Chris Valle

American Perceptionalism

With the proliferation of the internet in this day and age, Chris Valle examines the notion of perceptionalism and how our overall beliefs are being shaped by the values and opinions of others, sometimes at the expense of common sense.

 

I’ve said more than a few times that in the Information Age, the one basic sin is ignorance, and all kinds of grief and nonsense seems to flower from that stalk.

Over the last ten years or so I have felt an increasing and even accelerating effort to conflate opinion with fact, an attempt to bluff through otherwise substantive conversation with parroted “word bites” from blogs and pure bluster. During a period of history where we have unprecedented access to knowledge, including challenges and opposing views thereto, the dull roar of hearsay is like the flat heat that radiates up from the pavement after the sun sets.

Truthers, birthers, swift boaters, climate deniers, and Bible-quoters are shouting down journalists, scientists, and realists in what has become a war of attrition or contest of wills more so than a comparison of ideas or even an ol’-timey war of words—y’know, where what you are actually saying is important. Some seem to thrive on anonymity, often with fake screen names, but many others are all too proud to attach their names to staggering pseudo-information, probably because there is a large segment of the global audience that wants easy, simple “comfort messages” that feel right, no matter how they look written down.

The egalitarian reforms of social media, and public-access reference like Wikipedia, as well as the rise of the citizen blogger, YouTube “star,” and all the other grassroots portals into the new relevance opened a Pandora’s box, bringing enlightenment and a freer exchange of ideas than at any point in history, but similar amounts of “noise”—disinformation, lies, rhetoric, hearsay, slander, and abuse. I learned how to tie a half-Windsor knot on YouTube, but I also have to deflect suggestions that Iran is the greatest threat to the world since Nazi Germany.

With global connectivity, there is also an endless variety of niche audiences (crackpots and sociopaths) that have been yearning for the validation of a fellow kook—especially a kook who can pay for web hosting, or maybe even a video camera. The language of media, layouts and fonts, 2-shots and B-roll are no longer exclusive to professionals, while the vast majority of the audience still associates legitimacy of information with the production values of its packaging, and are getting catfished with their own conditioned responses to a stinger or a graphic.

Yes, there has always been spin, bias, and obfuscation in reporting, but now that fact-checking is nearly automated, and you can’t have a press conference or debate without real-time commentary and immediate counterpoint … could it be that we are seeing a negative reaction to good information? A backlash against the black president, global warming, same-sex marriage, unwinnable wars, economic instability, and the other emerging realities that simply don’t allow people to occupy the same critical headspace as their grandparents? I think we have a large segment of the U.S. population in active denial, and are so uncomfortable with certain well-supported information, that they will embrace and defend nonsense that gives them at least a small emotional bubble to operate within.

There are those also so dedicated to what they see as the fighting of injustice—maybe we could call them the lefty or even non-aligned version of the birthers, who hold beliefs such as that the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 was an orchestrated “inside job,” a controlled demolition. As I was writing this paragraph, I saw that a Facebook friend (who also happens to believe in the aforementioned 9/11 conspiracy) is among a small chorus that sings, “Sandy Hook was a FEMA exercise and there were no actual casualties.” They have a cynicism and what I think is a fully narcissistic desire for emotional validation that allows them to make outrageous claims, and back themselves into that dissonant corner that makes any contrary information part of the conspiracy, further proof that only they see the truth, and the rest of us need to “wake up.” These people have always existed, but never had the means to organize and collaborate. In the good old days, you were just a loon, and people didn’t listen to you … or you took over Germany and set the world on fire.

Now, we can shout anything, and with our growing collective savvy and technological immersion, we’re never far from a looking glass to jump through when reality is just not cutting it on an emotional level. People say outrageous things because they need to feel important and have power, even if it means making themselves into false victims or experts.

The relative isolation of the pre-net era forced more direct and personal interaction, but also rewarded instant social validation and feedback. People just gathered on the porch, or the pub, or the barber shop, or salon to suss things out and come to some understanding. It required manners and social sense to keep from losing friends or getting one’s lights punched out, as well as a significant degree of commitment for those who sought to spread their message beyond the sound of their voices. This compartmentalization of ideas facilitated oppression, exclusion, and exploitation in the wider world by those able to take advantage of mass media of the time, but also served to insulate us from certain horrible people who could never gain traction with a wide audience. I prefer what we have now. I love that I have friends from all over the world with whom I can share and learn, and also that I am constantly exposed to new ideas and the experiences of others that help shape my sense of the world.

I also get talked down to and berated by stupid, selfish, cowardly, bigoted, greedy, ignorant, hateful monsters. That’s the price of sticking your head out. Our notion of who we are as a society—immediately here in the U.S., but increasingly and ultimately as a someday borderless species—is going to require a greater sense of maturity and restraint than we see now. We are still celebrating our new social superpowers, and while many of us are no-shit changing the world for the better, others are struggling not to get sued, fired, or arrested.

I’m sure we see ourselves and the wider world differently than our grandparents did, and are certainly aware of much more of it than our great-grandparents were, but we are also revealing some of the worst aspects of our nature. I hope the cultural backlash will ultimately bring people into a sense of community and shared responsibility, where we have greater freedom of expression, but a better-informed, better-trained ability to conduct ourselves with respect and dignity.

It’ll probably be more like a keyboard-driven mashup of Mad Max and Idiocracy, but I’m hoping for some nice stuff as well.

 

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