Wednesday, 9 November 2022

How the media stabilise our society

 One of the often-overlooked functions of mass media is to stabilise our society. They do that, for instance, by presenting formats that show the exchange of arguments as the normal way to deal with pretty much all issues imaginable. What they do not show is that you cannot argue with nature, the law of gravity or with Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan or Trump (to name just a few).

Rarely has this stabilising factor been more obvious than after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Would the transition to Charles be accepted by the public? Nobody seemed to doubt it. The elaborate and largely incomprehensible ceremony that proclaimed him Charles III followed many very, very strange rules. No questions were asked by the subservient media, critical inquiry was totally absent.

For most of my life, I was convinced that a well-informed public is the best guarantee against dictators. Nowadays, I'm not so sure about that. The majority of the British electorate knew that Boris Johnson was a serial liar, many Americans who voted for the Mafia-guy from Queens knew that he wasn't telling the truth. Yet this knowledge did not make any difference, it did not influence their choices and their subsequent actions.

The idea that we decide consciously what is good for us is a myth. Education that aims at making people better informed as well as media-literate won't change much for the better. Instead, it will perpetuate what is already there. How come? Because we can't bear reality (when Woody Allen was asked what his relationship with death was, he said: "I'm strongly against it.") and so we constantly distract ourselves — with politics, sports, the royal theatre, with basically pretty much everything.

The Buddhists think that our brains are wrongly wired. We know that everything is impermanent, that everything is constantly changing. Instead of accepting this, we look for certainty — for this is what our survival instinct, that dominates all other instincts, is demanding. In other words, we are most of the time incapable of doing what we know we should be doing — for we have other priorities.

As Sigmund Freud famously said: Man is not master in his own house. The idea that we have of ourselves — that we are conscious human beings who know what we do — is a joke at best. As Richard Feinman once said in regards to physics: The first principle is not to fool yourself. And, you are the easiest person to fool.

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