‘Stop the World I Want to Get Off” is the title of a 1961 Broadway Musical. Urban graffiti provided the title. If we consider the number of teen and other suicides in Idaho, I could make a case that it has become a current mantra for everyone living in this wonder-filled landscape. But I won’t.
Like my headline, that statement is an example of how fear and alarm grab our attention. Life, as we know it today, is indeed ending — at midnight. Tomorrow is another day. But the words alone, without punctuation, are worrying. Sunday’s Times-News ran two editorials by Lenore Skenazy and Jackie Cushman that also illustrate today’s topic.
Skenazy points out how media articles have conditioned us to overprotect our children. Like the frequent complaints about safety warnings on everyday objects — who would put their hairdryer in the bathtub? — it seems like our commonsense caution has been ramped up to a point where it is frightening us. Safety is indeed important. It is also true that harmful incidents can be prevented. However, constant distress triggered by warnings taken to heart can cause dis-ease in our bodies.
Cushman intends to oppose Democrats in general and the current administration in particular. I do not object to her column for that. Her use of absurdity is the problem. When something is absurd, it is beyond any rational thought. Political cartoons and comedians often use irony, exaggeration, satire, sarcasm and understatement to effect. Cushman employed several cognitive biases and logical fallacies and then characterized them all as absurd.
Cushman is not an extreme example of the problem, and there are many examples of commentators opposed to Republicans in general who commit the same errors. However, the continued drumbeat of all politicians and their actions as absurd has taken a toll on public trust. If everything we oppose is simply absurd, is there any hope for reasonable?
A large part of our collective problem is the scope and profitability of media. A democracy requires unbiased and curious news sources, but attention to that type of media has increasing sources of distractions. The problem is not just alarming headlines. The popularity of celebrity commentators attracts fans to cable channels. Visual and auditory access to information has overtaken reading. Fact-checking is expensive and has no income stream. Media editors, publishers, and producers used to insist on reliable sources. Now they are too often focused on getting the attention that will gain advertising revenue. Because algorithms and enormous databases allow advertisers unprecedented efficiency, media now gathers the likely consumer.
Gossip has ever been a human activity. Our survival requires that we pay attention to the behavior of others, but the culture of celebrity has overtaken too much of our collective energy. Again, the market for celebrities has grown. Social media has allowed the promotion of unknown individuals into profit-making influencers. Two victims of this phenonium are individual self-worth and logical thinking. We accept the logical fallacy of the ad-hominem argument without notice.
I prefer hands-on gaming, but I may be in the minority. It seems like profit for an online game is dependent upon realistic violent combat. Even violent or at least dangerous sports are profitable for the promoters. Media has influenced the admirable trait of mental and physical strength into a cult of aggressiveness and bullying. Too much reality TV, scripted as it is, features nothing but examples of individuals talking trash about each other.
There was a time when various types of media would enhance our social life. Social media started with the same aim. It provided topics to discuss when we were together. Now the various types of media have been weaponized. The shift from benign advertising to misinformation and the disinformation of propaganda has crept up on those of us over thirty. I doubt that anyone younger has experienced the difference. We must learn the process of recognizing truth, logical fallacy, and cognitive bias.
Only the authoritarian would prefer the world of Orwell’s 1984 where Big Brother controlled the media and, therefore, all thought. However, it is now time to take up arms against the danger of frightening, dismaying, and distressing media in all its forms.