Regardless of our personal politics, a close reading of American history suggests that we need both liberals and conservatives to make democracy work. Moving too far politically in either direction is a recipe for getting the kind of government that neither liberals nor conservatives would want. What’s not healthy for democracy is a populace that swallows whole the opinions and convictions of prominent personalities who maintain their status by inciting divisiveness. Democracy suffers when its citizens vote with their emotions instead of critical thought.
To my mind, anyone who finds the lives of celebrities more interesting than their own life has serious issues to resolve; their education is in remission. Of course, a casual interest in anyone whose life appears glamorous or in some way interesting or unique is natural to human curiosity. But to get one’s daily dose of reality and political philosophy from a celebrity–especially when that celebrity stems from an ability to balkanize a radio or television audience, regardless of whether the politics is left, right, or middle–is intellectually debilitating. Stated more simply, to decide what is important, what is true, and what one should be thinking about based upon the opinion of someone whose livelihood depends upon their media ratings is a recipe for high blood pressure and dysfunctional government.
In The Rapture of Maturity, I compared our relationship with knowledge metaphorically with celestial bodies in space, and I warned against getting too close to ideological black holes. At the time, I wasn’t imagining such figurative entities to be right-wing talk-radio or television hosts, but you’ve only to search your AM and FM radio dial or visit the Fox channel to confirm that they do indeed fit the description. And you don’t have to listen to these ideologues for very long to discern that they are not the patriotic advocates of truth that they claim to be.
Mind you, I am not in favor of silencing vitriolic media. Both radio and television represent an opportunity to engage citizens in public policy, and our very way of life depends upon free speech. The current state of talk media, however, is that of a celebrity culture made popular and driven by aggressive efforts to instill a fear of the other in the general public–a fear that is often steeped in subtle but discernable racial bigotry. Moreover, the constant ratcheting up of the intensity of rage of and by the far-right since the election of Barack Obama as president is demonstrable beyond doubt, with the clear objective being to otherize and thus alienate every aspect of his presidency.
Talk radio is currently dominated by fear mongers. Instead of striving for truth, they thrive on contempt, thinly disguised hatred, and ridicule, undermining the plausibility that they have ever sought genuine solutions to real problems of any kind. Of course, they promote themselves as paragons of both virtue and reason, but these pundits are emotional zealots for whom civility is a threat to their egocentric celebrity and their livelihood. Social harmony is anathema to their popularity, and without the ability to use fear of the other to foment hatred, many of these individuals would be hard pressed to find and keep a real job. Some bore only a checkered work history before they discovered their talent for making the public fearful and loathing of their neighbors. Those of us old enough to recall the hysteria of the McCarthy era in the 1950s know firsthand what happens when fear reaches the paranoia level.
Psychologists have long pointed out that self-absorption destroys one’s capacity for empathy, so it’s not surprising that these purveyors of broadcast rage focus almost entirely on stirring up fearful emotions. Their continuous tirade of contempt and fear-based distrust is dispensed with so much angst and vindictiveness; it forecloses on the notion that democracy is even possible. In short, orchestrated rage poisons the well of good intentions because a culture with so much animosity becomes devoid of compassion, and without a modicum of goodwill, a democratic state is difficult to keep alive.
In his book The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World, Dominique Moisi examines the emotional state of the world. His methodology of applying the three conditions in his subtitle is also a useful way to examine America. He says, “Deliberate humiliation without hope is destructive, and too much fear, too much humiliation, and not enough hope constitute the most dangerous of all possible social combinations, the one that leads to the greatest instability and tension.” And yet, day after day on the public airways celebrity pundits promote fear and foster a sick kind of vindictive optimism in anticipation of finding some way to humiliate those whom they identify as the other. If they were really trying to solve practical problems with constructive solutions, they could and would offer hope with practical alternatives, but instead they use venom to increase their ratings, and the polarization is democratically destructive. Moisi points out that an absence of hope leads to despair and a thirst for revenge. The more that despair is expressed as a public sentiment, the more an ethos of decay seems real and underway, and the more America loses its “natural appeal to the world” as a hallmark of liberty and faith in the future.
The state of public discourse in this country has deteriorated to such a degree that few public discussions ever go much further than the echo chambers in which they originate. A significant number our citizens behave as if they no longer believe in democracy at all. For example, a democratic state is simply untenable if one holds with the ideology that the government represents not us, but them, ignoring the “we the people” premise upon which the whole of our government’s very existence is based.
So what are thoughtful people to do? Aside from simply ignoring purveyors of ignorance and the hatred they disseminate, there are positive steps we can take to renew our aspirations and hopes for the future. The first is to do our homework and to engage others about subjects only when we know for certain what we are talking about. Second, we needn’t stop with our own views but seek to fully understand contrary opinions. We can try to empathize with those whose stake in what’s at hand is different than ours. We can also study Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory, which is based on five moral pillars–harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity–and strive to appreciate the fact that there is value to be found in the complete range of both liberal and conservative perspectives. We can take Haidt’s pledge for civility and look at the Charter for Compassion web site and join. Next, we can seek out people who hold differing views but who care more about solving problems than about who is right or wrong. In this context, we can agree to aggressively search for and opt for the better argument.
Finally, in a novel approach, we can tune in to divisive talk radio at times and use the above strategy to pose reasonable questions to the hosts; ask them why they can’t apply their efforts to solving practical problems instead of promulgating fear. Write to their sponsors and ask them to tell the celebrities they are supporting to dial down the rhetoric. Nothing that reasonable people do is likely to stop the vitriol, but if enough sensible people can make evenhanded requests and comments, it will help reveal the pettiness with which these dogmatists have chosen to make a living at the expense of our democratic ideals. Maybe a few of the fans will stop listening and start thinking for themselves.
Charles D. Hayes