Una Mullally: Gullibility at its most ferocious when cynicism at its highest
Much public argument and debate now are reduced to shouted statements
Surely not! Not him! Not her! When buffoons gain traction, most notably now in the form of hapless Boris and bullish Trump, many of us can only exclaim with incredulousness.
We are in the era of The Buffoon. The media builds up buffoons and sells them back to the people. They make good copy, always on the edge of saying something ridiculous. But whether they’re being lampooned or not, they’re still getting the airtime and column inches. For a media that increasingly lives for clicks, “characters” who are “colourful” do the business. If tabloids are the grown-up’s comic, then editors need cartoons to fill the strips.
Buffoons get the press, and that coverage is exposure. The name recognition boosts both ego and profile. All of a sudden the most ridiculous prospects become real. Scenarios joked about by comedians and riffed on by satirists become actual events, like the cartoon yanking the pencil from its creator and drawing its own scenes.
In the UK post-Brexit, reality and surreality are blurred. Perhaps the most useful Irish contribution would be to permanently donate the term “gubu”to our British brothers and sisters and wish them luck with it.
A tweet that gained a lot of traction after the murder of Jo Cox was one that read: “I feel cheated not to have heard of Jo Cox before today. Why is the news full of self-serving politicians, not genuine public servants?” We know the answer: campaigning doesn’t sell, controversy does. Sincerity doesn’t sell, sensationalism does. We devour the trivial and ignore what matters.
Issues don’t sell, scandal does. Trivialities are easily understood; juiciness is so seductive. Eventually we become so enraptured by politicians as soap characters, and issues are condensed to the most reductive soundbites, that the script implodes. Exit, pursued by Brexit.
Writing in May, Nate Silver titled an article on his FiveThirtyEight website “How I acted like a pundit and screwed up on Donald Trump”. Silver is famous for his brilliant American political predictions based on polling data. Last August he rated Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination at 2 per cent.
He has since written: “Our early estimates of Trump’s chances weren’t based on a statistical model. Instead, they were what we call ‘subjective odds’ – which is to say, educated guesses.
“In other words, we were basically acting like pundits, but attaching numbers to our estimates. And we succumbed to some of the same biases that pundits often suffer, such as not changing our minds quickly enough in the face of new evidence.
“Without a model as a fortification, we found ourselves rambling around the countryside like all the other pundit-barbarians, randomly setting fire to things.”
Last week Charlie Brooker tweeted: “On social media no one can ever admit they might’ve been wrong about something. Heels dug in so far they’re nailed to the ground. So we all just stand our ground, grimly clawing each other’s eyes out.”
Brooker has hit on a key characteristic, not just of debate and opinion on social media, but one that is increasing across all discourse. This discourse favours The Buffoon, because the more ridiculous their pronouncements become, the more surreal and untruthful their statements are, the more outrageous their rhetoric is, the more difficult it is to debate or defuse.
When surreality and lying is the debate baseline, how can you counter it? Can you really get a point across when someone is screaming in the background, falling off the stage and vomiting all over themselves? The crowd will be preoccupied by the carnage, not by your measured tone.
We’re getting to a point in public discourse where argument and debate have been reduced to statements that are shouted so brashly, that any attempt to examine them, or even to ask a follow-up question, is shut down. Buffoon statements now have as much in common with the truth as photoshopped memes shared on Facebook.
There is also the issue of expectations. We hold buffoons to much lower standards. They can then go about getting stuck on zip lines, questioning the existence of climate change, choking on pretzels, hosting bunga bunga parties, and upsetting apple tarts, and make fine front-page splashes and items on talk radio programmes.
Buffoons stand in front of billboards straight out of Joseph Goebbels’s portfolio and suddenly we all think, “Oh, maybe we shouldn’t have let them get this far.” And then they win.