Vox Populi

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Radoslav Dragov's picture

In the film “The Wild One” the young biker played by Marlon Brando gets asked “what are you rebelling against?” and he flippantly answers “what’ve you got.” This exchange embodies the entire political strategy of the current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. The 69-year old billionaire doesn’t have a coherent philosophy just attitude and bluster. It’s basically punk rock for a certain breed of blue-collar conservatives. I find it baffling that the Donald is considered a bastion of independent, “tell it like it is” thinking. Trump is a weather vane of public opinion who changes his mind often within the same badly-phrased sentence. There’s arguably not a single US presidential candidate who is willing to go so far to please his electorate. Trump represents the intersection of many worrying trends and one of the most fascinating ones is the ideological division and overbearing populism enabled by social media.

The Bazaar of Bad Ideas

In its inception the World Wide Web was supposed to usher in a new Age of Enlightenment: the availability and cheap transmission of so much information would curtail much prejudice and bigotry in the world. This was not an unreasonable assumption to make. The modern reduction in violence in the Western world is partly attributed to the rise in literacy which exposed people to different perspectives through literature[1].

However, the online content we are provided is increasingly tailored to our preferences by sophisticated algorithms. This makes sound business sense since the path to least resistance leads to the highest number of clicks. We increasingly see information and opinions that reaffirm our worldview. The situation is exacerbated by the proliferation of news outlets that cater to every stripe of the political spectrum. Analytics tools help determine which type of opinion and topics get the most clicks. We end up in an echo chamber where our opinion is further cemented[2]. The Internet is where subtlety goes to die and the loudest voices are the only ones heard. Strong opinion with no ambiguities travels the fastest through the fabric of social media. This pushes the general consensus in any given group to the extreme.

Everybody lives in their own ideological bubble and as a result we get bigoted comments from some tea partiers and censorship on college campuses. The middle ground in public discourse is getting perilously thin. Donald Trump can propose a ban on all Muslims entering the US and still get thumbs up from a sizeable portion of the electorate[3]. On the other side of the political extreme universities can suspend yoga classes on the basis of “cultural appropriation”[4] or ban campus presentations by people they disagree with[5]. It is ironic that students’ recent penchant for censorship and stiff moralisation mirrors social conservatives of the past. A healthy democracy thrives on both diversity and freedom expression.

For a politician giving people only whatt they want might sound like a good idea but (at best) it devolves into unpleasant pandering. The end was nigh for former US presidential candidate John Kerry when he suddenly went duck hunting before election day[6]. Current presidential hopeful Ted Cruz ate bacon cooked on the barrel of a machine gun[7]… an act one bald eagle short of being an “Onion” story. Hillary Clinton tends to rediscover her latent Southern accent when she gives speeches below the Mason-Dixon Line[8]. Her over-reliance on focus groups is not lost on many comedians, opponents or indeed the general public.

The “focus group” problem goes much deeper than a lack of authenticity. A leader is supposed to lead not follow, which means that sometimes unpopular decisions have to be made for the long-term wellbeing of the nation. Whatever your opinion of Bernie Sanders he has at least been consistent (as politicians go) with his views. Sanders might be as ideologically removed from Margaret Thatcher as humanly possible but they both were willing to take unpopular viewpoints. Especially Thatcher who did not shy way from confrontation and did not expect wide adoration for her decisions.

The Wall of Separation

In these troubled times of deep division much of the world was united in their love for Star Wars. The new chapter in the space-opera saga titled “The Force Awakens” won much love from critics, moviegoers and their wallets by bulldozing every cowering box office record in sight[9]. But once again overbearing populism strikes back. “The Force Awakens” is basically a glorified remake of the first Star Wars movie released back in 1977. The problem goes deeper than a lack of originality.

We were basically served a $200-million-dollar fan fiction. Even the creator of the franchise George Lucas took a passive-aggressive swipe at the movie: “I think the fans will love it. It’s the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.”[10] Most fan fiction is about giving fans what they want: reuniting characters, righting perceived wrongs, giving constant winks and nods, redeeming beloved villains. It is basically a prolonged victory lap instead of an emotionally engaging narrative. By all accounts (including mine) “The Force Awakens” is a fun movie filled with likeable characters and great visuals but the constant pandering is too blatant to ignore. In the end, I believe the Star Wars franchise will survive my critical opinion. It’s just a shame that fan expectations came even above committee thinking when this movie would have printed money regardless.

Incorporating fan feedback is far from a new phenomenon. Charles Dickens wrote his major novels in serial publications and used to tweak the story depending on reader reaction. However, back in the primitive days before social media feedback from the public was delayed and easily ignored. Now we are living in the age “authorpreneurship” where creators receive instant reaction and have a moral and financial obligation to interact with fans. Living in an ivory tower is not an option for many because the rents are way too high in that neighbourhood.

Social media has demolished the “Wall of Separation” between creator and consumer. Fan opinion and input carries greater importance. Sherlock Holmes was killed but got better after angry readers convinced Arthur Conan Doyle into bringing the character back. And people didn’t even have Twitter back then. Today fans are very vocal about their opinions and can essentially bully creators into changing their work or apologise for it. Anxious creators would rather make safe choices instead of risking a severe backlash. Lest we forget that fan comes from fanatic. Overbearing populism can rinse out the unique identity and quirks out of any creative endeavour. The memorable narratives are usually the ones that surprise us in some way and not fit neatly into our procrustean bed.

Aurea Mediocritas

It is fascinating how differently social media-fuelled populism has affected politicians and artists: the former become more extreme in their views while the latter try to be more mainstream. Both trends are worrying. Radical political rhetoric ends up dividing society. Art that rides the centre line would not go anywhere but middle-of-the-road. If only the director of “The Force Awakens” was a politician and Donald Trump a postmodern artist. Alas we don’t live in such a world so we have to be vigilant of both artificial intelligence and natural stupidity.

References: 

[1] Pinker, S. (2011). “The better angels of our nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes.” Penguin UK.

[2] Martin, A. (2013). “The web's 'echo chamber' leaves us none the wiser.” WIRED.co.uk (1 May 2013). URL: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-05/1/online-stubbornness

[3] Bradner, E. (2015). “GOP primary voters split over Trump's Muslim ban, poll finds.” CNN.com (10 December 2015). URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/10/politics/donald-trump-muslims-poll/

[4] Pells, R. (2015). “University yoga class suspended due to 'cultural appropriation' dispute.” Independent.co.uk (23 November 2015). URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/university-yoga-class-suspended-over-cultural-appropriation-dispute-a6744426.html

[5] Doherty, B. (2015). “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say”. Nymag.com (27 January 2015). URL: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/not-a-very-pc-thing-to-say.html

[6] Wilgoren, J. (2004). “Kerry on Hunting Photo-Op to Help Image.” NYtimes.com (22 October 2004). URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/22/politics/campaign/kerry-on-hunting-photoop-to-help-image.html?_r=0

[7] Zaru, N. (2015) “Ted Cruz makes machine-gun bacon” CNN.com (2 August 2015). URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/08/03/politics/ted-cruz-machine-gun-bacon-video/

[8] Jenkins, J. (2015). “How Hillary Clinton’s Hidden Southern Accent Came Out.” Thinkprogress.org (2 June 2015). URL: http://thinkprogress.org/culture/2015/06/02/3664725/shouldnt-make-fun-hillary-clintons-southern-accent-according-linguist/

[9] Mendelson, S. (2015) “Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Box Office: $600 Million US In 12 Days, $1.228 Billion Worldwide.” Forbes.com (30 December 2015). URL: http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2015/12/30/star-wars-the-force-awakens-crosses-600-million-in-12-days/

[10] Telegraph Film (2015). “George Lucas thinks The Force Awakens is too 'retro', calls Disney 'white slavers'.” Telegraph.co.uk (31 December 2015). URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/star-wars-the-force-awakens/george-lucas-disney-criticism/