Taking the Bait

Ticking people off is not a way to win friends and influence people.  Except when it is.  And we seem to be at such an unhappy moment.

There is an obscure maneuver that is occasionally recognized when describing non-standard persuasion campaigns.  It’s usually fraught with so many potential liabilities that few risk it.  One formal name for the strategy is “intended misidentification,” which happens when an advocate sets out to alienate an audience by making statements he or she knows will not go down well.

What could motivate someone to be so reckless?  After all, communication is usually better understood as a series of carefully constructed bridges to others.  Burning bridges seems counterproductive.

The hope within the person or group using the strategy is that an even larger audience will see the event as emblematic of something bigger and potentially more significant.  The meta-language of such a move says that “I have something to say that must break through the routine bounds of courtesy. But it needs to be said.” For example, in 2015 three women representing Black Lives Matter took over Bernie Sanders’ campaign podium in Seattle. The crowd predictably booed the interlopers for interrupting his speech.  But the event succeeded in becoming a key media moment in the group’s efforts to dramatize rising death rates of African American men at the hands of local police. Losing the sympathy of the local audience surely figured into the calculations of the group. Such instances may be rare, but there are times when the quickest route to notoriety may come by being a non-adaptive communicator.

If you can’t have your own democracy, why not sabotage someone else’s?

A different version of intended misidentification happens when “trolls” bait their opponents with intemperate “comments” that verge into the mean and nasty.  We now have confirmation that Russian individuals–and probably agents of the Russian government–continue to make concerted efforts to sabotage and divide American public opinion. Deliberately toxic tweets, Facebook posts and ads are meant to inflame and polarize public opinion.  Racist comments from an apparent Clinton supporter? No problem. Outlandish accusations seemingly from a candidate’s worker?  They can do that.  If you fear having your own democracy, why not sabotage someone else’s?

Newsweek estimates that nearly half of Donald Trump’s Twitter followers are fake. That’s reason enough to abandon this toxic medium. The real mischief happens when Russian “bots” and others generate taunts that mostly “troll” his critics. According to Wired, the recent school shooting in Parkland Florida was immediately followed by Russian-linked pro-gun tweets sent using the legitimate hashtags of Americans. Sowing such disinformation contributes to a further weakening America’s already fractured polis.  We will struggle to keep an open society if it is cluttered with fraudulent messages intended to provoke rather than enlighten.

Much of this alienating prose would disappear if digital messages and comments on internet sites came from identified persons. But we have perhaps reached a disturbing tipping point when we too easily allow discourse to enter the public domain without a named author. When individuals sign their names to their comments they usually think twice before leaving a trail of ill will.  Those who still persist should be seen as losing the presumption to be heard.  And those who continue to rely on social media for informed views and news may learn too late that they have been ‘played.’

The Decline of the Dialogical Model

A common view of communication is that it is a process of exchange.  We listen.  We talk. The arrows flow in two directions.  Conversations become sustaining in ways that disembodied messages can’t match. 

                                                 Pixabay

With notable exceptions, the dialogical model of communication is in decline. The persistence of effort required in sustained conversations is in short supply. We find it harder to maintain the attention needed to hear what another is saying, struggling to engage brains that have been rewired to accommodate the pace of  the digital drumbeat. To get my car serviced, I now explain a problem while the service agent enters data on a screen with its own fill-in-the-blanks rubric. Many patients describe the same experience when they see a doctor. And even that minimal level of connection is lost as digital robots take over the customer service functions of more businesses.

Communal spaces designed to encourage easy exchanges between individuals now function as ersatz phone booths. The phones come out as individuals sharing a public space drift into their own informational worlds.  Devices of all sorts have become forms of protection against expending energy in direct engagement.

Even if fewer real bodies ever make it to our front door, our digital threshold is traversed all the time.  And so what is obvious is also consequential: the din of intruding messages are seen as welcome  opportunities to avoid the eyes of another who might expect a response.

Why does the retreat from direct conversation matter?  Innovations can enhance or disrupt our species’ innate inclination to seek relationships with others.  Some can serve as extensions of our natural tendencies for sociality: tendencies that show up in birthright impulses such as empathy and other-awareness.  But personal media often do the reverse as well, pulling us further away from the lives and experiences of others. Smartphones make it easy to mistake the disembodied fragment of another person for the real thing. 

Another sign of the decline of the dialogical model is how quickly we now fatigue of the effort required to sustain attention on another.  Communication has always had a performative function that makes us duty-bound to at least fake interest.  But for many, face time with another hardly seems worth even that minimal effort. Richard Linklater and others may write movie scenes featuring direct and revealing conversations.  That’s the method of his remarkable trilogy about a couple that concludes the film Before Midnight (2013).  But the rich conversational palette of his films stands in stark contrast to a world of Americans with eyes shuttered to the sensate world in favor of the small screen.

The favored pattern now is better represented with self-obsessed figures defined more by their strong interjections than their willingness to be a witness to others in the flesh. The preemptive rhetorical strikes of the President or a stand-up comic seem to reflect the times.  We now have many more models of figures who need to exercise their expressive urges as short judgmental rants. The President’s preferred medium of Twitter come across as shouts issued from a person unaccustomed to listening. They are the functional equivalent of the honk of an annoyed driver, a middle finger raised in a gesture of defiance, or a rant unleashed as a digital “comment.” Each is the same one-way form of communication-as-declamation.

All of this means that our expressive muscles get a workout, much more so than those tuned to the rhythms of another in an authentic conversation. To get conversational muscles back in shape and functioning again, consider a few modest suggestions:

  • Never give preference to a device over another person in the same space.
  • Ask yourself if your ‘screen gaze’ is becoming your public face.
  • See if you can find the time to hear another person out. 
  • Save the tough stuff for a face to face conversation, but… 
  • Find time to also talk about the fun stuff.