On the infantilisation of the discourse & the contest of half-baked ideas
Words & images © Paul Ransom
“The number one thing,” I used to say to the journalism students when they were doing the interview skills part of the course, “is listening.”
Ironic perhaps that I was helping prepare them for entry into an industry notorious for seven second sound bites. Indeed, the proliferation of short form media – and the deliberate pitch to short attention that is its rational underpinning – is, for me, emblematic of a deeper and more worrisome norm; namely, that our current conversations around politics, justice, economy, etcetera are nearly all talk, hardly any listen. When we contemplate the phenomenon of polarisation and polemic infecting the public discourse, what we so often hear is a shouting match, complete with sloganised assertion, blunt assumption and the win/loss optics of adversarial drama. In short, it resembles what we might expect from eight year olds squabbling in a schoolyard, (with all due respect to said children).
Yet surely I am not the only one wondering where all the adults went. Or where they stashed the detail and context. Or how we came to sideline the benefits of dealing honestly with complexity and ambiguity.
- In saying this, I realise that some will already be dismissing me as elitist and/or declinist, but my intention here is neither to pine for a departed golden age nor to lump blame onto any one cohort, industry or social media platform. To do so would be to contribute to and exacerbate what I will refer to here as the infantilisation of the discourse.
Here again, given the ideological, name-calling tenor of the ongoing 24/7 tribal opine-a-thon, I feel the need to reach for the disclaimer tool, if only to head off knee-jerk refusal and ‘told you so’ point scoring.
- This is not about deriding so-called populism
- This is not about blaming and beating up on so-called elites
- This is not a ‘dumb them down’ conspiracy theory
- This is not an ‘end of civilisation’ prophesy
- This is not about identity (yours, mine or anyone else’s)
- This is NOT about Trump!
The rush to disclaimer is, in itself, a symptom of the manner in which we have come to talk to one another. In a culture of instant reaction, where the grab, the meme and the short visual post are the syntax of persuasion, we are simply not given the time (or the word count) to lay out anything more than a few introductory points before judgements are made, aspersions are cast and attention clicks elsewhere. Yet sometimes, keeping it simple is simply keeping us stupid.
The world is a complex and ever-changing place, and the factors influencing its outcomes are multiple and variant. Moreover, our relationships – personal, social, economic and environmental – occur in a densely networked context, where self-interest and mutuality often overlap. Easy answers, straightforward prescriptions, identitarian claims and convenient other-blaming are, in my view, manifestly inadequate and counter-productive responses to the evolving challenges of living together in the 21st century.
But of course, things that take time or do not lend themselves to micro-bloggable take outs, are not sexy. They do not engage or energise the base. The received wisdom prevalent in newsrooms, marketing departments and campaign headquarters have tended to self-fulfil the promises of brevity, spectacle, emotional pull and the pitch to ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’.
Though many have pointed out that a combination of mainstream media and a multitude of internet soapboxes – like this one – have contributed to the dumbing down and polarisation of public discourse, the human proclivity for tribal affiliation and the essentialisation of ‘out groups’ pre-dates Murdoch and Zuckerberg by millennia. Neither did TV producers or ad agencies invent the cognitive preferencing of potential threats and dramatic events. In fact, heuristics and biases, of which we are almost entirely unconscious, pre-dispose us to fast facts, especially those that confirm our existing view of ourselves and the world. These mental short cuts also skew us towards a worldview that regards the present and future as threatening and the past as rosy. The more we understand about the brain, and about how perception and cognition operate, the less surprising our nigh ubiquitous attraction to the narratives of doom and decline seem.1
Even bearing this in mind, the present pandemic of ill-tempered dispute and the widespread belief that ‘everything is fucked’ warrant particular attention; and not just because of Trump, BLM or COVID. Whilst we should be careful to filter for the exaggerations of presentism, and wary of extrapolating wider truths from the narrow sample group of personal experience, it seems fair to suggest that our current cultural conversation is being conducted in an unhealthy fashion, and that this level of mass dysfunction is historically unusual.
The easy target here is social media. Setting aside (often legitimate) concerns about silo effects, clickbaiting, deliberate misinformation and the spread of conspiracy, it seems clear that, rather than creating the problem, Twitter & Co have uncorked, amplified (and monetised) a previously muted cacophony. Indeed, this article and my voice are part of it. If, of late, we have democratised the discourse – thereby allowing suburban nobodies like myself to rant at will – we may well regard it as a democracy of dunces. The internet utopia has, like others before it, crumbled under the weight of its own fantasy. It has shown us ourselves in constantly updating detail, so much so that it is scarcely credible to deny the evidence of a global idiocracy. Rather than rational, well-argued and open to alternative interpretation, the lately and garishly revealed fact is that we are posting our opinions with a combative and frequently fundamentalist zeal that, when coupled with a mania for short and share-able, reduces dialogue to a sequence of monologues. We talk over, we yell, we insult…but rarely do we stop to listen.
Of course, Facebook is not the sole author of this, and neither is CNN, the Russian hacking community or sugar. We are at this juncture for a variety of reasons – some related to commercial imperative, some to political opportunism, others arising from long-term cultural, intellectual and technological trends, and still others from the way we have chosen to organise our increasingly large-scale societies, locally and globally.2
Together, these inputs have created a curious and unstable melange of connectivity and disconnection. Of planetary community and social atomisation. Of walls coming down and borders getting harder. Drop the existential threats of novel virus and global warming into the mix and, if you will pardon the pun, the infection spreads and the temperature rises.
Yet, while some of this may suffice as explanation, it is not an excuse. As the French economist Thomas Piketty contends in his 2019 book Capital & Ideology there is nothing inevitable or essential about political-ideological trajectories. We are not simply the victims of the historical moment but, together, we help to create and sustain it. Or, alternatively, to challenge its norms and imagine other ways of being. Working for the idiocracy is not our only option.
Doubtless, some will baulk at the use of terms like infantilisation and idiocracy. Perhaps they will take it personally, or maybe they would prefer more neutral language. In response, I would ask whether the following – and rather common – characteristics of our current discourse can honestly be considered either mature or especially clever.
- The mono-causal fallacy. Our tendency to ascribe monochromatic, linear causation models – X happened solely because of Y – to a wide range of complex cultural, political and economic phenomena. Clearly, mono-causal ideas are at odds with the dynamic, networked realities we live with. More than merely reductionist, their prescriptive simplicity tends to edit out crucial detail and nuance, which in turn helps to legitimise the recourse to other-blaming, to claims of entitlement and triumph, to the promotion of silver bullets and the nominating of villains, and to the ‘war-room’ mentality of jihadists and conspiracy theorists.
- Confusing cause with correlation. Like the above, this appears to be the norm. In fairness, our problems with understanding causation are related to neurological and cognitive mechanisms; but nonetheless, the ubiquity of lazily conflated reasoning distorts debate and allows falsehood to pass easily for fact. How many of these misnomers are now masquerading and being shared as common knowledge?
- The stat/fact stand-off. How we love to reel off our favourite stats, as if they were a proxy for truth. The cherry picking of statistics and the selective use of infographics to support points of view creates a veneer of plausibility that obscures our reliably poor grasp of statistical information.3 It also ignores the inherent complexities involved in generating and interpreting the data flows that underpin the stats we so readily hurl at one another. Moreover, this habit unmasks another commonality – our tendency to extract ‘facts’ from their enmeshed context and to wield them as weapons in ideological and tribal dispute.
- Name, shame, blame. It’s someone else’s fault. While this may sometimes be true, contemporary politics and media (news & social) are awash with blame shifting fervour. It’s the liberal elite, the patriarchy, the 1%, the West, a cabal of wealthy paedophiles, and so on. Whether it’s ‘call out culture’ or the identitarian tendencies beloved of both conservatives and progressives, we have devolved reasonable notions of accountability into a chorus that too often lurches into vilification and vengeance. Justice is one thing; lynch mobs are another.
- Utopias & dystopias. From the nostalgist longing for retro-paradise to the luridly Orwellian dramas of conspiracy junkies and libertarian panic merchants, our current cultural conversations are infected with heaven/hell narratives. These are clearly overstated, and frequently couched in emotive, apocalyptic and jihadist terms. Also evident in these beliefs is an incipient and corrosive paranoia, a sense that dark forces are aligned against us and that civilisation is in inexorable decline (for which we can conveniently blame PC, capitalism, vaccines, etc).
- Narrow presentism. We are not first, neither will we be the last cohort in human history to believe that we are living in the most important moment ever. From the millenarian ‘end of days’ mindset to the routine hyperbole of newsmedia, things have never been worse, more crucial, more game-changing, etcetera. As well as being a form of personal and collective vanity – I am living at the crux of history – our presentism makes us less likely to consider long-run trends and patterns and to overlook the valuable perspectives that come from taking the wider view. When we blind ourselves to the patterns of our own history, we tend to forget their lessons. Our inability to look up from the drama of the day leads us towards beliefs divorced from fact and context, and to make decisions based on severely limited information. Indeed, narrow presentism may well be the classic intellectual faux pas because it is, in effect, breaking the law of small numbers. In other words, we make definitive statements based on mere shreds of evidence and on relatively tiny sample sizes.
To be clear, none of the above is new. Furthermore, I have been guilty of all six and surely will be again. None of us is entirely rigorous when it comes to our beliefs or the way we express them. We all operate with incomplete information and preference data that bolsters what cognition scientists call associative coherence. It is therefore possible that my impression of a polity rife with idiotic rancour and pre-pubescent point scoring is grossly exaggerated and/or illustrative of a toxic misanthropy.
But then I look at Facebook…or hear yet another stream of asinine, exploitative junk from a politician or one of the commentariat and am left scanning the horizon for the vanished adults. For those who would opine with moderation. Who would question their own assertions. Who would at least try to filter for their own biases.
Furthermore, when I am tempted to question the veracity this thesis, I remind myself that there are entire industries that seek to exploit our collective immaturity. Marketing, politics and media all pitch to it. Banks, insurance companies and other vested interest groups routinely exploit asymmetries of knowledge and power to their advantage – often at our expense.
- To return to the aforementioned journalism students, the college I used to work for employed several guest lecturers – pulled from both commercial and publicly funded news organisations – and they would regularly remind the class that the median demographic was considered to have a mental age of 12-13. I have since worked with other media pros who confirm that this is still very much the accepted (if un-advertised) norm.4
However, we should be careful not to decry humanity full stop or to suggest that we are universally stupid. Neither should we convince ourselves that civilisation is in terminal decline or that shadowy puppet masters (reptile or paedophile) are furtively manipulating all of our affairs. Poison world thinking and/or pessimistic fatalism are not helpful, if only because they can entrench a sense of victimhood, which can then fuel self-righteous bluster and other, more virulent forms of fundamentalism.
Exaggerated crisis engenders extreme solution.
This gets to the nub of what I am saying. Our present discourse – with its amplified and cacophonous overstatements, identity polemics and fin du monde dramas – is a feedback loop. If everything seems fucked, and everyone else is an idiot, carefully moderated responses just don’t cut it. Who needs experts and science and waiting patiently for more data when left/right, gay/straight, black/white banking cartels are about to foreclose on everything you’ve fought for? When civic spaces become battlegrounds, the gloves come off. And who gets hurt?
At this point, you might think I am adding fuel to the fire; and indeed I am aware that much of what I have argued here will irritate some. However, when one intervenes to stop playground fisticuffs, one is likely to be regarded as yet another enemy.
Here again, we confront the debilitating noise of our shared cultural immaturity. It is difficult to contemplate the spectacles of polarisation, paranoia and presentism and not be reminded of the way that children operate. While the kids have an excuse, the supposed grown-ups amongst us surely do not. At what point do narrow self-interest, hyper-tribalism and gun-toting private militia become an absurd and corrosive mud bath of attritional dispute? At what point do we grow up and act like adults?
We in the West laud ourselves for our sacralisation of the individual – and indeed the Enlightenment ideals of liberalism, humanism and reason have underscored enormously beneficial social, economic and scientific developments in the last 250 years – but when our freedoms are exercised with so little concern for their effects on others (including the rest of the biosphere) it is clear that, somewhere along the line, we forgot that rights imply responsibility. That liberty without accountability is a free-for-all, a war of all against all. That free speech without an ability to listen is simply the sound of tantrums.5
Today, our infantilised discourse is louder and more incessant than at any point in human history. The social sandpit is over-crowded, and every grain of post-truth is ending up in someone else’s eye. However, far from taking my toys home with me, what I am hoping to achieve here is a moment of hush.
We get the world we choose. If we yearn for civility we must speak with it in mind. If we lament the 24/7 clickspeed idiocracy it behoves us not to participate in it. It is not only inevitable that we will disagree, but it is okay to do so. Well-conducted debate – dialogue – has a proven track record. So too reason and the regular testing of hypotheses. Yes, there is also room for passion and unflinching commitment, and for blockbusting change-agents, but when we lack the smarts and the adult grace to express our arguments with regard for contrary evidence or for the context in which our differences arise, I would suggest we are better off shutting up.
It may also be that I should learn to suffer fools more gladly or, as some have already suggested, that I get off my Brahmin/boho high horse and stop being such a fucking snob. After all, it is not my place to tell you how to behave. That being so, I shall take my own sage advice…and log off.
1: The are a number of books on brain science, cognition and decision making aimed at the general reader. Four that come to mind are: Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Nudge by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein, The Perils of Perception by Bobby Duffy, and Livewired by David Eagleman. I mention this because having an insight into the hard-wired neurological and cognitive mechanisms that influence our perceptions, opinions and decisions can help to put much of the rancour and division we are witnessing into a long-run perspective that acts to diffuse the dramas and distortions of ideology and news spectacle.
2: In a previous article on this site – Abstract Secessionism – I discuss the notion that the sheer scale of our societies has contributed to much of the nativist fracturing, nostalgist pining, and declinist dissatisfaction that so many of us feel. The large, abstract, super-tribal settings we live in – nation states, cities, etc – breach what is known as the ‘cognitive limits of human social group size’; so much so that it may well be that we have created social structures and levels of organisational complexity that we simply cannot contend with.
3: Here too, brain science has shown us that we find it cognitively difficult to deal with information that is numeric, especially if the data is presented in terms of probability. The unfortunate corollary of this innumeracy is that we tend to misinterpret, misrepresent and misuse statistical information. The irony here is that, given our cultural reverence for maths – the numbers don’t lie – most of us aren’t all that good at it.
4: Further to this, it is my experience that all the well-meaning NGO/charity/issue-based groups I receive emails from couch their appeals in simplistic, dramatic, emotive, even apocalyptic terms. It makes me cringe.
5: For more on free speech and accountability, see The Hypocrisy of Free Speech elsewhere on this site.