Gongol.com Archives: March 2022

Brian Gongol

March 18, 2022

Computers and the Internet Wit and wisdom over clickbait

History has given the world lots of angry polemicists, but the nature of memory does us a favor by forgetting most of them. People may know who Father Charles Coughlin was, just for example, but virtually nobody is turning to transcripts of his rantings for guidance today. ■ Instead, history tends to give us a helpful sorting mechanism: Those stories and biographies worth retelling tend to be shared and retold, and the purely transitory ones generally fade away for lack of relevance. Historians, both academic and amateur, have a responsibility to try to sort facts from fiction and to try to elevate the really worthwhile stories while promoting corrections that counter misleading narratives. But they have little incentive to do anything to boost the work of people who were merely ranting in their own times. ■ Regrettably for us, it's harder to tamp down the lesser narratives in our own time. The right to free speech applies equally to people with good ideas and with lousy ones. As John Stuart Mill put it, "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still." ■ But amplification is a different story. The emergent economy of social-media influence has produced a class of self-righteous fire-breathers who depend upon contrarian narratives to gather their power. These people seek to make hay out of displaying oppositional-defiant disorder in restaurants, giving cover to tyrants, and misappropriating the language to try to shake the money tree for campaign donations. ■ The problem with this behavior is in its willful cultivation of followership among people who haven't chosen other role models. If more people had a decent sense of self-respect, the audience for boneheads would dry up. Not altogether, of course, but it would certainly be smaller than it presently appears to be. ■ Many worthwhile role models are alive today (though they're rarely as inclined to insert themselves into the culture as aggressively as the fire-breathing dopes), and many can be found in the biography section of any decent library. We might do ourselves a favor as Americans if we were to more deliberately prod our young people to explore those historical biographies and autobiographies, so that they could see how many useful role models have already stood the test of time. ■ Rare is the social-media "influencer" today who could hold a candle to the introspection and wit of Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography is a journey through what was not only a legendary life, but also through a great deal of self-awareness about how he related to others. Many others are available, too: One can learn a great deal from Epictetus, Booker T. Washington, or Calvin Coolidge, just to name a few. ■ And while lots of people have gone under-represented in our libraries, historians are working on improving that, too -- and much to our benefit. We probably ought to read Abigail Adams equally with John. ■ But it's not inevitable that people will find these better role models in their lives without a nudge to do so. With people cultivating followings on tools like TikTok and YouTube with nary an impediment beyond convincing others to "Click 'like' and subscribe", the thoughtful adults in the room (metaphorically) need to try to promote the good through conscious effort. The bozos have found their platforms, and they have a monetary interest in promoting them. Someone has to help young people find alternatives to the clowns.

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