Tag Archives: media effects

Are we Losing the Trope of American Optimism?

FS_PR_101510GallupWordCloud on governmentThe truth is that we don’t really know why despair appears to be spreading across Middle America.  But it clearly is, with troubling consequences for our society as a whole.

       –Paul Krugman

A number of indicators have come together in the last year to suggest that the optimism that has flowed from the American faith in a better future is drying up.  Poll data from Pew and others confirm that about half of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. Moreover, wage growth especially in the middle class has stalled. There’s even a vocal minority in the Congress that believes federalism is so broken that the best remedy is simply to shut the government down, at least until budget reforms are made. Add in the current presidential campaign with its apocalyptic rhetoric, and the cloud we are under looks ominous indeed.

To be sure, some of this rhetoric of despair is a common pattern for political challengers, especially if regaining the prize of the White House seems far from certain.  Even so, the mood of gloom that permeates most of the corners of our public life seems broad and deep, typified by descriptions of current presidential actions in draconian language usually reserved for America’s Twentieth Century enemies: German Nazism and Soviet-style Communism.

Of special interest is new evidence from various sources indicating earlier-than-expected mortality for white middle-aged Americans in the center and southern tier of the United States. Citizens in the nation’s interior who are struggling to remain in the middle class are dying prematurely. Economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case recently reported that the death rates for whites 45 to 54 who never attended college increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people between 1999 and 2014.  This rise is in contrast to rates in other ethnic categories that are slowly falling.

The immediate causes are suicide and the abuse of drugs and alcohol.  The underlying causes are more intriguing and obscure.

The data has interested economists like the New York Times’ Paul Krugman because there seems to be a possible correlation with what he describes as the “harrowing out” of the middle class.  Wages in all but the top sectors of the economy are flat.  Corporate consolidations continue to squeeze out “excess” workers. And good paying industrial jobs have mostly gone away, replaced in some places by the kind of piecework and part-time employment offered by Uber, Wal-Mart, universities, and other “new economy” employers who want workers, but without providing the traditional benefits that come with full-time employment.

Finding true first causes for these rising mortality rates is a tricky business.  But understanding the consequences in terms of how people register their opinions is far easier. Consider the word cloud at the top of this piece from the Gallup Organization.  It represents common terms heard when Americans were asked several years ago to describe their government. To no one’s surprise pessimism reigns.

Similarly, blogger Sean Carroll’s own cloud of words commonly in the GOP represent their own unease about where the country is headed:

Sean Carroll word cloud of tea party attitudes 2013

This generalized angst is now regularly on view at meetings such as the annual CPAC conference of movement conservatives.  Ben Carson speaking in 2013 sounded as if the President of the United States was actually out to sabotage the durable roots of the republic.

Let’s say somebody were [in the White House] and they wanted to destroy this nation. I would create division among the people, encourage a culture of ridicule for basic morality and the principles that made and sustained the country, undermine the financial stability of the nation, and weaken and destroy the military. It appears coincidentally that those are the very things that are happening right now.

Again, we would expect the party out of power to emphasize concerns and problems.  But political rhetoric usually comes with some built-in optimism, as in Ronald Reagan’s constant reassurance that “America’s best days lie ahead.”

Beyond economic and political motivations for this reign of despair, I would add a secondary cause that has unleashed its own demons across the culture. Although I’ve straightened the arrows of causation somewhat for the sake of space, its clear that one condition that has changed in recent years is that under-occupied members of society are less able to keep the dispiriting dregs of human conduct at bay: a significant effect of media that contribute to a weakening of our faith in an ordered world.

Here’s what I mean. The presence of ubiquitous connectivity and growing hours of screen time means that we cannot easily do the gatekeeping that was more easily achieved when roots in the community were deeper and accessibility to the outside world was less constant.  Think of 1980 before digital media, trolls and journalistic bottom-feeding.  While media were once heralded for expanding our horizons, we now function in white-out conditions of over communication that obliterate them.  Given all the bizarre forms of clickbait that pull us in, we now “live”–if that’s the word–everywhere and nowhere. To speak in older 20th Century terms, we no longer let ourselves stay very long in the secure “real time-space frame” of family, work and friends.

Endless evocations of the absurd have their effects.  We spend more time with “virtual” friends, virtual news, and the attenuated grievances of those on the margins who are given their provocative moments to act out in front of a camera.  All of this has weakened our anchors in the more nurturing world of direct interaction.  A person who has planted him or herself in front of a computer for the requisite six hours knows all too well the feeling of creeping isolation that comes with the supposed benefits of hyper-connectivity.

comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

We May Need to Start Teaching Conversation Skills

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight Source: U-tube
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight        Source: U-tube

There are good but troubling reasons to predict a redesign of the K-12 curriculum in the next decade to explicitly teach conversation skills.

It’s easy to imagine that our absorption with digital media will soon require adjustments to school curricula to formally model the process of engaged conversation.  With rates of attention to screens at astronomical highs, Americans seem to be spending less time directly conversing with each other in the same physical space.  And while it has become a cliché to bemoan “the lost art of conversation”—virtually every parent of a thirteen year old will express this in some form—there are good reasons to expect a redesign of the K-12 curriculum in the next decade to explicitly teach and model the skills of direct engagement.  Schools with low teacher-to-student ratios already do this as a pedagogical style.  It’s natural to put learning within a conversational frame.

To understand the importance of conversation we need to remember that the central model for communication is the dialogue.  From the dialogues of Plato to the advocacy-saturated screenplays of Aaron Sorkin, the act of talking with another is taken to be the generative source of how we discover who we are and what we believe. By comparison, a monologue can seem like an orphan: a living thing withering without its natural counterpart.

The Greeks were among the first to enshrine the truth-testing as a representative purpose of entering into direct discussion. The power of “dialectic”–the give and take of discussion–is not simply as rhetorical decoration for professional philosophers.  We know what’s at stake every time our ideas or preferences are challenged by others. Can we successfully respond?  Can we defend what we believe?  Conversations do not have the sparkling repartee of a dinner with André. But they need the feature of putting two people in the same space to be immediate interlocutors with each other.  Anonymous comments added at the bottom of an online post just won’t cut it.

Consider Richard Linklater’s wonderful trilogy of films about love gained and lost—Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013).  All of these popular features are constructed as extended conversations over the life cycle of a relationship. Linklater wrote the films with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the actors who fully embody the couple. A viewer ends up enthralled not because of what they do, but because of what they say. They are alive to the world and the choices they’ve made. They appear to know each other in ways that couples who have become mute cannot match.

Another important writer/director makes the same point by giving us just the reverse: fascinating models of conversation that have metastasized into something more toxic. David Mamet is known to audiences and actors as the creator of encounters crippled by stilted exchanges.  His characters typically flounder in a choppy surf of incomplete sentences, corrosive asides and blank stares. In films like Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997), they mostly pay the price.  Misunderstandings are compounded.  Distrust begins to flourish.  And characters are unable to complete thoughts without resorting to abusive threats.

By contrast, young kids are natural conversationalists. Most  like to talk. They want to exercise their growing curiosity about others. Reading a book with a child is often a delight (unless you are in a hurry) because almost every page is an invitation for commentary and questions. Reading is not the solitary activity it becomes in adulthood.  With more age, the conversational impulse isn’t necessarily killed, but it’s smothered in packaged media content that is still mostly one-way. As it is now, a child in a home brimming with screens seems to be pushed to move from early loquaciousness to comfortable spectatorship. Most of my colleagues note that coaxing even high-performing college students into conversational can be a challenge.

This will all need to change if we want to produce a new generation of active listeners and engaged problem-solvers.  We are simply going to have to start earlier to teach and model the kind of animated conversational skills that define what it means to be fully alive to the moment.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu