This election has been grim. Beyond grim. Depressing. Disheartening. Maddening. Shocking. Numbing. And, in some ways, enlightening.
Facebook, once a place of solace and friendliness, no longer provides respite. It, somewhere along the way, became a black hole where I went in the evenings with the hope of seeing pictures of friends, and instead felt my soul grow…drained. A wise man once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So I logged off, and vowed to stay away from it until November 9th.
There was no dialogue to be had, no meaningful or purposeful discussion. Put simply, Facebook made me believe that I was witnessing the death of critical thought first hand.
We just want to comfort ourselves in our own rightness. The memes assault us – the crooked Hillary, the tyrannical Trump, the laughter and glib opinions masquerading as fact. Once trusted sources of amusement, the Daily Show, Last Week’s News Tonight, and even SNL now leave a sour taste in my mouth. And then there’s the media, the articles shared as if they validate our feelings of superiority and morality.
That’s something I’ve begun to notice in these supposed pieces of leftist journalism via Slate, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, and Vox – they are often scant on facts but full to the brim of opinions that serve to make those who are already convinced of the message feel the self-satisfaction of “I am in the right.”
And, as a left-leaning liberal, I fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. It’s a great feeling, that herd mentality of moral rightness. After reading months of the same pieces, and feeling my own self-satisfying rage at the injustices and plight of all those who don’t think like me, I realized something was wrong. I started asking the question, “Why doesn’t this link to anything aside from other op-ed pieces with little substance, but are in reality mis-characterizations or wide-sweeping generalizations?” or “Why doesn’t this piece challenge me or discuss the broad spectrum of the state of our society?” “Why do these articles and opinion pieces lump our politics into an ‘us’ vs. ‘them'”; “Why aren’t they looking at the actual policies of the candidates? The relevant history? Why aren’t we more worried about the rhetoric on both sides, and the negativity and what this is doing to us as a society?”
The answer is very simple. Because that’s not what sells. Policy isn’t sexy. Nastiness is. To truly understand policy, you’d have to actually read.* And I don’t believe most media is out there to educate or inform any more.**
So, in my disillusionment, I turned off Facebook and the hysteria (or at least some of it) quietened. I turned to my old, reliable tools: research. To my surprise (and chagrine) I discovered my array of tools have become quite dusty in their lack of use. I schlogged through report after report, and groaned as I did so, because I was no longer used to combing through my own primary sources or the volumes of data becoming educated required. I groaned and turned to my husband and complained, “This article on Collective Attention in the Age of (Mis)information is a beast! It’s 18 pages, ugh!” He responded jokingly, “Well, you don’t have to read it. I’m sure there’s an abstract somewhere…”*** But, I knew as soon as the whine had escaped my lips that I had to read it. And I had to read the next article and the next one, and I had to read the reports that contained information.
Why? Why did I have to force myself through the torturous process of combing through this literature? Because I was part of the problem. I had succumbed to the ongoing intellectual laziness that seems to have spawned from our so called “age of information.”
That is the motto for our age, after all: “Too Long – Didn’t Read”. We want our information bundled up in neat little packages. And, as much as I wanted to point a finger at mass media and the corporations the control them, I can’t (at least not wholly – you can check out a recent review of Tim Wu’s new book, The Attention Merchants, at the WSJ for interesting perspective on “clickbaiting”). I don’t think the media could have sold this version of “news” to us if we didn’t want it.
We don’t want to be informed. We want to be entertained. We want to feel good about ourselves, and have a nice scapegoat handy to blame when something goes wrong. An example of this is the very place that led me to the article mentioned above. I stumbled upon that study through the Slate’s Study Explains Why Your Stupid Facebook Friends Are So Gullible. If you read the actual study, the study in no way calls anyone stupid, but the mocking tone of the Slate headline and the piece itself immediately beckons its readers to enjoy a moment of snarky malevolence at their misinformed friends, not realizing that they, too, are having the wool pulled over their eyes. As with everything, data is more complicated, and to fall for the Slate article (which is itself a piece of alternative media), is to fall victim to the type of sarcastic thinking the study describes.
Think critically. Read. And, as an op-ed piece I just read says, don’t assume PC culture is right. Question. Don’t be afraid to disagree. Listen and grow.
I am just in the beginning stages of my own self-imposed re-education, and if there’s one thing I know now, it’s that I have a lot to learn. And a lot to read. For instance, I’m only on page 13 of the first of the FBI reports that were released earlier this week, and I have 87 pages to go.
*Looking at the text of the TPP, most people don’t go beyond the propagandaish blurbs at the beginning that “explain” what each chapter is supposed to do. What a document is supposed to do often isn’t what it actually does, because the language doesn’t support it.
**If you want to examine the news coverage of this race, I’d highly recommend reading the three part report by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center: Media Coverage of the 2016 Election. I may examine this topic in a later blog entry, but it’s still an interesting read, if you can carve out a chunk of time.
***Clarification – My husband is a researcher and medical student and in no way condones the “laziness” of simply reading abstracts. Trust me on this.