DON’T LET THE TITLE send you into a panic – I am not getting ready to talk politics lest you add me to your “I don’t want to see this guy’s name ever again” list. The aforementioned word which will not be named again did, however, lead me to pull out a book that made a profound effect on the way I think about words and communication when I read it a quarter of a century ago. Still does.
Consider this brief review of Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman I recently posted at Goodreads: I was first introduced to this polemic in 1989. The year is important because I had just backed into the world of bulletin boards and the infant cyber-world. I can only imagine Postman’s take on the speed at which our present day’s culture has willingly embraced everything he saw happening to our ability to reason without the aid of sound bites and 24-hour news/entertainment.
So what’s that have to do with microaggression? Before anyone corrects me and points out that the term is rightly or wrongly generally used in relation to minority rights, the term can be applied to many areas of life. Some see a grand conspiracy in the way news is broadcast or withheld and perhaps there is. I am more prone to think the average person is a victim of the microaggressions of the 24/7 news cycle. You know – that beast that is generally more a reality show designed to appeal to our desire to be entertained rather than do the hard work and often boring work of rational thinking.
I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge. – Neil Postman
Postman makes a powerful case for seeing disinformation for what it really is. Contrary to common thought, it is not false information. Now admittedly, there’s a great deal of outright lies floating around the airwaves. As Churchill noted, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Obvious lies are not what the media offers because that is not what is required. Disinformation serves the same purpose and is much more palatable. Disinformation is a kind of microaggression that does the same job as a lie without insulting us to our face. It includes:
- Misleading information
- Irrelevant information
- Fragmented or superficial information
- The impression of knowing something while in truth it leading away from knowing anything
Two of the greatest works of visionary fiction written in the last 100 years are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. As Postman points out – one feared the truth would be hidden from us and the other feared the truth would be overwhelmed by a sea of irrelevance. Orwell envisioned a captive culture but Huxley saw something even more insidious – a trivial culture. One warned that fear will ruin us. The other that what we desire will ruin us.
Two of my favorite contemporary speculative writers illustrate these two possibilities. In Pennsylvania, Michael Bunker sees his near-future despotic TRANSPORT controlling man’s every move, literally. In CTRL ALT Revolt!, author Nick Cole imagines a society that has created a virtual world that it has willingly made itself captive to. Huxley said, in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians, true conservatives, and progressive rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
I wonder if the powers that be of every flavor of the 24/7 news cycle have hit on something that ratings and money will not allow them to ignore. Most of us take pleasure in the microaggressions that pass for news, debates, and the free exchange of ideas. Maybe it’s not the politicians who have failed us but ourselves. Could it be that the circus we call Washington is a creature of our own making? Perhaps things are not so much “their” fault as ours. Rome is burning while we Amuse Ourselves to Death.