The Decline of Public Discourse and the Written Word

The Decline of Public Discourse and the Written Word, by the Z-Man.

In the 1984 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman argued that a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. The written word requires the intellectual involvement of the reader. The information presented can be tested and contemplated as it is consumed. Oral communication is more immediate, as the listener cannot playback what was just said, unless it is recorded. Video is the most superficial, as the viewer is a passive participant.

The thesis was that the superficial nature of video communication was removing facts and reason from public discourse and replacing them with emotion. People will take one side or another of an issue, because they favor the people making the argument, not because they think about the facts. Politics ceases to be about facts and arguments and becomes a sales pitch, like an ad for a product. No one thinks about the claims made in the presentation, just how they feel about the presenter.

Postman was writing before the internet. He could not contemplate how that would change public communication. The internet has immediacy. In addition to the superficiality of visual communication, it now comes as a steady stream through the wide array of screens in our lives. Even if you are not on social media, you will still absorb a steady stream of small bits of information. These are intended to elicit an emotional response regarding some pubic issue.

For older people, the legacy mediums still play a large role. Old people still read physical newspapers. Radio talk shows and television still have an audience, but the audience is generally those who came of age before the internet. Old people are on-line, but they experience it as a digital form of the legacy media. At the other end of the age curve, kids get all of the information on-line. Social media, YouTube and live streams are their exclusive sources of information. …

The live stream phenomenon is similar. These are often ad hoc, with the streamer starting his stream when the spirit moves. Some are more regimented in their schedule, but they rarely start on time and they go as long as they like. The people tuning in are not looking for facts and reasoned arguments. Instead they want reassurance and confirmation. These streams have communities that exist around the live streamer. It’s virtual information and a virtual community.

Of course, it also means our public discourse must be even more shallow and superficial than what existed in the peak of the television era. It also must be even more intensely present tense. The old written information stream was an interconnected collection of facts and logic. The new information stream is a constant series of highly personalized, but disconnected bits of data intended to elicit an emotion.

Increasingly people are getting balkanized into echo chambers that only accept certain memes — the ones that make them feel good. Arguments or facts that support those memes are celebrated (even if they are nonsense), contrary ones are ignored or ridiculed (especially if they are correct).

The left did it a couple of decades ago. The result has been a pantheon of untruths that leftists like — such as the blank slate hypothesis, that gender is a social construct, that women and men are equal in everything, that all races have identical statistical properties except skin color, that climate change is predominately man-made, or that there are more than two sexes. Those memes support leftist policy goals, but are fantasies that are easily contradicted by fact. The methods used by the left to entrench these memes and forbid opposition are collectively known as political correctness. The feminists were the first modern pressure group to master the art of unpleasantness, to bully their way to the top.

Lately some on the right have taken to dabbling in the same waters. For instance, an anti-lockdown grouping formed recently. Any argument or fact is good if it argues against lockdowns, but bad otherwise. There is only one politically acceptable answer. This group have put up many bogus arguments, such as that there are huge numbers of unconfirmed infections based on biased studies or based on misreading headlines about the Iceland study, while studiously ignoring the overwhelming data that lockdowns work (especially if you close the borders). Their arguments on civil liberties are much more convincing. But when people put up obviously nonsensical arguments and selectively choose their facts, it is a sure sign that they are not giving you their real reasons.

The right used to support mass immigration, until Trump came along and up-ended the establishment right. Why did this persist for so long before Trump, when mass immigration is so obviously against the right’s electoral interests? An important factor is that the establishment right is funded by big business, who want cheap imported labor. They fund the right’s talking heads. Talk against immigration, and donations to your think tank, website, or political party are much harder to come by. Trump, of course, has his own money and didn’t care.

I imagine that big business hates lockdowns. Elon Musk certainly does. If you figure your chance of dying from COVID is small (which it is), but you’ll go bust if it continues too long, you quite understandably are anti-lockdown. Fair enough, you are arguing for your interests. But few have had the courage and integrity to say so up front, because it looks callous. Instead we get rude demonization of any facts or commentary that isn’t anti-lockdown. By the way, the Chinese are masters of employing thousands of people to set the tone on websites (the fifty-cent army). Blistering rudeness for those who oppose them, but sweetness and light for those who carry their water. That rudeness and disregard for facts are the hallmarks of a political campaign. Ultimately it repels most people, leaving the political landscape to the political warriors. Just look at the wasteland of unpleasantness and darkness that Twitter has become.

In the past two months, commenter after commenter on the non-left has fallen afoul of the anti-lockdown crew. They have to be anti-lockdown, or be called names, lose readers, and lose funding. Most have stopped pointing out the facts of covid, and are now obeying the anti-lockdown line. Their livelihoods or status/numbers are on the line! It so reminds me of the fall of sensible left commentary a couple of decades ago. Even today there are still many sensible people of the left who silently rail against nonsense like trans-men insisting they really are women, and harbor doubts over the causes of climate change, but they have no voice anymore on the left and keep their head down.

It seems we are headed for  period of two polarized mobs: “if you’re not for us you’re against us!” Empirical evidence will have to take a back seat for a while. The mobs, of course, furiously deny this, and say the Science is on their side. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they?