We Think What We’re Told to Think

My childhood was unusual in that I grew up predominantly in what used to be called “the third world” and often in the less salubrious parts thereof. Every couple of years we moved somewhere else. My childhood was a world of no telephones and no television. The only movies I saw, very occasionally, were projected from a 16mm reel onto a white bedsheet while cicadas chirruped in the background and mosquitos whined in the darkness. Sometimes the sound of the small diesel generator powering the projector was louder than the sound track playing from an improvised stereo speaker.

Turns out, my childhood gave me a huge advantage. Moving from culture to culture showed me how provisional and arbitrary people’s deepest beliefs are. Being shielded from the McSlop of mass entertainment meant that I didn’t absorb all the damaging messages Hollywood is so very good at spewing directly into people’s brains. And because there was nothing to gawp at for long hours every day, I lived my life. My younger brother and I spent most of our waking non-school hours outside, exploring and inventing games and having adventures and cultivating our imaginations. We were tanned, lean, inquisitive, and fit.

Of course, there were many downsides to living in the back end of beyond. But the upsides were of far greater importance.

Fast-forward to today. We live in a 7/24 unrelenting cycle of sensation. The media grabs our eyeballs in order to maximize ad revenues, and there’s nothing more guaranteed to get people to stop and gawp for a few precious seconds than sensationalism. As there aren’t enough photogenic airplane crashes and mass shootings to fill every single second, the media goes hunting for other flotsam to fill pages and screens and seconds of programming. A lot of the time the media clusters around a particularly juicy morsel and amplifies it until everyone is chanting the same meme.

Think of how this works: there’s a plane crash somewhere, lots of people are killed (ideally Westerners, because frankly who cares about non-white, non-affluent people from some country we’ve never heard of) and for the next three weeks or more, the media focuses on plane crashes. There’s a mass shooting at a US school (nearly a monthly occurrence now, alas) and so for the next couple of weeks the media focuses on the insane level of gun violence in the USA and the standard denial mechanisms of “thoughts and prayers” and “it’s really a mental health problem.” And so on and so on.

As I don’t have a television and never read US news media and visit the BBC News website less and less because it content is little more than trash nowadays, I am rather isolated from Sensation du Jour. I have zero interest in SnapGram and Twiterest, and I visit Facebook occasionally only in order to see what my (real life) friends scattered around the world may have been up to lately.

It was on FB that I discovered the latest global hype centers around a photogenic young woman from a comfortable middle-class background whom the media has decided is the Mother Teresa of climate change. According to the prevailing narrative this young woman is bravely standing up to the Powers That Be and forcing us all to abandon our sinful CO2 producing ways. She is Making Us Aware of Climate Change. And so on and so on.

Of course, the reality is quite different. I’ve read the transcripts of her speeches and I’ve read about her “carbon neutral” lifestyle and my opinion does not fit the prevailing narrative. But most people don’t live outside the hype bubble, as I found when I reposted a recent Medium article on my FB page. Even my intelligent friends were outraged, because the article correctly points out that it’s not particularly brave or useful to parrot received wisdom and being against something without being able to proffer even an adumbration of realistic solutions is not a constructive position to adopt. We can all be against things; what matters is developing feasible alternatives that don’t involve hundreds of millions of people (whom we conveniently don’t know, so we can ignore) losing their jobs and livelihoods.

In other words, this well-meaning young woman has become a media icon precisely because her words are vapid and she happens to be very photogenic. In our world of instant sensation, the less actual content there is, the better. We don’t want to have to think or attempt to grapple with complexity. We just want a photo and a tag line; then we can move on to the next sound-bite, meme, or funny cat picture.

We’ve arrived at a world in which even intelligent people are swept into the mindless flotsam that is carried along on the daily media wave. A world in which even intelligent people can be driven to outrage by the merest suggestion that the Mother Teresa of climate change may in fact be nothing more than a well-meaning but hopelessly naïve schoolgirl whose words are of no relevance to the difficult and complex problems we need to tackle if we’re going to mitigate our appalling environmental policies.

I don’t think this is a healthy or useful outcome. Our innate desire for simplistic answers is entirely misleading in our modern complex inter-connected global world. Our little primate brains may want simple sound bites, but these won’t actually help us address real problems in a meaningful way.

Reality isn’t part of the entertainment industry. Reality cares nothing for media sensationalism. The more we distract ourselves with empty nonsense, the less we’ll focus on things that really matter. Reality is complex and difficult but if we don’t make the effort to engage with it we’ll simply proceed further and further down the road towards complete intellectual incoherence.

And we’re already far too far down that road already.

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