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June 18th, 2020
This episode is dedicated to Sarah Cooper. She is a comedian who has recently risen to prominence with her lip-syncing videos. You can connect with Sarah on Twitter with the handle @sarahcpr where you can also see her videos.
“You could have a beer with him.”
This praising phrase within the political arena was first dreamt up by Jon Meachum, speaking about the first George Bush who was then running for President.
There is something comforting and deeply resonate in the notion of being able to have a beer with someone. There is a sense of comfort and security. There is the sense that you can let your guard down. People don’t have a beer together on the battlefield, they do so when things are calm, at peace, when things are safe, and we are surrounded by friends. It does this more than anything: the simple statement implies that the individual in question shouldn’t be in question at all, that this person is already a friend waiting to be found.
There is a great deal to be said about the boons of civilization that have engineered the circumstance where strangers in many countries can sit down at a bar beside other strangers and let their guard down, have a beer, and enjoy each other’s company.
But what does this say of their ideas?
Even long time friends who regularly share time over a couple cold ones can have long standing disagreements that are never resolved and which are never spoken of.
Fact is, the friendliness, charisma, congeniality, look, voice, and approachability have very little to do with the ideas a person has. They seem to be correlated, and for much of our personal life, our judgments of these qualities serve as fairly reliable heuristics for navigating people. The problem is that these are heuristics, they are correlations, there is no link of causation. Psychopaths can game these heuristics merely by mimicking these qualities. Unfortunately, we are a species that has sifted within it’s midst the ability to smile at someone when facing them while concealing the knife that will be plunged into their back when they turn. This isn’t necessarily a cause for cynicism, but merely recourse for a particular variety of caution.
Sarah Cooper has recently risen to prominence as a comedian because of her lip-syncing impersonations of the President of the United States, and the reason why her videos have been so effective is rooted precisely in the topic at hand.
By removing the image of the speaker, the facial expressions, the attire, the setting with podium and somber people surrounding, Sarah puts on naked display the words of the president, bearing in full light exactly what ideas these words convey – or don’t convey.
We can examine the topic with a different thought experiment: would politicians still get elected if you couldn’t see them, and you couldn’t listen to their voice? What if politicians were chosen exclusively through their ideas? What if candidates were only permitted to share their ideas for office in writing? And people had to read of these ideas in order to figure out who they should vote for? The feasibility of this as an actual practice is not the point, the point is to ask: would the same people still get elected? If the answer even has the potential of being anything other than ‘yes’, then we must admit that we are giving people power for reasons that are potentially wholly superficial.
The equivalent might like abandoning a good sturdy little rowboat while lost in the middle of the sea and swimming toward the mirage of a cruise ship that doesn’t actually exist.
We misguide ourselves by look and feel at the cost of a good future, favoring things that we react well to in the moment. We misuse our mental systems, often without realizing it. We rely on the heuristics of the emotional system, when we would be better served to slow down and think carefully about the factors at hand. A sturdy little rowboat that actually floats is better than the grandest cruise ship we can ever imagine.
A recent phenomenon that has been made possible by the internet is the anonymous brand and persona. Like any development, this poses benefits and risks. As Renee DiResta has studied and pointed out, there are many ‘anonymous’ accounts run by malicious agents with the aim of misguiding people.
The flipside of this, however, is that many of the traditional gates and gatekeepers for the proliferation of ideas can be circumvented for good reasons. Less powerful people can now play the same game as people who were once the only permitted players, permitted only because of additional superficial reasons.
Beneath the layers of this issue resides a single question: how do we judge the merits of an idea?
We rarely ask this, and its even more rare that we would ask this question in the moment. In the moment things are often moving too fast for our thoughtful systems to keep up with, and in lieu of this, we are defaulting to a quicker emotional system that trades thoughtful consideration for processing speed.
The curious proposal of anonymity and the rise of platforms that allow for the sharing of ideas that are divorced from the superficial qualities of their source is to wonder if ideas are better judged without these qualities or not? We can wonder further and ask: what is the most optimal system for sharing ideas and sussing out their merit? Perhaps it is easier to make a better decision when situations are shed of attributes that often mislead us: the soft resonance of someone’s voice, or the powerful force of an excellent orator, or the cool collected look of a pundit dismissing a legitimate argument with a playful sneer and a deflecting joke.
A problem of course, concerning the medium through which ideas are shared is that the form determines to a large extent how such things last in memory. We will remember an image forever, but furrow a brow trying to remember the main argument of a piece of writing.
What’s clear is that beyond all else, we must simply continue the conversation, and wonder about new ways that enable us to communicate more effectively.
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