By Jasmine Liu
It is no secret that social media has drastically changed American politics, but this has become especially evident in this campaign season and the strategies deployed by both camps to court voters. Politico contributor Nicholas Carr argues that the growth of popularity of social media is the third major game-changer in the history of American political campaigning, following the changes brought about by the advent of radio and TV. Social media is transformative in both the power it grants to the ordinary citizen and the unusual constraints it puts in place, either as a product of unique social norms or through the real restrictions of the platform such as character limits. Especially in appealing to young voters who have never used radios and have canceled their cable subscriptions, candidates increasingly must cater to this new method of communication to both manicure their public image and convey their policy preferences. While not inevitable, this development has by far severely injured intelligent political discourse in America. As much as voters have desperately recused themselves of blame this election season by lamenting about their disjointed relationship with the “establishment,” we must engage in introspection about our own complicity in the loss of intellectualism in political conversation.
Firstly, as a result of both the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of news on social media, the overwhelming preference for idealistic, “unifying” rhetoric among political leaders has traded critical thought for hollow self-gratification. Christopher Hitchins, late author of the collection of essays Arguably, writes, “It used to be that thinking people would say, with at least a shred of pride, that their own convictions would not shrink to fit on a label or on a bumper sticker. But now it seems that the more vapid and vacuous the logo, the more charm (or should that be “charisma”?) it exerts.” Slogans should do just that as an effective marketing tool — be charming and empty — inspiring as much uniformity and as little controversy as possible. But what happens when, in what should be issue-based debates and policy speeches, the most expedient thing for leaders to do is to invoke reassuring but meaningless words like “progress,” “change” and “hope” (or on the other end of the spectrum, “make America great again,” implying returning to something old but remarkably ambiguous)? These are commonly heard in opening and closing statements, meant to associate each candidate with an image of idealism. At a certain point, everyone may as well acknowledge that hearing such speeches is solely feel-good and not intellectual as the word “debate” might imply.
No doubt, this election has been unique in the legitimacy that mere positivity, inclusivity and “playing nice” rightfully have provided Hillary Clinton. Even in more substantive competitions, though, form has trumped content in news coverage. Without taking a stance on either candidates or issues, it’s informative to examine the Democratic primary, which generated much more policy discussion than the general election has. Instead of focusing on the differences in policies, news organizations tended to bring in preconceptions about policy goals as absolutely morally good or morally bad, with no scrutiny of the nuances between Clinton and Sanders’ platforms. NowThis, a media organization popular among politically active young people, relies on videos that are rarely longer than a minute to provide political commentary, which regularly become viral on Facebook. One such example of a video is one entitled “Bernie Sanders is supporting the Democratic sit-in for gun reform.” What sit-in (was it just political posturing, or was it effective) and what type of gun reform? Someone watching the video wouldn’t know, but they would know that care packages were sent to support the effort, evoking an image of comfort and love within the movement.
Endorsing this type of media forces many other organizations in a race to the bottom. While some diversity in the forms of news is preserved, all media corporations have been forced to entertain questions about accommodating this new demand of short, entertainment-geared journalism. The Columbia Journalism Review notes that among major papers, longer-form journalistic pieces have dropped drastically, even when counted as a percentage of all published articles. Of course, quality is not a function of length, but there is an inherent limit to the level of complexity that can be achieved in a short piece.
Our failures go beyond merely encouraging bad behavior from our political representatives, though. Through the unprecedented power social media has given the most traditionally powerless to contribute to national and global discussions, grassroots movements are newly able to bring visibility to people’s movements that historically simply lacked the wherewithal to succeed. However, within these movements, even phrases that appear to be issue-based have devolved into empty catchphrases. When someone asks what my position on women’s rights is, what does it really mean for me to answer that I’m a “feminist”? Does the label really help elucidate any intricacies in the way I view how equal pay for equal work should be implemented, or whether sex work should be legalized, or whether certain forms of affirmative action for women should exist? Does it help explain my standpoint on whether and how sexism should be “called out”? The warring definitions of feminism itself help elucidate the plurality of stances within the tradition of “feminism.” Is feminism a recognition of “male-created ideologies,” and the effort “to think, and act, out of that recognition”? Or is it “the opportunity of becoming the best that her natural faculties make her capable of”? Or is it “a belief that although women and men are inherently of equal worth, most societies privilege men as a group”? While these differences may appear to be trivial, they may mean the difference between pacifist and militant forms of feminism, or the disparity between viewing the Equal Rights Amendment as legally sufficient, or not good enough.
As I sorted through a heap of flyers after club fair, I noticed a snazzy, glittery “Of Course I’m a Feminist” laptop sticker. I was conflicted for a moment — would brandishing the sticker assert my willingness to discuss issues pertinent to women’s rights, or would it just be one of another meaningless movements I had signed onto, indicating agreement with some hazy indisputable “truths” while allowing myself to hide in complacency about more complicated, unresolved issues? This internal dialogue helped me come to the realization that my problem was not with the label itself, but with the smugness that often accompanies it, how it is often the death knell to further deliberation on the topic. The crux of the problem lies here: Future areas of progress reside in the conflicts within a movement, not the obvious common-ground. Without challenging ourselves to take stances that all of our Facebook friends “like,” we are merely deceiving ourselves of the efficacy we have to produce change that has already occurred.
Producing agreement is necessary, and our language often must reflect the necessity to engage in coalition-building. But this search for consensus must not be mutually exclusive with further critical thinking and questioning. A first step towards achieving this goal is to consciously modify our own discourse to explain beyond that first buzzword and to accept the gray areas and discord that nuance might bring.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.