There’s nothing like a good old fashioned tragedy on the news to make a political point. Whether we admit it or not, most of us unconsciously feel this way. An anecdote is a cheap and easy way to score a point, but is it really good in the long run for public discourse? Maybe not.
You might have heard about the knife attack at a Houston college campus Tuesday that injured at least 15 people, sending 12 of them to hospitals. As soon as I saw the news, I thought about what gun-control advocates would be saying about the story if the assailant had used a gun. So I posted a sarcastic comment about it on Facebook.
“Police in Houston say 15 people were stabbed on a college campus there today,” I wrote. “This is proof that it’s time to get serious about banning assault knives — since they clearly have no purpose other than stabbing innocent people.”
A number of other people who agree with me on the issue of gun rights agreed and chimed in with their own comments. It felt good, because there was a story that illustrated very clearly what we believed. We felt that it made our point and that felt emotionally good.
I’ve been thinking about this tendency to use “anecdote as argument” a lot lately, and I’m not really happy with it, even though I do it as much as anybody else does.
In 1984, Neil Postman published the influential book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” You can say that it dealt with the philosophy of media, but it’s more applicable than that sounds. Postman was a social critic who made a career of questioning things that other people took for granted. He could seem a bit of a Luddite at times, because he questioned things that seemed clearly good to everyone else, such as television and technology in general.
Postman said that television was dumbing down public discourse, and things have gotten far worse since 1984. On Facebook, graphic “memes” have become a substitute for rational argument and thinking. There’s no room for nuance. There’s no room for anything except an oversimplified graphical representation of a position, accompanied by a few crude words to further oversimplify the issue. The various political sides don’t really discuss their positions. They merely lob these graphics at one another. Whoever has the funniest or hardest-hitting graphic wins.
In “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Postman looks at different ages of media and shows how the dominant medium of an age drives the shape of public discourse for the time. When print was dominant, words and ideas were very important. Those who wanted to participate in public debate learned about ideas by reading and by listening to long lectures that mirrored the format of books. It was during this age that abstract ideas became more and more important, changing the world as more and more people learned to read and were convinced of certain ideas.
But Postman says the age of television is very different. As a medium, it’s not capable of the same sort of abstract depth that print is. It can show what physical objects look like better than any medium we’ve ever had. It can show the here and now. It loves action and color. But it is forced to dumb down abstract ideas, because ideas are boring as television. As a result, people watch televised “news” thinking they’re getting the equivalent of an old-fashioned newspaper, but they’re getting a dumbed down version that merely makes them feel that they’ve been educated about issues.
Television loves stories. There’s no better medium today than video or film when it comes to telling stories in emotional ways. So we all become accustomed to life and ideas and issues being presented as a series of stories rather than as underlying principles.
Humans have always loved stories. The last few hundred years has been about the slow triumph of abstract ideas as people came to think more and put aside prejudices based on mere anecdote. We’ve continued to love stories as entertainment, but principles have driven more of our public policies.
That’s been changing since the advent of television, though. We’re back to ordering societies based on anecdotes rather than principle. And as news has changed to fit the strengths of the medium of television, it’s become more and more about stories again. This has been reinforced by the fact that everybody using social media today (such as Facebook and Twitter) has been trained by television to look to anecdotes to make points.
So instead of discussing the principles underlying an issue such as gun rights, we throw stories at each other, just as my friends and I were happy to embrace the Tuesday Houston stabbings as a way to make our points. And it’s everywhere around us.
Those who favor restrictions on guns were quick to spread the story from Tennessee about a 4-year-old boy who accidentally used a deputy sheriff’s gun to shoot and kill the deputy’s wife in her home. For those who want more government control of guns, it was a clear case of the danger of having guns around. It was an anecdote that supported their world view, so they shared it and felt that they were making their case.
Those who favor gun rights were just as quick to share a story from Miami about a man using a gun last Friday to protect himself and his family when an armed robber came into a Burger King at lunch to rob everyone. One of the victims pulled out his own gun and shot the robber in the leg. For those who favor the right of individuals to carry their own guns to protect themselves, the story proved their point, so they shared it far and wide and felt that they were making their case.
The problem is that both of the stories are simply anecdotes. They don’t address the underlying principles. They don’t deal with anyone’s rights. They simply deal with the stories of specific individuals in specific circumstances. They don’t prove anything.
Before the age of television, I’m not sure such isolated stories would have been accepted as proving points, but in the age of television — supported by social media — such stories are everything.
We owe it to ourselves and to our opponents to make cases that are clear and honest, based on solid principles and facts instead of just random anecdotes. Unfortunately, that’s not what works in the court of public opinion now. Everybody wants a story. Everybody wants emotions.
I consider myself far more likely to be interested in the underlying principles behind the things I believe than most people today are. If you’re reading this, you’re probably the same way. But we’re influenced by the television and Internet culture that we’re a part of. Stories and emotions win. Facts and principles generally lose.
It’s a depressing state for public discourse. I have no idea how to change it. For starters, I suggest avoiding what passes for “television news” — which is an oxymoron, as far as I’m concerned — but that’s not enough. The problem is so big that a few of us kicking the TV habit isn’t enough.
I have no idea how to change this (because I don’t know how to fight a dominant medium such as television), but the subject at least needs to be discussed.
In the meantime, I’ll probably keep right on doing the same thing myself sometimes — and then realizing that I’m just falling into the bad habits of the rest of society.