Of Spectators and Participants

spectatorsIn response to many questions years ago about the nature of postmodernism as a cultural era, I described it as the “Age of Participation,” for technology was making it possible for us to participate in culture in ways that were once impossible. As a young boy, I used play “bombs over Tokyo” with marbles in the back yard. We were about ten years downstream from World War II, so the name of the game was a reference to the war. When we were able to buy toy planes, we’d play the same game, but it took a great deal of imagination to actually put ourselves into such a game of good guys and bad guys.

Such it was with just about everything we did, from cowboys and indians to our little rubber models of Disney characters. It was all about making up some story and interacting with each others toys. Not so today.

Video games are so advanced today that the Armed Services actually use them as simulators to train the people who defend our freedoms, and this is what I mean about the Age of Participation. We are no longer forced into a spectator role in our games and entertainment; we can actually be a part of the experience, and this is only going to become more and more immersive.

But it’s way more than just games and entertainment. The Age of Participation will unfold as one in which free people are deeply connected and able to participate in a great many other walks of life. This is a staggering threat to our cultural status quo, which demands that the have-nots be spectators and not participants. It’s right out of the mind of social engineer and father of professional journalism, Walter Lippmann, who with his buddy Edward Bernays wrote the books on how respected intellectuals should run things for everybody else.

Bernays wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”

In his 1955 essay “Walter Lippmann and Democracy,” Herbert Aptheker refers to Lippmann as an “offended and frightened snob” to say such things as these:

“…there is no possibility that men can understand the whole process of social existence.” Forgetting “the limitations of men” has been our central error. Men cannot plan their future for “they are unable to imagine it” and they cannot manage a civilization, for “they are unable to understand it.” To think otherwise, to dare to believe that the people can and should govern themselves, that they can and should forge social systems and governments enhancing the pursuit of their happiness here on earth—this is “the gigantic heresy of an apostate generation…”

In writing about Lippmann, contemporary intellectual Noam Chomsky published the following insightful paragraph:

“The public must be put in its place,” Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” whose “function” is to be “interested spectators of action,” not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.

As we look at the chaos of today’s election season, we would all do well to remember that the whole system needs the kind of reinvention that only an informed and involved public can produce. In this sense, I have hope that 2016 is a part of the forthcoming cleansing and not something to be feared, an awakening on many levels that we’re all tired of being led around by Chomsky’s “respected intellectuals” for their own benefit and not ours. This will require a different kind of education than what’s being discussed today, one that I view as inevitable so long as we are connected and able to share freely amongst ourselves.

I’ve written many times about historian Chris Lasch and his wonderful 1990 essay, “The Lost Art of Political Argument.” This lengthy essay is eye-opening, especially as it relates to Lippmann and Bernays, for Lasch makes the case that the fall in citizen participation in the political process in the US is directly tied to the rise in the professionalization of the press. Participants need argument; spectators need a view of the arena in which others play, and that has been the role of an elitist press for many years.

We need lessons on arguing a position instead of simply passing along memes that tickle our ears but were created by somebody else. That’s simply lazy.

  • Let’s argue and not inflame, knowing that those who wish only to inflame are playing us through our emotions and fears. The only people in this for us are us, and we need to resist the temptation to be conduits for somebody else’s gain. In politics, nobody speaks the truth, for truth is not the goal of politicians. It must, however, be ours.
  • Ad hominem attacks are never allowed. Following this simple rule alone would lower the decibel level considerably as we worked out our differences publicly. Sadly, those who are smart in the ways of marketing know how easily people fall for character attacks in the place of reasoned argument, which makes the American public complicit in the hubris and hyperbole coming from those they support.
  • Argument is not a dirty word. It’s just a noun. In Webster’s 1828 dictionary, the first definition reads like this: “A reason offered for or against a proposition, opinion, or measure; a reason offered in proof, to induce belief, or convince the mind; followed by for or against.” In other words, it’s simply stating your case with reasons. Too much of what we have today is the parroting of marketing or propaganda without reasoning, neither of which come close to Mr. Lasch’s use of the word “argument.”
  • Reasoning must be fact-based. Following this would be the most useful rule, because much of what we pass along today are emotional responses to triggers we “just know” we understand. This is useless in the creation of an argument, but it is so clearly satisfying to those resonate with the message solely on an emotional level. Smart marketers are able to use emotion in stating what they’re selling, and we all badly need to be educated about this trickery. Emotion is not to be confused with passion, for there is certainly a place for passion in the expressing of one’s argument. Those who argue that passion is the enemy of reason are blinded by their own arrogant convictions of rightness.
  • Facts from both sides in an argument must be on the table. This is why reason is so important to the art of argument, because the idea isn’t to blow the other guy’s facts off the table; it’s all about proving those facts to be otherwise. If that cannot be done, then your argument is weak, and this is why public debate is so useful. We’re all entitled to our opinions, propositions, and convictions, but unless we can state them in an argument, we run the risk of falsehood creeping into our consciousness.

The outcome of public debate will often depend on consensus, and we must be prepared to accept that, although we can always go back and hone our argument so as to make it more convincing. There is no appeal process. We accept and we move on. We take the matter up again the next time public debate brings it to the table in the process of our participatory culture. Nothing can be set in stone.

If we no longer wish to simply exist as manipulated spectators, then we must agree that participation involves a willingness to set our own wishes aside occasionally for the betterment of the whole. That means being prepared to listen along with stating our own case.

Call me idealistic, if you wish, but I don’t view the future through dystopian lenses. Life wants the human race to survive and thrive. I’m convinced that the explosiveness of the early twenty-first century is a necessary stage through which we all must pass, because as big as the world seems, it’s really just an island that we share in the midst of a vast and mostly dead universe.

We need each other. We really do.

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