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Living in a sound bite world

Oct 28, 2012 :

Today, everything is reduced to media-friendly sound bites and slogans. Hand in hand with all of this goes ridicule and cynicism, whereby, if serious issues are not made meaningless through sound bite repetition, they are made the butt of jokes. Has this become the ‘common sense’ of the day where banality is reality and trivialisation is passed off as culture, wonders Colin Todhunter.

Today, we live in a complex world. Our societies are now less homogenous and more differentiated. The sheer population size of certain countries is mind boggling enough, let alone our capacity as individuals to know about everything that is taking place within them.

Modern knowledge has expanded to the point whereby specialisms and sub-specialisms are the norm. It is just not possible for one person to have in-depth knowledge of genetic engineering, philosophy, neurology, agriculture, climate change and a hundred other disciplines no matter how much expertise we may possess in our own particular field. We must rely on others to convey such knowledge, usually in relatively simplistic terms.


The division of knowledge into various disciplines has, without doubt, led to advances in knowledge and technology. However, given our inability to know everything about everything, most of us have to take at face value many of the ideas and concepts that we are bombarded with in this age of instant, mass communication and information overload.

People tend to like simplicity. In many instances, not possessing sufficient expertise on matters, they require it. They need easily manageable packages of knowledge in order to simplify and make sense of the world they live in.

These packages become ‘common sense’ knowledge. Sociologists like Peter Berger, Harold Garfinkel and Irving Goffman highlighted the processes involved in the social construction of human reality some decades back. We rely on simplicity, on our taken for granted ‘common sense’ if you like, and for things to conform to our pre-existing notions.

Manipulation through trivialisation

Politicians and the media also recognise our need for simplicity in what is an increasingly complex and confusing world. And here lies the problem. In order to rally the masses around certain ideas or to make things ‘simple’ for them, both politicians and the media have to a large extent taken their cue from Edward Bernays, the father of advertising, propaganda and public relations.

And this is where simplicity morphs into manipulation and ‘common sense’ becomes warped and imbued with prejudice of various kinds.

Bernays knew how to manipulate the pleasure and pain centres of the brain and how to get the masses hooked on the products and messages of modern society via simplification. This type of manipulation has been developed and perfected over the past century or so, and we are all subjected to it each and every day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has reported that young people see 3,000 advertisements a day and are exposed to 40,000 different ones per year. It was not without good reason that the late academic Rick Roderick said that US society would fall apart if it was based on people’s addictions, not necessarily in terms of pharmaceutical drugs, but in terms of consumer products.

Based on our need to simplify the world around us in order to make sense of it, it was Roderick who noted the subsequent trend towards banality and trivialisation in society. He referred to a rampant phenomenon of important issues and problems being reduced to a ‘joke’ or a fad of some kind through continuous repetition.

For example, political debates that are seemingly in deadlock like gay rights and abortion issues, although still important, have become almost a pointless debate. The same few points are being thrown around so often that they’ve become a fad. This doesn’t mean that the issues themselves aren’t important; it just means that they’ve been reduced to something resembling sound-bite debates.

It can get to the point whereby people simply stop caring about it all. In the face of so many different sides and so many different movements, all locked in endless debates, it can be easy for a kind of apathy and inaction to kick in among the wider population.
Many issues have been reduced to media-friendly slogans. For example, decades of serious writing on feminism was overtaken by the Spice Girls shouting the slogan ‘girl power’ at every available opportunity.

A serious issue became used as a commercial ploy to sell music. What did girl power mean? Who cared at the time: just shout it out.

‘Support our troops’ is another term that in the West both serves to dampen further debate about the rights and wrongs of invading Afghanistan and acts as a rallying call imbued with notions of nationalism, courage and bravery.

This particular slogan became prevalent once it was realised by officialdom that the arguments for being in Afghanistan were failing to stand up in the eyes of the public. What better way to nullify any further debate about whether troops should be there at all than to shift the tone and trivialise illegitimate war and killing by tryingto make people feel unpatriotic if they do not support the ‘brave lads’ ‘out there’?

As for the troops themselves, what could be more banal than army recruitment drives in the US that use video games to entice a generation brought up on games such as ‘Modern Warfare 2’? ‘America’s Army’ represents the official US Army game that competes with commercial offerings.

The free-to-play game has become a more effective recruiting tool for the army than all other army advertisements combined, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The real-world barbarism of killing, destruction and exposure to depleted uranium on the battlefield is being sold to would-be recruits as some kind of play station fantasy world.

From warfare to politics, everything has been trivialised in order to appeal to people’s base instincts. Look no further than ‘Mr hopey-changey’, Barak Obama. His last election campaign relied on the mantra ‘hope and change’, which seemed to mean everything but really meant nothing, as many US citizens have learned at their cost as wars and crises at home and abroad continue to rumble along with little hope of any change.

While in some cases sound bite sayings may at least be trying to make some semblance of a serious point, when repeated over and over again, they merely end up as meaningless, feel-good rhetoric.

Complex political issues are reduced to a few one-liners — we can’t have too many people flipping TV channels and advertisers losing all those viewers when the commercial break comes. It was quite revealing when academic Noam Chomsky said that he rarely gets on TV because he does not fit the agenda of ‘conciseness’.

TV companies and audiences tend to require quick-fire replies to questions that really require a few minutes to properly answer. A trivial sentence requiring the words ‘hope’ and ‘change’ repeated a pre-designated number of times (worked out by some well-paid advisor beforehand) is what is required, not a comprehensive response providing meaningful insight! As long as the banal sentence is said with seemingly utmost sincerity and seriousness, job done. Impression management, not substance, is the order of the day.

The world of fashion has also cashed in on the trend. A few years ago, bell-bottom trousers and 1960s hippie paraphernalia made a bit of a comeback, but only as a commercial venture and in a fashion sense, which was disassociated from the social message the hippie movement may have been trying to get across.

Again, a case of trivialisation through commercialisation. Even the revolutionary Che Guevara has become a fashion item, with his image splattered across millions of T-shirts around the world. I recently remarked to someone wearing a Che top, ‘You are a socialist?’ He replied that he was. But I wondered if he, this privileged, rich, expensively privately educated young man, truly understood the question. In a former age, people regarded socialism as being part of revolutionary struggle, not fashion.

And then there are all those TV commercials on English language channels in India, which reduce everything to a lowest common denominator selling point: ‘white is in, dark is out’ (why is this slogan used to sell skin lightening cream not considered racist in India?), ‘because you’re worth it’ (self-esteem reduced to wearing nail varnish or lipstick), ‘it’s very, very sexy’ (the nature of sexuality reduced to the effects of a deodorant). Complex issues are merely commodity forms and reduced to brand identities for sale in the market place.

Nobody really knows what these slogans mean and perhaps nobody really cares. After all, it’s that feel-good, knee-jerk emotional factor that counts. Whether it’s the market or whether it’s the political arena, the population has been reduced to buying into or mouthing empty phrases designed for them by the PR industry.

Ridicule, apathy and cynicism


Hand in hand with all of this goes ridicule and cynicism, whereby, if serious issues are not made meaningless through sound bite repetition, they are made the butt of jokes or have a TV comedy series made about them.

Rick Roderick liked to refer to an old TV show in the US to highlight how society encourages ridicule, trivialisation and acceptance of how things are (but should not be).

The show in question is Laverne and Shirley, which ran from 1976 to 1983. Roderick stated that Laverne and Shirley work in Milwaukee in a beer factory. It could therefore have been a socialist realist film, but it was a sitcom. They have got two friends that are stupid and ugly. They dress funny. Their life is no good. But this is a comedy. All the troubles that working class life often involves are just reduced to banality, just the common rubble of triviality and little one-line jokes.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in Britain today via the demonisation and mocking of some of the poorest and powerless sections of the British working class by the mainstream media and various social commentators. Regarded as ‘chavs’, they and their lives are stigmatised, ridiculed and trivialised via comedy sketches, newspaper cartoons or by commentators attempting to score cheap political points.

Roderick then goes on to discuss the notion that John F Kennedy (JFK) was killed in a coup d’état and that the US has been run secretly ever since. That may or may not be true, but by the time we have had a thousand books and a thousand movies on it, people tend to switch off, shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Well, it may or may not be the case, but what does it matter?’

It’s become banal. Then there was a rock group called ‘The Single Bullet Theory’, whose name refers to the assassination of JFK. For Roderick, this is yet another example of how you can take matters of ultimate human importance and turn them into banality.

And that is exactly the point. That is what is required: banality and cynicism leading to apathy. Back in the 1920s, US commentator Walter Lippmann believed that ‘responsible men’ make decisions and had to be protected from the bewildered herd — the public.

The public should be subdued and obedient. Lippmann envisaged the public as playing just one role — subdued, obedient and not rocking the boat. The desired outcome is that the public should be mouthing patriotic or some other facile slogans like ‘support our troops’, or they should be admiring with awe the leaders who save them from destruction, danger, the ‘chavs’ or any other number of bogeymen dreamt up by politicians and the media and their corporate seducers.

Unfortunately, how Roderick described things back in the 1990s has increasingly become the way of the world 20 years later. Given the major issues affecting us, ranging from nuclear war to ecological meltdown, what we really require is sweeping social and economic reforms and great ideas.

But, have the great movements and ideas of yesteryear that could provide inspiration for today’s causes been reduced to mediocre banality? Are they just fodder for the market place? Are they to be sneered at and mocked by a population beaten down to regard apathy as a normal part of the human condition?

Has this become the ‘common sense’ of the day where banality is reality, where trivialisation is passed off as culture?

What better way to control a population than through inducing banality and encouraging the trivialisation of causes, ideas or the plights of powerless folk? What better way to control dissent by ridicule of the dissenters, or, if that doesn’t work, in the case of the Indian government, filing sedition charges against 7,000 legitimate protestors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu — ordinary villagers and fisher-folk.

Are we to just ignore this and sit back and be satisfied with a culture that gives more airtime and column inches to a story about the wonderful Simon Cowell using placentas on his face to keep young than the death of one of the greatest historians of the 20th century, Eric Hobsbawm?

Are we just to sit back and wallow in the supposed miracles afforded by some life enhancing shampoo or facial cream because we bought into the lie ‘because we are worth it’?

If this is to be the case, it’s not just the 7,000 people legitimately protesting at Kudankulam and others facing similar threats throughout India and across the world who are in trouble — almost everyone else is too!

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