I watched President Obama and his town hall meeting tonight, with Anderson Cooper, and their discussion and debate with the audience about gun violence and Obama’s modest proposals on gun control. What struck me was perhaps something odd, but the more I thought about it, perhaps something important about modern political discourse: Obama’s speech was slow and deliberate and thoughtful, while Cooper’s speech was quick and pointed and glib.
I thought about Obama’s slow speaking as a way of talking in a seminar, when you have two or three hours to understand a point, whereas Cooper’s speech was on a timer, a fuse lit with seconds to go, zeroing in on a quick point, entertaining yet superficial. As a somewhat slow talker myself, I could listen to Obama, and I gave him the patience to make his point, and I agreed with much of what he said. I wondered if Cooper—representing the media and in a way how we communicate in our media culture—was more modern than Obama, but also at the root of why we in this country are less of a ‘we’ as years go by, why we talk past each other in political discourse, why we characterize opponents in stereotypes (or other facile categorizations) and caricatures. Has ‘media insta-responding,’ to coin a term, corrupted our ability to think carefully, to weigh, to consider, and even to empathize? When we know of a world that only ‘insta-responds,’ do we start basing our decisions on prejudices, stereotypes, and easily understood theories without tests in gritty practice?
Insta-responding is the internet. The troll is a creature of responding fast, in every newspaper discussion page online, in any kind of entertainment forum online. When you are responding fast, and are kind of an ass, then of course you want the ability to be anonymous. So online responding has led to ‘discussion pages’ that are not about discussing anything, but more like pages of one-sentence hit pieces to vent, to smear, to feel good about yourself when you have little else to feel good about. Responding on these ‘discussion pages’ has never changed my mind about anything, has never illuminated me to a new perspective. It’s mostly invective.
Of course, where we see a constant river of insta-responding is on television, and its news, where anchors respond to events as they unfold, before they know who did what to whom, where reporters give preliminary (and often false) conclusions, but who cares? The point is to respond, to capture eyeballs, to entertain, to show the gut-wrenching images, and later, much, much later, to make sense of it all. If anyone tunes in for that more considered perspective or the matter-of-fact corrections the next day, that is. The TV crowd may already be on to the next disaster, or outrage, or political fiasco. And so the wheel keeps a-spinning!
One of the reasons TV has been the first and most important purveyor of insta-responding is because time is money on television. If you can’t speak (and respond quickly), then you can never be an Anderson Cooper. Every second of ‘no talking,’ of ‘no reacting,’ is a second when the viewer can turn away, change the channel. Advertisers hate that, and so do television executives. When we put a price on time, on seconds, and when we put that time on an apparatus called television, any reasonable person would have expected ‘discussions’ to be glib and quick and definitely entertaining, and with images that would also be arresting. A split-second of an image communicates more viscerally than anyone describing that same image. When we as a country have most of our political discourse filtered through television, what do you, as that reasonable person, think would happen to that discourse? ‘Discourse’ would become ‘talk,’ and ‘thinking’ would become ‘insta-responding.’
What kind of political candidate would be favored in this insta-responding world? Someone who would promise to bomb all the bad guys as ‘foreign policy.’ Someone who would say, “Trust me. Just don’t ask me too many hard questions and expect concrete answers.” Someone who would play to your prejudices and anxieties. Someone with all the answers, as long as these ‘answers’ are easy, digestible, colorful, and even outrageous. Someone arrogant who makes fun of complexity and thinking and any crap that keeps him from adulation, or as I would put it, a slavish insta-responding to him.
Imagine another world. Imagine a world where people would turn off their televisions, and debate outside, over cups of coffee, and not through any filters like talk radio hosts, but face-to-face. What would happen to empathy? Imagine if we had hours upon hours discussing such serious issues as gun control, gun violence, the Constitution, the United States becoming multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious as never before, and that these discussions would be done in town squares, or better, through lunches, and weekly meetings that would last until most of us got hungry. Then some of us would go out for a bite to eat. What would happen to how we see each other?
Imagine, finally, that we would seek respect from others not because of the size of our biceps or how we could punch like Holly Holm, and not because we are in an SUV and angry and so we better goddamn get respect on the highway, and certainly not because we had a gun in our hand, nor money in the bank, nor a cutie in our arms. We might still need a gun to protect ourselves, and we most certainly would need a cutie in our arms for a variety of reasons, but we would not go to the gun because we demand insta-respect from innocents, and the cutie would be in our arms because we read, and are calm and reliable, and that cutie is like us, a reader, and maybe even a Trekkie or at least a sci-fi geek. We’re imagining, okay?
It’s not too late, America, to escape the Cave of Insta-Responding. Read. Think. Go talk to someone different from you and take him or her out to lunch. And respond to what you hear, but don’t just blab: write about it.