We have all experienced it. We have come to expect it. When we log into a service like Amazon, or a news service like MSN, the systems notice what we are doing, what we are interested in—and then “relevant” and “customized” ads begin appearing.
The world of online advertising—worth tens of billions of dollars globally—hinges on the increasing capacity to deliver highly targeted ads and content to you based on your behavior and stated preferences. For many of us with gray hair, the effect can be downright creepy. But for the rest of us, it seems that this kind of sophisticated “push” technology is the way of the world.
My point in this blog is to call out an unintended consequence from this kind of adapted content management. More and more people are being fed what they already believe; core ideas are reinforced and opposing ideas are maligned and misrepresented.
The result is rampant dogmatism. “Dogmatic” is defined by our friends at Dictionary.com as: “(Of a statement, opinion, etc); forcibly asserted as if authoritative and unchallengeable. Relating to or constituting dogma…based on assumption rather than empirical observation…”
Interestingly when I was on the Dictionary.com site, I was served ads for gourmet popcorn from Bobby Flay (I confess I love the way the Flay-Meister cooks) and lighting fixtures from Hay Needle (I had shopped for lighting fixtures from several vendors the day before). I followed up on both ads, wasted 20 minutes, but enjoyed the distraction.
Now I’m back. My point is that, liberal or conservative—your opinions are being continuously reinforced by the media outlets you choose to frequent—and more importantly your opinions are being reinforced by the way the media outlets are not-so-subtly feeding you content. It is who you follow on Twitter; it is how you cull out the friends on Facebook that post that disagreeable junk from the other side of the isle; it is bloggers you read to give you ammunition for your point of view. You select content, and in so doing, attract a steady flow of “more of the same.”
The result is that we unwittingly become painted in a corner by our own opinions. Media outlets have no reason to be fair and balanced. Media outlets win when they serve the content that affirms whatever position you already hold. One guy on an airplane said, “Undecided voters are simply unengaged voters; they are not reading, listening, or paying attention to the world.” He is correct. It would be hard to imagine being undecided if you are actively consuming political media. You would have to be some kind extremely smart guru to be able to consume so much partisan media and float above it all.
Exhausted, Bitter, and mean Spirited
So here we are a couple of weeks in front of the big election. Most of my friends and acquaintances report being “burned out”, “sick to death of political ads”, and hating the feeling that the election is about whose vitriolic ads had the most impact. There is the feeling that whoever wins, it will be a hollow victory, with no clear mandate. Some people are scratching their heads and thinking, “Is this what it means to be in a democracy in the 21st century?” Are we reduced to scare-mongering and clustering around extreme positions while belittling, nay-saying, and jeering at anyone with an opposing opinion? We all need to go back and re-read Eric Hoffer’s True Believer. We need to see the profound danger that comes from unfettered dogmatism. The net effect of all this is that we have no empathy, no compassion for people with views different from our own. The bitterness and vitriol actually chokes out any opportunity for middle ground or functional dialogue.
Here’s What’s Missing
Dialogue. We wanted it in the debates—and occasionally we got a moment of lucid discussion. But for the most part, the candidates themselves were trapped by their own ads, positions, and stump speeches. Who wasn’t struck by the fact that the candidates seemed to largely agree with one another in the third debate?
Aristotle tells us that “Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic.” Dialectic is the give and take of ideas that allows the participants to test various approaches for understanding the world and making deliberations about the best course of action. What we have now is rhetoric without dialogue. We have sophism (a fancy word for BS) posing as legitimate rhetoric, feeding on the base fears of people, and running short on facts and reasoning.
The only beacon of light in the process has been the “fact check” services that have called BS on the wild political claims that are made in the heat of the moment. A guy in the Denver airport said, “Yeah but the fact checkers are partisan too! There really is no hope!” This is not so different from the time of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Back in the day, hard evidence was worthless in court. A bloody dagger was easily faked in the days before CSI. So the lawyers had to learn to argue from probability, what is believable—whether it was true or not was not the point. Here is some actual advice from a “how to” book for speaking in an ancient Greek court:
“If a weak and brave man, having beaten up a strong and cowardly man, is brought into court, neither must tell the truth. The coward must claim he was not beaten by a single brave man: i.e., he must claim to have been attacked by two or more, whereas the other must refute this insisting that the two of them were alone, in order to use the argument, “how could a little one like me have attacked a big one like him?”
My point here is that we need to be very careful when we eliminate the role of evidence in our political discourse. If we think politicians lie now—just wait. If we stop requiring rational evidence, we are going down the wrong road for sure.
So, what are we left with? The natural patterns of information flow seem to be galvanizing us around more or less extreme positions, shutting down meaningful dialogue, elevating strident and threatening rhetoric, de-emphasizing the facts, and generally making us more cynical and despondent. Uplifting isn’t it?
What Do We Do?
- Vote. The worst possible outcome of all of this would be a feeling that your vote doesn’t matter. Participation in democracy is required in order to make things better.
- Know why. When you vote for a candidate or a ballot measure, be sure you have a clear rationale in your head. Can you say why you are voting one way or the other? Can you cite evidence? Be sure to look and listen to opposing positions and views. Find the gray areas where you can actually “see” how their point of view makes sense (even if you still disagree with it).
- Ask questions. There is good chance that many of the people that you have de-friended because of their Facebook posts are simply passing along well-worn graphics and URLs from one Super Pac or another. I have found that asking specific questions really helps open dialogue—and that most people are not nearly as rabid as the garbage they proliferate might indicate.
- Be nice. Most of us want the same things. We are far more similar than we are different. I was recently working with a group that feeds thousands of hungry people in my home county (Food for Lane County) and I was struck by how the effort attracts volunteers and donors from both sides of the aisle. There are plenty of ways to “do good” that are politically agnostic.
- Be persuasive. Get a handle on the facts. Think deeply about issues. Take opposition points of view into account in your arguments. Lead by example. Yield and compromise when needed—it doesn’t mean you “lost” if you are actually making things better.
Yeah our system is pretty frustrating. It is broken in so many ways. But by golly, this is our dysfunctional family—and I am still delighted to be a part of this crazy experiment called democracy.