Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Political Consequences of Suspending Disbelief

Those who have studied media literacy know the concept of “the suspension of disbelief.”

Here’s how it works. When we read fiction, watch films and most TV drama, we shut down our disbelief and critical abilities. We permit ourselves to accept fiction as being true. How can we enjoy fiction if we are constantly telling ourselves it’s not “true”?

And so we “accept” lies of a sort. At its best, fiction becomes “art” and reveals larger truths. At its worst, and all too often, it is a lie appealing to our baser instincts. If we have suspended our disbelief, we often can’t, or won’t, appreciate the difference.

The suspension of disbelief comes at the cost of making us vulnerable. We find it difficult and even impossible to switch back to critical thinking after hours of having shut it down.

That’s why advertising, with all its visual and associative manipulation, is so effective. We actually believe if we buy this car or that soap, we will be better, just like the “beautiful people” in the ads. We carry these fictions into the market place and put our money on them.

Enter Donald Trump (and most other candidates for that matter). They hit us with their advertising when we are most vulnerable to its distortions (grainy footage, patriotic symbols, reassuring voices, creepy music etc.).

Trump does his distorting largely without advertising because he is, at root, a oddly and crudely engaging performer. Those who are most unquestionably believing of him become “true believers.” They idolize him, accepting uncritically whatever he says – even when he contradicts himself, even when he offends and demeans “others.”

In so many ways, Trump is no more harsh, cruel or obscene than much of popular media today. Note that he speaks in the truncated, venom-laced language of the internet.

In short, Trump’s behavior is made to order for our media culture. Those who have become immersed in it (and many watch TV or are glued to the internet for hours on end) feel right at home with a bullying, bigoted, thoughtless brute. (Rush Limbaugh also comes to mind....)

Trump, like much of media, plays upon and amplifies the dark, fearful, hateful, violent side of life. (There’s even a name for the phenomenon: “The Mean World Syndrome.” (vis. the late George Gerbner.)

if you can’t, or won’t, return to a questioning state of disbelief (which, be warned, requires work), you find yourself accepting distorted, outrageous and even immoral solutions.

Exploring the real causes of problems facing us just doesn’t lend itself to 30-second TV spots and 140-word tweets. Besides, who wants to know that we ourselves are part of the problem and will have to change?

Why else would global warming be seemingly unworthy of public discourse in this campaign?

Instead, sound bite “solutions” (torture, walls, intolerance) threaten to make  "real world" life for all of us and our progeny worse…much, much worse.

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