In Alumni in Action, Election, Faculty Voices, Special Topics

Photography by Andrew D. White
Making Sense of the Election
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Dana C. White, PhD
As we learn from Joseph Campbell, myths provide orientation – they are ways to make sense of things that challenge us as individuals and as cultures.  But myths change, and when they do, the change can often be abrupt, harsh and unexpected – giving rise to chaos and the need to find new footing when our cultural paradigms shift.  In ancient times as well as today, myths are the most enduring life support systems for making sense of the chaos.

I can think of at least two other times when such upheavals occurred.  Not quite 3,000 years ago, the cultures surrounding the Mediterranean were telling stories in small group settings to make sense of things – weather, political skirmishes, invasions, crop failures, the usual things that threaten survival.  From what we know, these myths morphed from generation to generation as language and community evolved. But that changed when writing developed to such a point that the stories could be captured in written form. The immediate effect was to empower those who could read while at the same time displacing the storyteller. Of course, it was a shock and culture would never be the same.  

Then, in 15th century Italy, a Venetian typographer named Aldus Manutius wrested control of the printed word from the church when he began to produce and distribute small portable books that gave people throughout Europe the power, first, to read scripture on their own and second, to distribute intellectual content outside the aegis of church and state. In a few short years, vernacular languages became widely used, ending the authority of Latin and the church.  Once again, the engines of change were primed by innovation and technology and culture would never be the same.  

I write about these two episodes because I believe that we are in a similar moment because of how the Presidential election and the subsequent period following have been impacted by the strategic use of social media.  The world that made sense to me a few short weeks ago has evaporated.  I now know it is gone and will not return. At first, I felt utter confusion and disbelief – because I had not seen how this new use of social media could be possibly be a force of disruption.  Since my trusted news sources could neither explain what happened nor assuage the feeling of being blindsided, I began to plumb the depths of the new myth that has enveloped us.  

It is now beginning to make a little more sense.  We are inundated with broadcast, cable and Internet media that understandably tease and cajole program content in order to make the programs more interesting and to stimulate ratings.  Driven by advertising, for the most part, they are neutral to program content.  All that matters is numbers.

However, from the candidates themselves to the pundits the news outlets call upon to amplify the content, the character of the political narrative began to shift from ideas to identities.  It soon became a very nasty business and character assassinations became the norm.  Our friends south of the border were called rapists.  Women were denigrated.  General Michael Flynn, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, has called the Islamic world a cancer that must be eradicated.  Inclusiveness has lost favor to the ethos of exclusivity – rising above one another in order to distance us from the undesirables, whomever they may be. If it has not already done so, making America great again is certain to make sure that everyone believes that America is the best and most privileged country on Earth – the beacon to light the way to the future for the entire world.     

Throughout the primaries and up until the election, the repeated clips of Donald Trump spewing hate and name-calling were evidence of the candidate’s skill at setting himself apart by marginalizing others.  However, as horrific as these video clips in the mainstream media could seem to be, they were decoys that attracted viewers who with every Trump outburst became convinced that the election of Hillary Clinton was inevitable.  Mainstream media had taken the bait.  

Meanwhile, across the bandwidth in the unregulated social media environment of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Donald Trump and his surrogates were steadfastly building a loyal constituency in the heartlands of America who were less nourished by mainstream media than they were by a man who preyed on their fears and resentment through the use of social media.  The culture would never be the same.  
No candidate has ever used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube so effectively (and so diabolically) – and there is every indication that President-elect Trump intends to continue the use of social media as a means of circumventing the expectations and traditions of the press corps who have grown accustomed to receiving their content from press conferences and news releases.   

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are among a new breed of communications media that have emerged as powerful ways to create and sustain narratives that need no footing in the real world.  Imagine how the printed word pushed the oral tradition of storytelling aside and how the personal power of the private book dislodged church authority.  The assault of social media similarly has unraveled the architecture of cultural communication norms because there is no requirement that social media content be true or even real.  

Whether the posts on social media are intentionally misleading, inaccurate, biased or outright lies, “the problems here are complex, both technically and philosophically,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told the New York Times. “We believe in giving people a voice, which means erring on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible.”

Now, less than a few weeks after his election, Trump and others in the new administration are communicating to the public and the news media primarily through self-produced video clips – a strategy that at least for the time being firmly establishes the President-elect as the one in control.  

Looking back at the election, it may be difficult for some of us to accept, but we – all of us – collectively produced the results of the Presidential election.  Each of us must shoulder our share of the responsibility for the millions of people who have felt so pushed to the margins and disenfranchised that they viewed a vote for Donald Trump as a symbol for the toppling of the status quo, who has emerged as a symbol – a great white hope to right a world they view as wrong, problematic and of which, they do not feel a part.  

What many of us failed to see was that not everyone viewed the election outcome as obvious or inevitable.  Pumped up by a daily barrage of tweets from the Trump campaign, many people viewed Trump as their weapon against a liberal agenda they felt was continuing to disenfranchise them.  Meanwhile, many of us surrounded ourselves with a like-mindedness that was reinforced by the mainstream media who continued to fuel their ratings by tracking a controversial candidate and failing to unravel his legitimacy with either hard questions or serious inquiry.  As the election drew closer, many of us inhabited the comfort zones of our shared assumptions.  Yet, outside the frames of what seemed inevitable, a new commonality had been erected – united by the perceived sense that they were tired of being excluded from the opportunities that were the cornerstones of the Obama administration’s programs and Hillary Clinton’s progressive rhetoric.  

Many of us believe we are loving, compassionate, and tolerant.  We do good work, make contributions where we can, and cultivate empathy for people who believe differently than we do.  Yet, many of us who feel we are truly inclusive may have failed to include the rapists, the racists, the misogynists, the xenophobes, the homophobes, and the haters of all stripes in our fields of tolerance.  And now, the tides have shifted and many of us now know that we have become the outsiders.  

If we have learned anything from our studies of history, myth, psyche, spirit and soul, it is that, in the words of Aldus Manutius, festina lente – make haste slowly.  As evidenced by Mark Zuckerberg’s concern, clearly something must be done to raise the bar of truth – if not the trust – in the new social media: Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.  We know our culture has undergone an archetypal change and will never be the same. In the coming days and weeks before the Presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, our calling is to come to terms with the specific character of just how it is that our culture will never be the same.  How we respond to this call will chart the course of our future.    

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