, a scandal on the scale of Watergate is unlikely to break if not diligently investigated, and such scrutiny is only possible in an already-distrustful environment. Indeed, since 1958, when the Pew Research Center began polling popular attitudes to presidential and governmental conduct, it has been unable to report high favor for more than half-a-dozen years. Steep declines followed through the late ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, a trend that gained momentum long before Tricky Dick did his damage. The largest fluctuations have occurred not as a result of presidential performance, but simply as ebbs and flows with the tides of world affairs.

Despite the frighteningly inconsistent week-to-week temperaments of today’s online masses, the plotting of these national attitudes shows lasting change, consistent across demographics and generally trending toward distrust since the advent of the age of television. That is to say, nobody has trusted our government—not Democrat, not Republican, not young, not old, not anyone—since midway through the 1960s.

And why would we? The leaven of the Pharisees, so to speak, has been passed on, spread, and hidden within our systems for so long, it has infected everything. The numbing frequency at which our administrations’ depredations have been laid bare is almost itself enough to give Luke prophetic credence: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.” And, to shoehorn in the rest, one can never be quite sure anymore that things spoken in closets and darkness won’t find their way onto the Internet.

In other words, of the many disenchantments of the information age, one of the most harrowing has been the realization that the simpler times of 80 years ago can be called more aptly the blissfully ignorant times, when corruption was not so much unreal as it was unexamined and unproclaimed. In this sense, those “good ol’ days” might just as well be called the “blind ol’ days”—if nothing else, a bleak reminder that few blessings come without curse.

The degradation of discourse

Today, we examine everything, and we proclaim it all. Pics, or it didn’t happen. We know now what lurks in our country’s dark corners and we cannot unknow it. I wouldn’t want to anyway. I am not advocating for some radical return to ignorance. Even if I were offered the chance to expunge my sense of the world’s institutional corruption, I don’t believe I would take it. The fire was stolen for us, and I would not give it back, even if some must spend their days chained to a mountain, devoured repeatedly, while the rest of us face Pandora and her jar of goodies.

But we need to understand what we’re facing. And we don’t—the evidence for that is clear. Our current pattern of discourse, repeated weekly and sometimes daily, is not so much a cycle as it is an exercise in insanity, a continual banging of our collective head against a wall. It goes something like this...

First, an event occurs on a national or international scale. It could be a political address or a piece of viral media like those mentioned previously. It could be a tragedy, like a natural disaster, or violent incursion, or some other deadly incident. Alternatively, it could be some inconsequential local issue—some ugly but juicy bit of gossip—blown up to magnificent proportions. The less consequential it is, the more we get to sink our teeth in.

Second, we pass judgement. Did someone say the wrong thing? Did someone do the wrong thing? Can offense be taken or some grievance invoked? Who gets to be outraged and on whose behalf? And what message are we sending to our children? Condemnations will be spat, and in rarer cases praise will be heaped, but one way or another, life or lives will be changed irrevocably; whether it’s for better or worse is up to the roll of a weighted die.

Third, we argue. And here we kick off a ferocious competition for Internet superlatives—who has the cleverest retort? The pettiest? The funniest? The meanest? The pithiest? Most shocking? Most emotional? Most flippant? Most irritated? Most… everything, except the most honest. Authenticity has no part in this game, played for likes and shares and follows and, failing a recurring (if short-lived) spot in the Internet personality pantheon, at least a screenshot that will pop up every few months in the Facebook boneyard.

The race to post the first and most sensational reaction drives the entire online world to spurn Aesop’s classic “slow and steady” archetype in favor of some coked-up, sleepless, steroid-enhanced version of the hare that is as likely to win as it is to drop dead halfway through the race. Online commercialism, in its current infancy, does not reward civility, and does not provide space for content submitted without an eye for reward. There is no market for measure, no pause for pacing and processing. The tortoise was left behind long ago.

Made for confirmation bias

“Change my mind,” demands that once-popular meme. It is posted, of course, not as an invitation, but in sardonic defiance. “You cannot change my mind, but it will be fun to watch you try,” taunts the subtext. Such is the degradation of modern discourse—a million voices perpetually screaming in unison, “I’m right! They’re wrong! Who’s with me?!” as the daily scramble for post engagement swallows up any and all rationality.

The 24-hour news cycle takes its cues from us in this regard, reaping the monetary rewards of our rapid back-and-forth between the judgment and argument stages of the online debate (if it can be called that). In the end, “they were right” and “they were wrong” are opposing sides of the same coin. The assumption behind both is that the right thing is known to us, and we are only indulging the person on stage to make sure they follow the proper script, and to check them if they refuse.

Everyone cannot be right. Everyone can, however, believe they are right. If you have heard of confirmation bias you may know it as that thing that’s keeping all those other people ignorant in their stupid and wrong opinions. It is no modern invention. Said Francis Bacon in 1620, “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion ... draws all things else to support and agree with it.”

The problem goes much deeper than just wanting evidential support for our opinions. Our minds are confirmation machines, with heuristic mechanisms built to be neurologically efficient, psychologically convenient, and functionally necessary. We need to be able to walk forward believing the world is just how we know it to be, predicting bumps in the road, focusing our attention, and with all the mental shortcuts required to do so at our subconscious disposal.

The human brain is better at predicting both the literal and metaphorical road bumps than any other neurological system thus far developed. Never mind all the things we miss along the way, all those pesky details that probably have nothing to do with where our feet are taking us. Tautologically speaking, we don’t notice what we don’t notice. But therein lies our evolutionary double-edged sword: each minute, we navigate a safe passage through life’s chaos, while missing countless pieces of information that would change our worldviews immeasurably.

The surest way to expand your attention to these otherwise-missed details is through failure. You walk along, you encounter a bump, and you fail in your prediction. Maybe you trip, maybe you fall and skin your knee and now you’re in pain and the world is nothing like you thought it was. Your “map” of the world, to borrow from Jeffrey Gray, was wrong. You could have avoided this, had you noticed the thing you ought to have noticed, had your attention been paid to the proper source.

Hypotheses concerning the political Left and Right can and ought to be formed and tested in this context, but more relevant here is our common duality. All of us look liberally for what has caused our worldview failure when failure occurs, and all of us guard conservatively that worldview which has allowed us to make sense of the world’s disarray. In this way, we all risk at all times falling victim to the comforting decay of confirmation bias.

Our neurological systems work just as they developed to work, to keep us breathing, and breeding, and stepping forward—stubborn, ignorant, and largely oblivious. Add to these systems the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips, and now we have yet another irony with which we must wrestle: in our centuries of effort to overcome our evolutionary limitations, we have created information-gathering systems designed specifically to enable them.

Thus, our darkest suspicions compound as they are confirmed, the market shapes itself around our limited perspectives, and we never have to change our minds again. In fact, the institutions profiting from these limitations are counting on it—your loyalty is the currency, and the lesson has been well and duly learned that no-one has ever gone broke serving up a sense of superiority to their adamant faithful.

It will hit critical mass soon. We can all feel it. We can feel the unsustainability, the escalation, the festering boil ready to burst. I’d be tempted to put our predicament in Marxist terms, but in his view, there was always the implication of righteousness in the cause of the proletariat. In our world, there are those who glut on tragedy and thirst for spilled tea, and there are those who profit from it all. As long as the former group vies so desperately to rise to the ranks of the latter, there can be no revolution.

We must decide

“To be human is to live in relationship with others,” said Martin Buber, a statement magnified by an immeasurable factor in the social media landscape. Matters of where we place our trust—matters of advice given and taken, of credibility and reliability, of confidentiality and cooperation—multiplied over days and across populations are what shape our nation, through both peacetime and crisis. Even the casual electorate can’t help but feel that the sorts of nation-shaping crises in which questions of trust are determinant have raced to greet us these past few years at a near-daily pace.

Little wonder, then, that we find ourselves stricken by perpetual anxiety, bickering at fever-pitch levels of incivility, and glorifying pettiness as a virtue. Our culture is being torn at the seams by a collective cognitive dissonance. We dole out exorbitant amounts of time and money to celebrities whose opinions we don’t trust; we withhold trust from our national leaders who cannot govern without it; and we trust absolutely our own perspectives, those which we ought to be the most motivated to doubt and dismantle.

I cannot tell you who or what to trust; even if I thought I could, I wouldn’t know how. Of the many lessons learned during the pandemic, this one ought to bother social psychologists for many years to come: whatever it is that persuades people, that convinces them to change minds and hearts and ways, it is not evidence, and it is not experts, and it is not even the looming prospect of death.

My only plea is for introspection. You have spent your life trusting sources, often implicitly, some of which have served you well and some of which have not. Many of your life’s paths have been directed by inherited decisions. You’ve been right, and you’ve been wrong. The danger yet lies in the darkness—in those things about which you are still wrong, and don’t know it.

You don’t have to wait for bumps in the road to re-evaluate your positions. Failure is not our only means of education. Reflect, discard, retain, and go no further without having wrested at least a measure of control from your socialized past. Decide who and what to trust—decide, and make sure you know why you’ve made that decision. As passive products in the online exchange, we are little more than the dollar value of our wasted minutes. Just imagine what we might do if we learned to control this fire we’ve been given. Whatever our path forward, one thing is clear: We can’t keep going like this.

Politics

R. James Carter

R. James Carter is a sociologist living in Salt Lake City, Utah.