Genuine communication is vital if we’re to have half a chance of navigating the disruptions to come:
Democracy cannot function without the capacity to share information and perspectives, to sort and debate options, and to reach an accurate understanding of what’s going on. Limitations cannot be overcome without learning in common. Power cannot be diffused without maintaining a robust communal epistemology that is fed by interaction, discussion, deliberation, and good faith exchange and expression in the public arena. And society cannot be successfully steered through the necessary resource reallocation, cultural transformation, and political reformulation without a rigorous spirit of critical intelligence to guide it.
Unfortunately—for us now and to come—this process of shared knowing is sucking serious wind.
I was reminded of that in a conversation with Wanda several days ago. She and I first met when we were both covering a Presidential campaign several decades ago, out in the middle of Iowa. I’ve seen her every now and then since—the last time right after she was laid off in the stampede of newspaper downsizing. When we started to catch up last week, the first thing on her mind was “what passes for journalism these days.”
“It’s a bloody circus,” Wanda complained. “Shallow. Hysterical. Uninformed. Devoid of perspective, context, depth, and sophistication. And more often than not, just plain dumb.”
“Geez, Wanda,” I kidded her, “Why don’t you tell me what you really think?”
My attempt at levity, however, hardly slowed Wanda down.
“And the scariest part of all is that a media that mediocre is actually giving most of us what we want. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Dumbness begets dumbness begets dumbness. That much is obvious in the lowering of our standards of proof, information and even just plain serious thought. The biggest loser is intelligence itself. Not to mention our capacity to govern ourselves. We need to know things and these days most of us don’t know shit from Shinola. We can’t survive if we don’t turn that drift around. You want to make another one of your truedog lists? Make a list about how we dumb ourselves down.”
I told her I would, so here it is, Four Practices Which Only Make Us Dumber:
Gossip. The search for personal negatives consumes an enormous amount of our intellect and emotion. We invest our identities in transmitting such negatives, often without ever even attempting to ascertain their truth or falsehood. We then shape our social order around the impulses generated by our Gossip, discrediting people, ideas, and even institutions in the stampede to know each others’ secrets, real or imagined. Curiosity is generally a virtue, as is information, but the curiosity and information Gossip generates is prurient, implicitly antagonistic, unproductive, and often outright violent. It is certainly divisive at a time we desperately need to make and enlarge bonds, particularly with heretofore strangers. And it consumes our attention when we need all of it to appreciate each other and our circumstances. Gossip embodies our lesser selves, which, of course, will be of little if any help to us when climate disintegration begins defining our world. We ought to at least greet Gossip with the question, “So what?” and refuse to pass it on until we have a good answer.
Marketing. This is dumbness generated intentionally, with a confined focus, with the object of controlling or directing behavior and, of course, selling products. It seeks to engender reflexivity, the opposite of considered action. Marketing gets us to do what the marketer wishes, ideally without even noticing what we are doing. And Marketing is, of course, a one way street. There is no interplay between the knower and the known, no conversation. Marketing is simple in the worst way—simple minded, if you will. It ignores complexity and the ongoing examination complexity requires. The point of Marketing is to make us less aware, less informed, and less questioning. There is no mutual engagement in marketing, only manipulation. There is no rumination, no uncertainty, only a seemingly absolute truth that eventually seeks to establish a reality all its own, whatever the actual evidence might be. Perhaps our best defense against Marketing is to literally or figuratively hang up once we identify we’re being marketed, like when strangers selling timeshares call on the phone.
Social Cannibalism. Our media obsessed culture features a cycle in which individuals are inflated beyond human dimensions for our vicarious identification and then gutted or destroyed in feeding frenzies of attention. Over the last fifty years, we have either devoured much of our leadership in this process or emasculated it with the threat of such treatment. The result is that public recognition now often resembles balancing over a buzz saw. We make too much of our icons and then destroy them when they don’t live up to our expectations. We are far better off avoiding the celebrity process in the first place—it carries with it hierarchy and dehumanization—but in any case, visibility should not be a ticket to destruction or disfigurement. We are better off keeping our leaders in proper perspective, stripped of the trappings of elevation and image, and then accepting their failings and missteps and disappointments as indigenous to human activity. Otherwise, they quite naturally turn vacuous and intimidated in self defense.
Constant Entertainment. As the availability of Entertainment has ballooned, we have fallen into the expectation that everything must entertain us if we are going to pay any attention. That, of course, is a one way ticket to Dumb. Entertainment has its place but not as the entirety of existence. We need to engage the world in ways that challenge us, demand concentration, make us unsettled, or require serious consideration—not just those that are entertaining. The self imposed limitation of Constant Entertainment could well prove catastrophic down the line. We need to know all the things that don’t bring enjoyment. In truth, we likely face more danger from the mundane and boring than we do from the captivating. And if we only notice life’s entertainments, we will surely miss the opportunity to be different.
I sent Wanda my list when I finished. “Nice try,” she answered, “but you’ve barely scratched the surface.”
I wrote back, “Why don’t you tell me something I didn’t already know?”