A man went to prison and was confused on his first night to hear prisoners calling out numbers. One guy called out, “44!” Then everybody laughed and another guy called out, “72!” Again, everybody laughed.
“What’s going on,” the new guy asked his cellmate.
“We’ve heard all these jokes so many times that we just give them numbers to make it quicker to tell them,” the prison veteran explained.
“Can I try?” the new inmate asked.
“Sure,” his cellmate said.
So he waited until a break in the laughter and he called out, “87!” There was dead silence except for a few groans. He looked at his cellmate with a confused look and asked what happened.
“Well,” said the cellmate, “some people can tell a joke and some can’t.”
It’s an old joke — and I heard it as a child — but it reminds me of political discussion online today. Almost nobody has anything of substance to say, so they just throw shallow nonsense at each other — links, memes and bumper stickers. These shallow people pretend they’re promoting what they believe in, but they’re doing nothing of the sort.
The Internet was supposed to bring a golden age of public discourse. The best ideas would rise to the top and would slowly convince others. Wise thinkers who promoted great ideas would become well-known and revered.
(For an idealistic picture of what some were predicting, look to the online system by which Ender’s brother became a world leader in the wonderful Orson Scott Card novel, “Ender’s Game.”)
Nothing of the sort has happened.
Those with something original to say are mostly ignored. Those with ideas that are not already deeply embedded in the public consciousness are not heard.
Those who are willing to shout angry and simplistic slogans are heard. Those who are willing to pander to the worst biases and prejudice already in the masses find followings.
Some people want to pretend that the online world is responsible for the rise of hatred and prejudice, but the online world — including social media — has merely amplified what the masses already believed. Ideas which silently lurked inside dark hearts started being exposed because angry people discovered there were others like them.
It wasn’t that people were being converted to racist or antisemitic ideas. It was that they were finding other people like themselves. They became brave enough to start saying what they had been thinking.
But I’m more concerned with shallow ideas among more mainstream people than with shallow ideas among the fringe. Let’s be honest. The hateful fringe has always existed. It always will. If mainstream people were thinking clearly and talking honestly about ideas, we would have little time to worry about the tiny minority who want to carry Tiki torches in Nazi parades.
Among the mainstream, most people are divided into Team Red and Team Blue. They don’t bother learning how to think clearly or to confront ideas intellectually. Instead, they simply through links at each other. They throw memes at each other. They throw slogans at each other.
You see this on social media all the time. People post some graphic that someone else has created — which might or might not have a grain of truth at its root — which supports their team and attacks the other team. I used to point out to such people the intellectual and factual errors of such things they posted, but I no longer do that.
I quit pointing out the factual errors — and quit attempting to engage them on intellectual grounds — because most of the people who post such things are incapable of honest discussion. They believe they are intellectual giants because they’ve learned how to post links to articles expressing their opinions.
Let me be clear about something here. There are times when someone has something original to say and presents a new way of looking at something. When that happens, these thoughtful pieces can be worth sharing with people who are open to considering ideas. But that’s not what’s generally shared. The things which are generally shared –whether they’re links or memes or slogans — are simply restatements of tired positions which are already popular. Those things have nothing original to say.
I was reminded of this tonight because of a discussion on my Facebook page. A guy who was a friend of a friend showed up with nothing to say, but plenty of links. He posted a link — with no commentary of any sort — and I pointed to the core flaw of what the writer said. Instead of addressing the substance, he just posted another link.
This guy had nothing to say. He presumably didn’t have an adequate command of the intellectual and legal issues involved, but he knew how to post links to popular articles from people who agreed with his team.
He was just like the guys in the prison joke. Their links are the equivalent of calling out numbers. Nobody has to confront the merit of any idea or argument. They just post shallow links — for arguments they couldn’t make on their own — and pretend they’ve contributed to public discourse.
Public discussion is being dumbed down more and more. Instead of helping great ideas rise to the top, social media just helps partisans swap bumper stickers and pretend there’s some intellectual substance to their partisan preening.
If you have original ideas — or if you have someone else’s original ideas to share — go right ahead. But once you’ve reached the point of calling out bumper stickers — whether they’re links or memes or whatever — do everybody a favor and move on to something else.
Social media isn’t in the business of helping good ideas rise. Social media is all about helping people spread banal bumper-sticker slogans. If you aren’t going to confront original ideas — to understand them and deal with them honestly — stop pretending.
Every time you post another shallow bumper sticker link or meme, I see you as an intellectual prisoner shouting out numbers and hoping to get approval from the other shallow people who are on your partisan team.