I irritated a few of my friends yesterday. They took issue with the provenance and veracity of a political cartoon I shared.
Good political cartoons are provocative and relatable by design, which is why I don’t consider it particularly important to share it here. Suffice to say there are plausible cases for and against it, mountable by reasonable people.
(See also: just about any single political premise. And if there is a fuss, then I’ll put it up.)
Independently of this stink, my niece in New Mexico wondered last night if our state of discourse was ever going to get any better. I replied that I thought it began getting noticeably worse about 1999, and I’d stopped looking for the bottom. (And that I wished I were joking, but no.) I think three factors converged right before the turn of the century to start this downward spiral.
First was 24-hour news. Oh, I know we’ve had 24-hour news for several decades, but it was constrained by the old paradigm for the first few years. It was a formatted newscast on repeat that changed gradually, half-hour to half-hour, as opposed to a continuously updating stream. We have Desert Shield/Storm to thank for the big shift. Remember? Remember watching the war on TV, as long as you cared to? Remember the talking head on one half, the live stream from the front of the damned missile on the other, and the never-ending crawl on the bottom?
Second was the impeachment of Bill Clinton. There’s not been a more contentious single political event in my lifetime. It started out poorly, and only got worse. We didn’t care a whit about understanding each other. We each had the stink of righteous indignation on us, and we only wanted to dig in more deeply. Morals vs. ethics. Public vs. private. Right vs. wrong.
Third was the coming of age of the Web. The live Web dates to late 1990, but it was 1995 or 1996 before it was safe to assume people would know what you were talking about if you brought it up, and it was another couple of years before it really had its foot on the floor as a vehicle of self-publishing.
And now that’s the easy part. The procedural magic is gone. Now you can publish anything you want to—and consequently, you can read anything you want to.
Enter confirmation bias.
We no longer seek understanding, but validation. We no longer ask “what should I think?” We instead ask “I think x. Am I right?”
(And the fatal problem with that is we will always be able to find someone soberly and competently espousing x.)
Desert Storm acclimated us to continuous information. Clinton’s impeachment taught us to dig in. And the Web tied it all together, enabling us to “prove” that whatever we think is right.
And down we went. And here we are.
It’s gotten far too easy for any of us to feel that intoxicating swell of validation. And we’re conditioned to stop when we feel it; stop resisting, stop questioning, stop probing. We’re with our tribe. That warmth is washing over us. We can’t possibly be wrong.
What will it take to flush us from our discursive adolescence?
You think definitive proof of extraterrestrial intelligence would do it?