Loss of accountability – the decline of ridicule

When a person or organization proposes an action or makes a claim that is ridiculous, ridicule, by definition, is a logical response.

Ridicule is a powerful took for shaming idiots into silence. However, for ridicule to actually work, two pre-conditions have to be met:

  1. There have to be people around the person or organization uttering ridiculous nonsense who are prepared to actually ridicule what was just said or proposed
  2. The person or persons being ridiculed has to be capable of being shamed or embarrassed

Those two pre-conditions are different, but not mutually exclusive. In this world, absence of accountability leads to assumptions of impunity, and that makes people more prepared (even enthusiastic) about “trying it on”, to see what boundaries or norms or laws they can break. If a person says something utterly ridiculous in public and nobody contradicts their statement or mocks them, the message they receive will be clear. Bullshitting, lying or talking nonsense has no downside.

Cults are an end-point example of what happens when leaders get to utter ridiculous ideas or claims without contradiction. In cults, the leader is regarded as a supreme savant, an infallible role model whose utterances are never to be questioned. Ridiculing your cult leader is a short cut to exile, ostracism and other socially penal consequences. In authoritarian governments captured by cult thinking, it will be life-threatening. In fact, even politely questioning a cult leader is a dangerous action. All of this is logical given that most cult leaders are malignant narcissists, whose entire concept of self is based on personal infallibility and the idea that everybody is merely there to serve them.

The cult approach to communication has become dominant in several countries over the last 5 years, as electors chose deeply authoritarian political parties and leaders to govern them. The governments in the USA (until recently) and the UK (currently) are dominated by authoritarians who regard all opposition as, by definition, illegitimate and irrelevant.

Just like unruly children, politicians of the authoritarian tendency in the USA and the UK have been working out what they can get away with in terms of making statements that in many cases are either bullshit or lies, but which appeal to their supporters. They have, at the same time, been trying to ensure that those bullshit utterances are not even questioned, let alone ridiculed. In competitive sport, the tactics used would be classified under the general euphemism of “working the refs”.

The Trump administration did this by defining most media organizations as purveyors of “fake news”, and demonizing media interlocutors as anti-American. The Johnson government in the UK is doing much the same thing, but more indirectly, by attempting to remove the independence of broadcast media, and by relying on friendly tabloid news outlets who will write nonsense stories and print them repetitively.

The media, unfortunately, has no cogent or effective response to the current tactics of intimidation, because media assumptions about politicians and how politicians operate are out of date. The assumption that major political actors are operating in good faith in a constructive way, and usually tell the truth, is so baked into media DNA that it cannot be effectively countered. Politicians get to be interviewed, utter complete nonsense, and are rarely challenged in any effective way, much less ridiculed. As a result, in the USA we get nonsense like this. Notice that there is no clear attempt by the media organization to point out the obvious either in the lede or the beginning of the article, namely that the GOP representative is flat-out lying.

This is the end result of the Both Sides approach to media coverage, which prioritizes being seen as impartial above being a fact-based communicator. If your reporting approach values perceived impartiality above the fact-based communication of information, all of your interviewees and sources have an immediate incentive to move to an assertion-based model of communication, where Sounding Good is more important than being fact and reality-based.

All of the media failures to ridicule bullshit and lies have a fundamental underlying cause. We The People are actually OK with this level of nonsense. Media organizations live or die by eyeballs and butts on seats. If a media organization found its viewing figures plummeting, and found out that viewers were ignoring it because it was allowing bullshit on-air, I suspect that the media organization would soon change its behavior. The bottom line would tell the story, and changes would be made. So, until We The People stop tolerating ridiculous nonsense, this media behavior will probably continue.

The reason why we tolerate bullshit and nonsense has a wider social aspect that must not be overlooked. Many of us are reluctant to engage in ridicule, especially in family situations. It is seen as disrespectful and dismissive by many people, and therefore is automatically bad.

This is not true. One major way in which illusions and myths become baked into thoughts and behavior is by acceptance of nonsense, coupled with repetition. Respect is not automatic, it needs to be earned. There is no logical reason to respect the views of a person when those views are clearly nonsensical. I actually believe that we have a societal duty to point out that the views are ridiculous. If we do not do so, then the nonsense will spread.

As the old saying goes, people prefer comfortable lies to uncomfortable facts, and politicians and other marketing-based communicators know this and exploit it.

The old parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes was meant to be cautionary tale of what happens when people fail to point out the obvious. That parable needs to be remembered by all of us.

The road back is a long one. We as individuals have to be much more prepared to engage in ridicule of ridiculous ideas and proposals. We also need to penalize media and individuals who engage in that behavior, or who are amplifying it. Without We The People changing our behavior, the media will not modify its behavior, and people will continue to obfuscate, bullshit and lie to us.

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