The Problem of Simple Fictions

Now that the election is passed, I have spent some time considering certain aspects of the presidential campaign and the way it has played itself out in the public sphere. I think it is fair to say that this election in particular (the last one was similar, though) has taken its toll on the social fabric of the country. I’ve noticed that this isn’t confined to America, either. In the UK and through Europe as a whole, the concept of ‘rational debate’ is a dying one.

Nor would it be fair to suggest that one side of the political divide was more guilty of this than another. Although I will admit to being, perhaps, more sensitive to nonfactual, hyperbolic and emotionally driven proclamations from the right myself, I have to acknowledge that I have heard them from both sides and watched those baseless memes gain legitimacy and strength through mindless repetition.

One of the most important effects to grow out of the post-structuralist, postmodernist theories has been a valorization of the perceptions and opinions of people who for reasons of cultural background, language, gender, sexual orientation, education or inclination, were not able to frame their ideas in ways that accorded with the concept of ‘rational debate’. Furthermore, there are victimized groups whose trauma have made them not only incapable of doing so, but for whom, it has been argued, the pressure of doing so re-victimizes them.

I know that last paragraph sounds almost impenetrable, so let me give you some examples:

It has been compellingly argued that a rape victim should not be expected to make their point that media representations of violence against women promotes ‘rape culture’ unemotionally. They should not be expected to cleanse their arguments of subjective, emotional rhetoric. To be compelled to do so would be to ask them to ignore or deny their experience and their suffering. Similarly, it has been argued that people from other cultures with different intellectual traditions should not be compelled to deliver their opinions in ways that are foreign to their cultural traditions.

In fact, ‘rational debate’ is not a neutral style of discourse. It is a tool developed and perpetuated by a western, masculinist hegemony. This is true, in the same way that antibiotics are a product of that same western, masculinist hegemony, and yet… they happen to be incredibly useful to anyone with an infection, regardless of where they come from. Yes, they come burdened with a certain amount of cultural baggage, but their effects are beneficial enough to make that cultural baggage worth coping with.

So, concepts like rational debate and unbiased journalism may indeed carry a great deal of cultural baggage, and yet they are very useful tools. We may agree that no debate is entirely rational and no journalism is entirely unbiased, but the persistent efforts to purge irrational arguments from public debate and bias in journalism has resulted in the rise of some of the most humanistic societies in history. They were, I would argue, essential technologies in the construction of  liberal democracies. I’m not arguing that liberal democracies are perfect systems. Just that they are better for most of their citizens than totalitarian regimes or feudal states or chaos.

So… what has this got to do with the election?

The contemporary rejection of notions of ‘rational debate’ or ‘unbiased journalism’ have resulted in a media that no longer feels the need to constrain itself to filter content that doesn’t accord with those modes of communication. And although initially the rationale for giving a platform to less than rational opinion or biased reportage might have been to include more voices in public discourse, it also, notably, sells more airtime.

We find the spectacle of the very subjective and the emotionally laden to be more entertaining that the calmly considered and the stodgily rational. It is more profitable. It sells more ads. It sells more stuff. And to media companies, this is far more important than delivering accurate information, less biased reportage or critical analysis.

And we cannot wholly blame media conglomerates for this. We have voted with our remote controls, with our disposable income, with our attention. We have financially validated their move away from the rational, the factual, the considered opinion.

The pledge to ‘give the people what they want’ seems a very democratic one. And so, even in the field of cultural production – books, movies, television shows – we have been progressing towards less nuanced, less challenging narratives. Books like ‘The Hunger Games’ (a novel written for young adults, with an exciting but quite facile plot and rather less than fully fleshed characters) have become massively popular among adult readers. Films based on comic book characters (by necessity and design representing utterly black and white moral choices) have become the most watched films on the planet.

It is undoubtedly easy to consume these things:  there’s no expectation for the consumer to pick the bones out of the fish – it’s a filet.  And advocates of this more simplistic form of storytelling defend its popularity by pointing to … its popularity.  They also point to, for instance, the fact that people have hard lives. They don’t want their entertainment to be hard too. These are compelling defenses.  But if the aim was to create a more democratic public sphere, or make people’s lives easier, it isn’t achieving its aims.  It’s acting as an opium that lulls people into a place of temporary shelter from the storm. And while that’s happening, corporations are making vast profits on the exhaustion of consumers.

We consume far more entertainment products than we used to. They form a considerable portion of our daily discourse. And they are training us to an intolerance of nuance, of complexity and of analytical thought. We are slowly, but inexorably losing our ability to cope with the non-facile.

And our public discourse is reflecting the demise of our skills to engage in rational debate, critical thought, calm and considered exchanges of opinion. We are losing our skills at identifying context, judging perspective, weighting importance.

So, when a pro-Romney voter says ‘Obama hates America,’ very few people are left with the skills to effectively challenge that statement, and the voter doesn’t seem to have the skills to defend their position either. We are left with the conversation killing retort: “Well, that’s YOUR opinion.

This is really where communication dies. Where we talk across each other’s bows instead of listening to each other’s reasons for holding the opinions we hold.