Friday, November 30, 2012

Rational Argument's Disappearing Act in Modern Politics

The political world is growing dumber. Put another way (and slightly more diplomatically) politicians and voters are less inclined to use intellectual argument in making their decisions.
Electoral politics has always relied heavily on emotion as a tool to sway voters. But fueled by a culture which encourages rapid collection of and dissemination of information, technology which encourages swift and poorly defended debate, and an increasingly polarized culture, modern society increasingly displays an absence of rational argument in political debate.
Technology has played the decisive role in this trend. Television and the Internet have effectively shortened the attention span of individuals by increasing the amount of information available to average citizens. This influx of information has accelerated to the point where people find it difficult to concentrate on long arguments. Television, Facebook, and Twitter are most effective at quickly transmitting short, easily digestible bites of information to large audiences.
Winning candidates need to get their message out quickly in an age where information spreads like wildfire - and adjust the length of their messaging accordingly. In modern politics, speed is life – in journalism and politics. Arguments over policies get reduced to soundbites, memes, and slogans. Stories and articles get shorter and shorter. Longer, more reasoned discourse often gets swallowed up in the sea of quick, easily digestible stories and blog posts.
The same-sex marriage debate is a prime example of this phenomenon. Proponents of gay marriage simply assert that those who oppose gay marriage are bigots who seek to make all homosexuals miserable out of spite. Opponents of same-sex marriage warn that monkeying with the definition of marriage will result in an immediate end to society as we know it. Both sides completely (and often deliberately) misunderstand the other side's arguments, preferring sound bites and mutual misunderstanding to real debate.
This was not always the case in a pre-electronic age, where information could not be transmitted rapidly. Political debates and speeches were often long, drawn-out affairs. Politicians needed to inform and entertain their audiences in an era where information was harder to come by. This made for more rhetorical flourishes - and the opportunity for longer, more discursive argument.
No longer. The skilled modern politician merely needs to get off a catchy thirty-second soundbite, and with luck (and media help) will have instant fodder for television cameras. The bane of the modern politician is the gaffe - five bad seconds or twenty mis-phrased words which can ruin a campaign.
As modern political debate is reduced to soundbites and gaffes, rational argument becomes increasingly difficult to come by in political decision-making.

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