2012-07-25

The World In Which We Live

This can be considered "part three in a thee (so far) part series" on discussion. You can find part one here and part two here. In those previous write-ups, I elaborated on some challenges involved in maintaining a good dialogue. Today, rather than comment on the quality of discussion out there, I'd like to provide some remarks about the consistency of the dialogue.

Namely, commentary on the various current events affecting our lives seems stagnant.

Reasons For Stagnant Commentary
One reason for this is that there is simply too much of this commentary to go around. We're saturated by perspectives. Everyone who puts their commentary to words (on a blog, in the papers, on TV, etc.) is naturally compelled to provide their own, unique take on the issue. A significant problem with this is that, after a few dozen perspectives, no one "take" is sufficiently unique to offer a valuable contribution to the public dialogue.

For example, the recent movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado offers us a few points of discussion: mental illness, violence in the media, gun control, the moral state of society, and the heartbreak of random acts of violence. It is possible to provide a unique perspective on one or more of those points, but after a dozen or so, the readership has already formulated their own thoughts on those matters. Additional commentary doesn't even become a feedback loop. It's just noise. Readers start to cluster the "unique takes" by general category and nothing new gets learned.

Another reason for the stagnation is that intellectuals who write about current events are engaged in the process of cultivating their own pet theories, and hashing them out with other intellectuals' pet theories. It is more of a pedantic, academic dialogue that does not offer the general public much meat.

An example of this would be the average economics blog post. If I may pick on Scott Sumner, every new economic data point enters his mind and receives "the NGDP treatment." He then writes a blog post aiming to reinforce his own personal NGDP theory - the specific current event is beside the point, it merely serves as a basis for Sumner's elaborating on his NGDP theory. The same might be said of Paul Krugman, only, instead of a real economic theory, he's just expounding on the idea that the conservatives whom he opposes require a capable opposing voice. The specific current event - and the specific economic concept involved - merely serves as a starting point for his anyone-who-isn't-me-is-not-as-good-as-me screed.

Each theory is relatively unique, well-reasoned, and well-researched, but the specific applications of such theories are so narrow that the public soon realizes that it is merely a dialogue being held among a half-dozen university professors.

A final reason why commentary is stagnating is because only certain kinds of commentary "sell." The mainstream media knows this best of all, and they offer us plenty of the specific kinds of commentary that sells. There is not much space left in the program schedule for less-bombastic commentary.

An example of this would be the classic daytime talkshow. Think about those old Geraldo episodes featuring members of the KKK and the Black Panthers discussing race relations on stage. Plenty of fighting, plenty of broken chairs.

In this case, no one would ever suggest that the public dialogue consists of "the KKK on the one hand, and the Black Panthers on the other." That would be preposterous. Everyone knows that normal people don't think like either side of that Geraldo debate. Normal people aren't even "somewhere in the middle." It really is just bombastic television programming aimed at giving viewers something to gawk at.

And yet, when it comes to politics, people really do believe that it's "the liberal Democrats on the one hand, and the conservative Republicans on the other." Funny, isn't it?

What To Do About Stagnant Commentary
It seems to me that there are only a few options available here.

First, one can ignore the stagnation and continue supplying a barely unique take on the issues. (Might this be the Stationary Waves strategy?) The views will be filtered into a general category and not given much consideration.

Second, one can recede into pedantic academic debates with a half-dozen of one's colleagues and ignore the general readership and their comments.

Third, one can become the next Geraldo.

Finally, one can attempt to elevate the conversation a little, and hope for the best. This is what I actually hope the Stationary Waves strategy is. My "take" might not be all that unique, but it does come with an official lexicon and I have tried to flesh-out the general principles involved. So if it is not a truly original set of ideas, it is at least a comprehensive set of ideas. Comprehensiveness is not merely an end in itself. When we provide complete ideas, we provide something that can actually be discussed. We're not merely just debating categorical talking points.