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Politics: Why Can’t We Talk About It

Header: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post
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I should begin by saying that between February 2016 and June 2018, I wrote forty essays—or articles—for this website. That’s about two every month and the main goal that I had from the beginning was to choose a different topic each time and write as much as I could without making them too personal. I specifically chose subjects like American politics and socioeconomics, areas which I have practically no expertise in, so that begs the question: if I wasn’t a pro, then why did I write about them?

I was acting out on a lesson I learned from a 2014 TED Talk by an award-winning author named John Dufresne when he said, “you begin not knowing where you’re going to end up but trusting in your imagination and in the writing process to get you there.” He was, of course, addressing writers about the importance of creating fictional stories around the fictional characters and not the other way around but I thought to myself that perhaps this lesson could apply to any writing format including non-fiction essays.

Mr. Dufresne went on saying, “write about what you don’t understand. What you don’t know is more important than what you know because that’s what engages your sense of wonder.” His advice reached a climax by saying that as a writer, “you sit and you insist on meaning but not on answers. The point is not to answer but to question. Not to solve but to seek. Not to preach but to explore. And you also know this: that life is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.”

I went on to write ruthlessly for two years straight. Since then I’ve taken a six-month hiatus and as I look over all this work I’ve done, I wonder what was the purpose of writing them all. What did all the questioning do for me in the end? I fell into multiple rabbit holes with every well-written column and notable journalist that I clicked on to, with their new explanations revealing unusual pathways for me explore next but not really answering any of my questions. I can’t help but react differently now than I would have prior to writing those original articles and I felt that this was all essential to describe to my readers because I want you to get the real me.

Yes, I’ve changed but what am I if I don’t act on the political things I wrote about during those years? To be clear, I haven’t cared enough about politics to even look it up. I haven’t been sharing my opinion about it for six months because I’m not paying attention to it. Why haven’t I voted in a long time? Why don’t I feel passionate about voting and protesting, while I still dream of being an active citizen? Should I be writing about other people who are active citizens in their country, or in mine, or perhaps I should be creating fictional characters who are what I imagine proper citizens being?

I have nothing to protest, so I’m not going out and joining groups, volunteering or organizing. It’s all a dream to me, I guess. Has something changed these last few years to make me feel like I can’t express myself anymore, to make me feel like I shouldn’t speak about politics, that none of us should? Is that why I turned to the internet instead of the voting booth or the streets during this seemingly important time in our world’s diplomatic history?

Conversely, is there something wrong with me or the country I’m living in, the people I’m surrounded by, the system we’re in because perhaps we’re all just looking at all of this incorrectly? This is what I want to discuss in this article: what are the roots of the psychological triggers we have that stops us from making things better for more people and what is the reasoning behind this animosity towards talking about politics in general.

I’m going to define the word politics as the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power. It seems politics could be described as nothing more than the verbal exchanges between those who possess or aspire to attain leadership of a certain group of people. As in the conflict that arises between two or more people is almost always a political one but not always so.

A normal discussion between people rarely crosses the line into politics or religion—which as a collective group or institution is itself a discussion of politics too. We usually get short with each other and turn into an over-emotional bumbling robot of rhetorical responses that always upsets the others that they’re with, creating additional conflict between them.

Why don’t we or sometimes why can’t we talk about politics? It’s basically a taboo, best friends, lovers and family members will ask you, “don’t talk about politics tonight, okay?” or they’ll say, “can we please just not talk about that stuff right now?” That stuff? The only stuff that affects all of us, not just certain individuals or events? Why can’t I talk about it? I think to myself, what is this stuff my family, friends, colleagues and classmates are trying to avoid by not talking about it?

I’m twenty-nine years old; healthy; more-or-less confident in my own skin, enough to not want to alter myself; a Canadian; I have a high school diploma; my family isn’t rich by any means but we were never homeless or without food; I’ve never gotten badly hurt or sick; I’ve never been attacked or threatened too badly—what exactly do I have to complain about?

What do I have to talk about other than what has happened to me? I always thought to talk endlessly about myself sounded pretty pretentious and egotistical, which I don’t consider myself. I don’t have anything to talk about but politics and some people already understand the crucial information required to relax about everything. However, a minority of people who are not “woke” yet and need this to be said. They cannot and will not see the bigger side of the world until they are shown it by somebody else.

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This quote is from the 1992 BBC documentary Pandora’s Box, A Fable From the Age of Science: Episode 1, The Engineers Plot. (Follow along starting at 2:47 of this video.)

Adam Curtis: “This is a story of science and political power. How the Bolsheviks’ vision of using science to change the world is itself transformed. What resulted was a strange experiment far removed from the political aims of the revolution.”

Reporter: “Greetings from Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union, the world’s first Socialist State in which everything belongs to the people, everything is created by the people, and everything is done to benefit the people.”

Adam Curtis: “From the beginning of the revolution, modern technology was central to the Bolsheviks plans. Above all, the new power: electricity. In 1920, Lenin unveiled in the Kremlin a huge map studded with light bulbs to show the planned electrification of the country. To illuminate the bulbs all the electricity in Moscow had to be shut off.”

Vitali Semyonovich Lelchuk, USSR Academy of Sciences: “The electrification plan was unlike any before in history. It wasn’t just about building power stations, its aim was to construct a new type of human being.”

Adam Curtis: “‘Communism,’ said Lenin, ‘is Soviet power plus electrification.’ The aim of the Bolsheviks was to transform the people they ruled into what they called ‘scientific beings.’ People able to understand and control the machines of the modern world, rather than become enslaved by them.

They organized mass parades where the machines symbolically crushed the irrational dogmas of the past. Moscow became what Lenin called ‘a talking city’; its malls adorned with geometric perspectives giving glimpses of a new rational world; its statues surrounded by parallelograms and futuristic structures. Even music was used to transform the way people understood the world. Electrical machines made what was called ‘rational music.’

The most extraordinary project of all was the Central Institute of Labour set up on Lenin’s orders. It was run by Aleksei [Kapitonovich] Gastev who photographed and studied workers as though they were parts in a machine. It was far more than mere time and motion, Gastev believed he could teach people to think and behave in a rational way. To do this, he built the Social Engineering Machine, a giant structure of pullies, cogs and weights. How it worked is today a mystery, even to his son.”

Alexei A. Gastev: “A Social Engineering Machine was built at the Central Labour Institute. The aim of social engineering was to make society rational and train the state for maximum efficiency in the same way as my father trained workers. He believed society could be controlled like a machine. The aim was to install these Social Engineering Machines all over the USSR. These machines would make society function totally rationally. Man would become a rational component of the machine.”

Adam Curtis: “‘Such is the power of science,’ said Trotsky, ‘that the average human being will become an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx, and beyond this new peaks will rise.'”

With modern technology like electricity and the internet, the average person is now beyond what Trotsky could have imagined in his wildest dreams. In 1924 Lenin died and the leader of the USSR became Stalin who had a very different view for the country. Instead of the original idea of Communists using technology to liberate the people, Stalin had plans to enslave them in factories, making them a part of the machine.

The Social Engineering Machine did actually become a real thing but instead of being a mechanism of pullies and levers, it became the mass media and in-part, most of the internet that we know today. The entire digital ecosystem is made to suck us in and learn from us. The newest generation is different because while they demand long-form discussions they still, at least for the sensitive minority, don’t see the whole picture yet.

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This last quote is from The Joe Rogan Experience: #1139 with Jordan Peterson. (Follow along starting at 4:42 of this video.)

Jordan Peterson: “Yeah, well I’ve really been trying to make sense of this eh, because I’m thinking, well what the hell is going on, why am I selling out three thousand person auditoriums and then, but not just me obviously, Sam is doing it. And you’re doing something on a larger scale but very similar with your long-form podcasts and then there’s this whole rise of, what Bari Weiss described as ‘the intellectual dark web,’ that’s actually Eric Weinstein’s coinage. There’s a group of us that would be sort of clumped together for reasons that aren’t obvious.

I’ve been trying to figure that out while I do these lectures, another thing I’m doing with the lectures, or discussions, is trying to continually further the development of my ideas. I use the stage, let’s say, as an opportunity in real time to think. I’ve been thinking, well if you’re surfing you don’t confuse yourself with the wave, right? That’s a real mistake. You might be on top of the wave but you’re not the wave and I think this long-form discussion and the public hunger for that is best conceptualized like that.

There’s a technological revolution, it’s a deep one. The technological revolution is online video and audio immediately accessible to everyone all over the world. And so, what that’s done is it’s turned the spoken word into a tool that has the same reach as the printed word. So it’s a Gutenberg revolution (used to express the democratizing effects of the invention of the printing press among society) in the domain of video and audio, and it might even be deeper than the original Gutenberg revolution because it isn’t obvious how many people can read, but lots of people can listen.

And now it turns out, so, I mean, you got a little bit of that with TV and a little bit of it with radio but there was bandwidth limitations that were really stringent especially TV where you could thirty seconds—if you were lucky and six minutes if you were stellar—to elucidate (make [something] clear; explain) a complicated argument. So you can’t do that, everything is compressed to a kind of over-simplified entertainment.

But now all of a sudden we have this form for long-form discussion. Real long-form discussion and it turns out everyone is way smarter than we thought, right? We can have these discussions publically and there’s a great hunger for it.

I see this parallel. This would be, what you would call supporting evidence for this hypothesis… The same things happened in the entertainment world because TV made us think well, we can handle a twenty-minute sitcom or maybe we can handle an hour and a half made-for-TV movie.

But then Netflix came along and HBO as well, with the bandwidth restrictions gone, and all of a sudden it turned out that: no, no, we can handle forty-hour complex multi-layered narratives where the characters shift, where the complexities start to reach the same complexities as great literature, and there’s a massive market for it. So it turns out that we’re smarter than our technology revealed to us.

I think those of us who have been placed in this ‘intellectual dark web’ group, you know, there’s some things that we have in common: we are more or less have independent voices because we aren’t beholden (owing thanks or having a duty to someone in return for help or a service) to any corporate masters except peripherally (something on the outside or only slightly connected with the subject) and we’ve been operating in this long-form space, and the technology has facilitated that. So, all of a sudden it turns out there’s more to people than we thought and thank God for that.”

Joe Rogan: “I’m struggling with, I don’t want to use the word hate, there seems to be a non-acceptance or a resistance to the idea that anything of quality could come out of this group of people. It’s really interesting to me and I’m wondering why. When I listen to you speak or Sam or Eric, or any of these people, Ben or Dave, and I hear very interesting points and I’m like ‘why are people resisting that these are interesting points, why are they resisting this?’

And I think, there’s a lot of people that are beholden to mainstream organizations, whether it’s newspapers or magazines, or television shows, that feel trapped. I think they feel trapped by this format that they are stuck in. It’s a very limiting format and it’s a format that in my opinion is like, I mean it might as well be smoke signals or ham radio or something, it’s fucking, it’s dumb.

You know, this idea you’re going to go to commercials every fifteen minutes and in between you have fifteen people arguing. I mean I watched a panel on CNN once and I think we counted ten people that were trying to talk during this five-minute segment. I’m like who, what genius thought it would be a good idea to get ten people struggling for airtime. Barking over each other. No one saying anything that makes any sense because everybody is talking over and trying to stand out and trying to say the most outrageous things.

And I’m seeing like some of the resistance to this when we span pretty far, you know, from Sam and I lean more left, and Ben leans more right and you’re what you’d call a classic liberal, and Eric’s very difficult to define and Brett is fiercely progressive. I mean these are, Brett, in particular, is a very left-wing guy but this desire to label and to have this diminishing label as like ‘alt-right’ or you know, ‘right-wing or fascist.’ It’s very strange to me.”

Jordan Peterson: “Yeah, well there’s a couple of things going on. I think one of them is the technological transformation that I laid out and the other is that I do believe that, especially for the radical leftist types, the whole notion of free speech among individuals is not only an anathema ([something or someone that one vehemently dislikes] [vehemently in a forceful, passionate, or intense manner; with great feeling]) but also isn’t something possible within their framework of reference.

I’ve been trying to think this thing through very carefully because, you know, free speech in some sense has become identified as a right-wing issue and I thought, ‘well how the hell did that happen,’ and then I thought, ‘oh yes, well if you’re radically left and you’re playing the identity politics game, there’s actually no such thing as free speech because you’re only the mouthpiece of your group whether you know it or not.’

So you don’t get to talk as Joe Rogan. You get to talk as like Joe Rogan: patriarchal-white-guy and that’s it and your utterances aren’t a reflection of your own opinions, as an individual but they’re an attempt on your part, whether you know it or not, to justify your position in the power hierarchy.

And so, everything right now—this is where the technology and the death of the mainstream media, and this political polarization all unite—everything has turned into a political conversation in the mainstream media and it has to be cast as left versus right. And if you’re criticizing the left then all of a sudden you’re right—right-wing. And it has to be about politics.

It’s like, well, it doesn’t have to be about politics, it could be about philosophy, it doesn’t have to be cast in political terms. And then it’s also subject to a form of, well, it’s made more stupid than it has to be by these terrible bandwidth limitations. I mean, I’ve been on mainstream TV talk shows and it’s a very strange experience because you’re definitely content. You know, Marshall Mcluhan said, ‘the medium is the message,’ right. The medium shapes the dialogue and it does in a great tremendous way, a powerful way.

You go on a TV talk show and maybe it’s an hour long, something like that and there’s five guests, and you’ve got your eight minutes, something like that, and you have to be bright and chipper and entertaining and intelligent and sort of glitzy and it puts that facade of momentary charisma on you. And if you don’t play that out, you actually fail, right.

Cause you can’t start a long-form discussion when you’ve got six minutes and if you’re trying to talk about something that’s deep and difficult. While you want to talk about it because you’ve got the access then and the opportunity but you’ve got your six minutes. You can’t help but turn into a sort of glitzy entertainer and so it cheapens everything.

And then the other thing I think is happening is that as the mainstream media—television, in particular—dies the quality people are starting to desert, like rats leaving a sinking ship. I guess they’re good rats if they’re quality people but, and then there’s ever more enticement to use click-bait journalism to attract a diminishing portion of the remaining audience.

It’s like one of the things that happened, so if you look at the five major indices of violent crime in the United States: they’ve declined by fifty percent in twenty-five years. It’s absolutely beyond comprehension it’s so good. This includes violent gun crime by the way and yet the reports of violence in the media have gone up and up and up and up.

Think what’s going on, it’s click-bait. It’s the equivalent of click-bait and then turn everything into a polarized political discussion takes no real intellectual energy but it’s also driven by the death spiral of the classic media, I think.

And I think that’s actually why the polarization seems to be so acute now. Some of it is genuine but some of it is the consequence of this underlying technological transformation and the death throes of the smoke-signallers fundamentally.”

The true revolution of information wasn’t with just the invention of the internet which connected us all but when the limits (bandwidth limitations) were removed and entire concepts and theories could be translated for everyone to hear. On television, everything is literally a political debate and still, we haven’t seen past this facade? Every conversation, it seems not just on the news, is a political one or at least now for some reason it is.

Maybe along with the invention of social media creating a different kind of person; one that doesn’t want to deal with the complexities of the outside world; one too preoccupied with the sheer intensity of everything around them especially if it can’t be explained in a two-minute-or-less video; one who was raised with parents who just consume mass media all day on TV… Maybe those kinds of people are who are running our modern-day Ministry of Truth. (In George Orwell’s book 1984, the Ministry of Truth “deals with information and how it is distributed to the masses… It is involved with the news media, entertainment, the fine arts, and educational books. Since the Party’s rules are constantly changing, the media has to change along with it to reflect whatever truth the Party wants at the moment.”)

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