02 September 2016

The Age of Negativity

The current Harper's features a foreign policy forum with a wide range of opinion: neocon, anti-interventionist, Muslim, European. The most interesting comments come from Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister at the time of the invasion of Iraq and thus in American eyes, since he opposed the invasion, the archetypal "cheese-eating surrender monkey." He remains opposed to American-style unilateralism -- by which he means, in the current context, building alliances based on exclusion. NATO is defined by its continued exclusion of Russia, for instance -- though the neocons challenge that characterization. The most interesting thing about Villepin's remarks actually has little to do with alliances and interventions. In the course of warning against intervention, he speaks of "the constraints that globalization places on us.

The speed with which images and ideologies travel gives a real advantage to negative opinions. Negative ideas travel faster than positive ideas. Violent images travel faster than any other images.

If Villepin is right, it would explain a lot about the 21st century so far, from accelerated polarization to the precipitous decline in civility in public life. Of course, what he perceives may merely reflect an objective decline in conditions around the world, the first cause of which is neither social media nor (more debateably) globalization. But if our impulsive, "hot take" online culture does exacerbate conditions, that raises an important question about media responsibility. Freedom of press and speech are cherished (in principle, at least) in the U.S. because they are considered essential to the informed deliberation on which republics depend. But if modern media tend to encourage "negative ideas" -- a lot obviously depends on how those are defined, and by whom -- at the expense of deliberation, does a principle of media regulation become necessary to ensure some balance of information, so that the hot take doesn't always prevail? Even if such a principle can be formulated, however, how can it be acted upon given how widely social media has been disseminated already? The easy answer to all these questions is to educate people to think before they react, or share a tweet, rather than try to control what they see or how they share it, as China does, but the danger is that the temptation of online immediacy can counteract the effects of education -- especially if young adults become convinced that their education has no point if it can't get them work. This challenge is like getting the genie back inside his proverbial bottle, or everything back inside Pandora's box. If that sounds hopelessly daunting, maybe we should ask how we can accelerate the speed of positive ideas, assuming that we can agree on what those are. Why are they so slow, anyway? Let me know how long it takes to answer that one.


Anonymous said...

If what he says is true, then the main question we must answer is "why"? And the short answer: human nature. If we want a better world, we need a better humanity. And we are NOT going to get it. It would require far too much hard work and sacrifice, which the average person will simply not agree to. The wealthy would have to give up any notion of wealth and the poor would have to give up their proclivity to being uneducated twits. Anti-intellectualism would have to be eradicated and social media outlawed. Reality tv would also have to end and all of it replaced with intelligent programming - something I feel Hollywood is in no shape to deliver these days. There would have to be an end to "pokemon go" and it would have to be replaced with "find a job - go!"

Nope, sorry, the current society is far too easy to allow to continue than to put the effort into something better. Especially since it would require *gasp* social engineering by people who possess intelligence.

Samuel Wilson said...

Would it be possible to outlaw social media, presuming you need to go that far, without also banning smartphones, tablets etc.? More broadly speaking, it sounds like time to put democracy on hiatus from your perspective. That should never be a forbidden idea, but the obvious challenge for any conspirators who propose to suspend democracy is to maintain their immunity from Bolshevik-style dogma (e.g., "anyone who contradicts us is a counterrevolutionary") and their accountability to somebody or something outside their own clique. The object of information control in that case should not be primarily to cultivate loyalty to the leaders, but that temptation will always be there.

Anonymous said...

I'd say it is at least time to suspend the Constitution so the criminals who hide behind it are not longer protected by it. Personally, I'd favor an end to social media, since it serves no truly useful purpose, rather than to allow weak-minded idiots yet another distraction. Put the internet back to its original purpose - to allow a convenient way for educational institutions to share knowledge. When the populace has forsaken its anti-intellectual proclivities and educated themselves, then the internet would again be made available.