Do we live in an Idiocracy?
Every student who wishes to pass will cite their work. The reason they do this is to prove that what they're saying comes from a reliable source. If this same discipline of fact-checking was applied to the wider world I have no doubts that, politically speaking, things would be far less tense. Alas, this is not the case. Instead, eye-catching, outrage-inducing and inflammatory headlines seem to hold far more sway.
In many ways we live in a world of double standard. Our society seems to be suffering from a strange form of psychosis. Facts no longer hold their sway and an alarming amount of the public have begun holding unusual beliefs, based on neither fact or reality. These delusions often contradict.
On one hand, society has never been more caring. This obviously has many positives but alas, in many ways we are overly caring; becoming more politically correct, more overly sensitive and consequentially less resilient as a nation.
On the other hand meanwhile, we have seemingly lost all human connection, we may spout how understanding we are but in reality we think only in stereotypes. Endless virtue signalling cannot replace meaningful action. We no longer look beyond the surface level. We see those we do not know as caricatures not characters. It is now the superficial that dominates our public sphere of thought. Politicians for example are automatically seen as uncool, selfish and most notably self-serving. When someone says that they are a banker we assume without even looking at the individual that they must, therefore, be greedy money grubbing lowlifes who value capital gain over moral action. Celebrities are treated as commodities, their personal tragedies put on display for the public's entertainment. We must remember that everyone, regardless of creed, sex and colour is a person with family, friends, hopes and aspirations. When we stop seeing others as people major issues start to arise.
This disturbing simplicity in popular thought has spilled over into our collective ability to fact check. This week alone I have seen three unrelated people on Facebook share the same link to an article about how MPs have voted to deny that animals feel pain. This story from November last year was quickly debunked. Nevertheless, the story has almost become a meme. It displays that much of the public are so eager believe that the Conservatives are a party of hatred and malice that almost any immoral action they are accused of will be accepted, without any scrutiny by the individual. In this current climate substance is secondary. Say something with enough confidence and anyone will believe you. I wonder how many doctors, dentists, lawyers etc. have had to endure insufferable clients who contradict their advice based on the fact that they read something online. Many seem to have forgotten that reading a random article online is not equivalent to the knowledge provided by years of training and experience.
Facts and figures are extremely useful for analysis. They are an integral part of economic, scientific and socio-political models/forecasts. Without raw information, the processes of hypothesizing and analysis would be impossible. However, to hold any practical meaning raw data requires one key ingredient, an ingredient that when left out will inevitably lead to a straw man: Context. Let us take the incarceration rates of African American males in the United States as an example. Without context, one could easily look at the statistic that one in eight African American males between the ages of 18 and 65 are currently incarcerated and come to the conclusion that African Americans commit a disproportionate amount of crimes. However, when one takes into account huge institutional biases against African Americans in the US police and justice system as well as the extreme economic disadvantages of African American communities, plagued by issues such as low education funding, gentrification, and a well-earned mistrust of police forces the narrative clearly changes. The raw data has not changed but by contextualizing the same information two very different conclusions can be reached.
The issue with so-called "fake news" is not with the misinformation itself, people lie - this is a fact of life. Rather the issue is with the passive compliance of the readers. We as a society seem to be unable to look deeper. Unable to scrutinise. We accept things far too easily without a second thought.
The advent of social media and the anonymity it provides has made us disconnected. No longer are we exposed to a mosaic of diverse opinions and life experiences, instead we now immerse ourselves in online echo chambers. Alternate opinions and ideas are no longer greeted with intrigue but rather anger, confusion, and aggression. It was Abraham Lincoln who once said " if you can only afford to buy one newspaper, buy the one you disagree with". This is a profound message about the importance of exposing oneself to alternate opinions. The extreme polarisation of parties, in both the UK and the USA, is partly due to an inability to compromise.
The ability to compromise should be seen as synonymous with maturity. The ability to negotiate and more importantly accommodate, those we disagree with to create the best society possible for all involved was a tenant of the post-war period. The Conservatives and Labour both agreed in the creation of an NHS, they both agreed that the creation and sustaining of a nuclear arsenal was essential to national security. ultimately, they both agreed that the people of this country deserve to live in a free and pluralistic Society. Even Heath and Wilson, who's personal rivalry dominated British politics for over a decade, had a mutual respect for one another. The same was true between political opponents in the United States. However, over the course of the last few decades, this mutual respect and maturity has been eroded. With the advent of Donald Trump, it seems to have disappeared entirely.
Our societal obsession with celebrity culture and simplistic, immediate gratification has brought on the advent of idiocracy. The outcome of democratic decisions are now no longer determined by the validity of an argument, but rather by personal attacks and headline grabbing stunts. An infamous example of this was the boat battle between Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof in the Thames during the EU referendum campaign. On the other side of the pond meanwhile Donald Trump somehow managed to win the election based on a campaign comprised almost entirely of immature bullying tactics and posturing on a level not seen since the ascension of Mussolini. "Lyin' Ted Cruz", " lil' Marco Rubio" and "Crooked Hillary" are but a few of the imaginative names he came up with to discredit his opponents. Margaret Thatcher once said "I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.". The Immaturity of Trump's campaigning says all one needs to know. His victory meanwhile says a lot about the current political climate.
That being said, it would be unfair to claim that Trump is the only politician who engages in blatent acts of immaturity (I still cringe at Hillary Clinton's "Pokémon Go to the polls" speech). Sadiq Khan's approval and by extension endorsement of the Trump baby balloon is another example of a politician going out of their way to act with immaturity. If Mr Khan wanted to show himself to be better than Trump then perhaps the best action would have been to rise above it.
I must stress that I do not wish to imply that everyone who voted for Trump did so for superficial reasons. In fact many people, such as those in the rust belt states, voted for Trump out of desperation. They felt they had nothing to lose having been let down buy a broken political system that sought only to serve those in power at the expense of blue-collar America. That said Trump himself sums up many of his voters when he stated: "I love the poorly educated". Whether this bizarre moment of self-awareness by Trump was an intentional parody or simply a moment of hubris is unclear. However, the point still stands that many who vote and many more who do not vote, lack the vital political education and information on which candidate or party is in their best interest. In the past, this information would have come from electoral campaigns, but the need to go viral outweighs the need to inform in our modern era. This is not their fault, but we as a society must seek to diverge from out current path of political apathy and our style over substance mentality.
The world has indeed got smaller, messages can be now sent instantaneously. Whereas before individuals would have struggled to get a thousand signatures on a petition the ability to go viral enables them to potentially gain millions within hours. This, however, has come at a cost. Political action is no longer as much of a spectacle as it once was. In a pre digital world, the 400,000 people who turned out to protest the Iraq war provided a powerful statement of disapproval against the Blair government. But in a world where the coordination of such an act is made so pitifully simplistic by social media, the impact is rather reduced. 100,000 people may have protested against Donald Trump, but this is not indicative of a majority opinion. Seemingly no pollster can seem to agree on Trump's popularity within the United Kingdom. Some polls show that as many as 50% supported Trump's visit while only 37% were actually against it while other show Trumps current disapproval rating at 70%. The fact of the matter appears to be that almost nothing is true and everything is permitted in the bizarre world of modern politics.
But you should not feel depressed by this. Rather it should be seen as an opportunity. There is indeed hope on the horizon. Generation Z are witnessing the dangers of "Fake News" and the blind acceptance of information first-hand. It must be remembered that we are the first generation to have grown up accustomed to the presence of digital technology. The long-term impacts this will have on the popular psyche are up to speculation. I believe however, that the increased political participation, rise in test scores and heightened awareness of younger generations should give us hope for the future. In the meantime we as a society must wake up.