Ideas Incorporated: A Criticism of “The Free Marketplace of Ideas” as a Prescriptive Model, with YouTube as an example
First, a confession: this essay is derivative of a very remarkable documentary, available on the YouTube channel “The Moa,” called “The Art of the Heel.” While this essay shares a critical base with the essay, it focuses on political discourse surrounding feminism on YouTube, rather than Donald Trump’s campaign strategies. I highly recommend you watch this documentary and, if you enjoy it, consider contributing to The Moa’s Patreon. He works on a shoestring budget, and deserves much more exposure and money than he gets.
Video available here:
The Moa’s Patreon:
The title of Louis Menand’s 2010 work, “The Marketplace of Ideas,” coined a term that would garner a great deal of traction in political discourse. The affable Dave Rubin has been most responsible for moving the phrase into public discourse as “The Free Marketplace of Ideas,” and appears to use it as a prescription for how discussion ought to take place.
In this model, citizens essentially ought to become “consumers” of ideology, meeting in a marketplace where they can make an informed decision between a variety of ideas. These ideas are brought into the “sunlight,” and “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” When these ideologies are brought to the forefront, allowed to explain themselves, the citizen—or rather, the consumer—can make their decision wisely from a myriad of options, resulting in universal human flourishing.
This model is interesting, because while precisely wrong as a prescriptive model—as I will argue, we should not strive to be a marketplace of ideas—it is precisely correct as a descriptive model—that is, we currently exist in a marketplace of ideas, to our ongoing detriment. YouTube is an example of such a marketplace, and as I will demonstrate in this essay, its political discourse swerves away from serious, critical, dispassionate political discussion and towards deleterious, toxic, misleading salesmanship.
This essay is divided into six sections:
- Establishing YouTube as an example of such a marketplace. Describing how the structure of YouTube lends itself to a particular form of discourse. Describing the marketing of ideas in terms aptly similar to the marketing of commodities.
- Demonstration of the performative nature of discourse on YouTube.
- Discussing what is considered “winning” a live debate on YouTube.
- Describing Guy Debord’s Spectacle and how it relates to the Marketplace of Ideas.
- Personal Statement.
1. The Market must be Marketed
First, let us dispense with a bit of romanticism within the term itself. Rather than a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ where you might imagine an exotic bazaar or a homely farmer’s market, let us imagine something more universal—and much more accurate. From now on, let’s call this concept the “Idea Mall,” and let us use YouTube as a particularly thriving example of such a mall.
Imagine this Idea Mall for a moment in abstract, and the problems with prescribing this model begin to show themselves. Only the most naive consumer would enter a mall expecting an honest, forthright exchange between all—or frankly any—of the various kiosk salespeople, the offerings of “free samples” of skin cream they plan to sell you for upwards of $400 because it’s from the Dead Sea, the $99 pre-order pitches Gamestop blares on loudspeaker. A savvy, frugal consumer knows to resist the glitz of the countless brands assaulting their senses, appealing to whatever anxiety or desire or imminent need the marketers might expect from their targets. In the same way, we ought to be critical of ideas we come across in the Idea Mall. We should no more expect a forthright conversation from their salespeople than we should expect a serious discussion on the merits of phone charms from a 17-year-old running a Hello Kitty kiosk.
In a typical mall, your attention is merely the prerequisite for a sale. The final goal is your money. But in the Idea Mall, your currency is measured in attention and devotion as much as dollars and cents. Just as the Simon Properties Group (the largest shopping mall operator in America) carefully structure their malls to maximize the amount of money consumers will spend there, YouTube’s algorithms specifically attempt to maximize your attention. It still comes to dollars and cents in the end, but this is money received from exposure to advertisers or Red subscriptions rather than sales. Tom Scott, a tech vlogger with a significant following, did a video on YouTube’s algorithm, stating that the mysterious “black box” neural network is utterly inscrutable by human eyes except for its goal, given by its initial programmers: maximize watch time. He describes the problems with this approach, as a machine cannot discern what people ought to pay attention to—InfoWars has just as much of a chance as NPR or the Associated Press. Tristan Harris, with three years of experience as a Google Design Ethicist, demonstrates that the maximization of attention length is a universal quality of social media in his TED talk. Both are linked below:
Why The YouTube Algorithm Will Always Be A Mystery | Tom Scott
The video rests upon the research outlined in the following paper:
Deep Neural Networks for YouTube Recommendations
How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day | Tristan Harris https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C74amJRp730
While these videos are useful for understanding the structure of the machine itself, the creators are perhaps too lenient towards the creators of said machines. If we were to prescribe an Idea Mall as an ideal to be reached, we would probably want it to point people towards ideas that were researched and logical, discussions that offered insight into serious problems, lectures that made us rethink the way we look at the world and inspire us to improve our society. But these are the consumers’ ideals, and the consumers do not run the Mall—the company does. Just as Simon Property has no interest in ensuring that you have lasting catharsis from your purchases or that their malls really benefit society around them, only that they generate wealth for the group itself, so does Google only have interest in maximizing your watch time, not in maximizing your happiness, knowledge about the world, or critical thinking ability. Their lack of ability is not the only issue—their lack of will is present.
In a real mall, many hundreds of brands vie for our attention. Jingles, sales taglines, the coloring and font choice of a store’s name printed outside of the storefront, are all collected in one place, side-by-side with their competing adversaries. But behind the innumerable texts: “Have It Your Way,” “Power to the Players,” “Turn on the Fun,” there is a single, monolithic subtext: “Won’t you give us a moment of your time?”
Therefore, in the Idea Mall, we should expect something tailored to first grab our attention. It is meant to stop us in our tracks, to get us to stop and listen to whoever is speaking to us. In the Idea Mall, such a tagline might take the form of “Free Speech is Under Assault,” “Muslim No-Go Zones are on the rise,” “Universities are Indoctrinating your Children,” or “Violent Leftists have Disrupted a Peaceful Protest.” You will notice something in common with each of these terms—they are meant to stoke outrage or anger, to say that something you value—the freedom of speech or assembly, law and order the self-actualization of your children—is under assault, and someone is certainly to blame. This is in service to the first principle of marketing; “get consumer attention.” Outrage is overwhelmingly and demonstrably useful in garnering user attention and the “virility” or long-term success of the idea communicated—see again Tristan Harris’s TED Talk linked above, and CGP Grey’s “This Video Will Make You Angry,” listed below:
This Video Will Make you Angry | CGP Grey
Also see the article CGP Grey’s video is based on. Figure 2 on page 8 is the image shown in the video:
As the video demonstrates, this is not the only emotion played to—humor also plays a vital part in both advertising of products in a normal mall and in our Idea Mall. Search “Feminists” on YouTube and you’re likely to find a compilation of angry women throwing fits in public, followed by a comments section filled with mockery about their weight, lipstick, androgyny, and so on.
Humor plays a vital part in ideological marketing for four major reasons:
1. It is nearly as intoxicating as outrage, and can even be paired with it for a devastating hybrid. A fit of laughter can be as inescapable as a fit of indignation, and indignant laughter doubly so.
2. It avoids the need for a “straight sell;” there is no need to really move beyond the pitch itself and dig deeper into the advantages of the product sold. Indeed, no product need be directly sold at all—the Idea Mall is uniquely pugilistic, and ideas can be sold purely as tonic for the villainized contrasting idea, as demonstrated in Grey’s “Flowers and Butterflies” model.
3. It acts as a shield for criticism, especially if the butt of the joke is mocked rather than counter-argued—there is no counter-argument to claiming someone is a fat, shrieking harpy that no one likes, because an argument is not presented in the first place. But in the Idea Mall, one ignores such mockery at their peril—it is more than enough to activate thousands of people.
4. It allows for one person to be treated as a totem of a larger group. An overweight woman with strange hair shrieking at a public speaking event can be recorded ostensibly for entertainment, but plays an important political role in acting as a totem for a hated other—in this case, angry feminists or “Social Justice Warriors.”
Once our attention is caught, the sale begins in earnest. The salesperson must convince us of the value of their product. This can be done several ways—if the product is sufficiently unique, they need not compare it to anything else, but simply extoll its virtues. If it is not, they might compare it to other “brand name” goods and demonstrate how their bauble is superior. These largely build upon the emotional groundwork laid by the initial pitch. Actual information about the product is incidental—sometimes even optional. The highest priority is communicating how the product will improve your day-to-day, or how it will make you feel, how it will solve some lingering anxiety of yours. This is best summarized by Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, Inc., a cosmetics supplier: “In the factory we make cosmetics, in the store we sell hope.”
In the Idea Mall, this is when the conversation might “calm down” somewhat, the initial emotional response successfully achieved, and the audience suitably hooked. But even then, we should be suspicious of considering this aspect of the sale as honest. We were not attracted to the prospect through honest means—we should not expect to be led through its details in such a manner either. Well-researched, logical argumentation is the last resort of a good salesperson. The truth is often boring, and nowhere is this more true than when discussing political ideology. The actual facts are often revealed through a deluge of dry statistical analyses, some of which may contradict and must thus be meta-analyzed to get an understanding of the scientific consensus. Data must be carefully and transparently collected, and that data must say something about a null hypothesis. Which seems more attention grabbing—a 40 page meta-analysis of dozens of papers recording longitudinal statistical evidence for systemic racism, filled with equations and p-values and line graphs, or a video of black people shouting slogans in the night and throwing firebombs into the shields of a police line? Which is more likely to attract customers? Regardless of the emotional hook used to grab their attention, which is more likely to maintain it? A wise salesperson knows to first appeal to their target’s preexisting anxieties, beliefs, and prejudices—not to their intellectual curiosity.
Not only is such careful argumentation impractical to the salesperson, but in the Idea Mall, it can be quite dangerous. Those who carefully choose their words and how to express them are at severe risk of being overwhelmed by the outrage, mockery, or combination thereof of their political opponents. This is best demonstrated with the (in some circles ongoing) crucifixion of Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of television, movies, and video games who drew the ire of thousands.
2. Rage of the Jesters
A playlist of Ms. Sarkeesian’s work is given below. One need not watch these in full, but note the thumbnail design, titles, tone, and general approach of Sarkeesian’s work. It is prim and proper, professional and academic—everything that the discourse of the Idea Mall abhors, as we will see shortly. Also note that comments and like/dislikes are disabled. The videos did not launch that way.
Tropes vs Women in Video Games – Season 1 | Feminist Frequency
If unfamiliar with the ongoing anti-feminist discourse on YouTube, one might find it strange that the academic and relatively droll criticisms Anita puts forward could draw so much ire, or even—given what we have asserted about the Idea Mall—any kind of attention whatsoever. Part of the history of the political context surrounding Anita will be discussed later, but I will offload the details individual to her case to the capable Innuendo Studios, who did a six-part documentary on the GamerGate controversy. The first part is in regards to Anita Sarkeesian specifically:
Why Are You So Angry? | Innuendo Studios
Anita’s softspoken and simple critiques were, in fact, perfect fodder for an audience that has learned to respect performance over substance. Her assertively worded academic critiques drew the ire of those accustomed to a rough-and-tumble clash of ideas. A literal industry of videos arose damning her. One example lies with popular YouTuber thunderf00t, who released a staggering 75 videos in response (initially) to her work entitled “Feminism vs FACTS.” The videos began strictly as a criticism of Sarkeesian but steadily grew into a criticism of the pernicious aspects of feminism in all of society. Video titles include “Why ‘feminism’ poisons EVERYTHING,” “IF Men acted like FEMINISTS!” and “Anita Sarkeesian BUSTED….AND BUSTED… and BUSTED!!!!!!” Note the use of extreme statements, all caps, an multiple exclamation points—thunderf00t’s approach is to strike the viewer in the gut with a fiercely presented promise of a startling turn of events.
thunderf00t’s entire playlist is linked below here. It is again unnecessary to watch these in full, though it may be useful to watch in part and skim the videos, noting thumbnail and title design, and contrasting them with those of Feminist Frequency.
Feminism vs. FACTS | Thunderfoot
Thunderf00t is only a small player in a larger smear campaign against Anita. Search “Anita Sarkeesian owned” and you will see a variety of YouTubers clamoring to offer shame to heap on the villainized icon. This uproar grew so great that Anita Sarkeesian received a bomb threat when accepting the Ambassador Award from the Game Developer Choice Awards:
Bomb Threat Targeted Anita Sarkeesian, Gaming Awards Last March | Kotaku
And the very next month, canceled a speaking event at Utah State University due to a shooting threat:
Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in ‘GamerGate’ Campaign | New York Times
This dialogue shows Anita as a clear loser in the marketplace discourse. This is not because of the weakness of her arguments; in this discourse, the strength of one’s argument is fairly irrelevant. Were the discourse attuned to the serious discussion of ideas, a weak argument could have been counter-argued and dismissed without dozens of videos created over literal years, and it could have been ignored without bomb or shooting threats. Rather, Anita loses because of a larger political landscape which required a scapegoat (described in the Innuendo Studios documentary) and because of a media landscape which inherently weakens her form of discourse.
Another, more clean cut example can be made by the inter-video dialogue between Blaire White and Zinnia Jones. Blaire’s approach is demagogic—she eschews careful research for reinforcing the beliefs her audience already likely holds (or would be amenable to), and backs up her work with a calculated image rather than serious research. In short, is an excellent saleswoman for her beliefs. Zinnia’s approach, by contrast, is meticulously researched—she’s a proper academic, an expert in her field, and backs up her statements with a variety of carefully chosen, peer-reviewed scientific sources.
The interaction begun when Blaire released a video where she voiced concerns regarding children transitioning:
Transitioning Children? NO. | Blaire White
Note that Blaire sees fit to release this video without sources, confident to merely give her opinion in five minutes. This is not me giving a mark against her—not every context opinions are given in requires substantive sourcing. Rather, it is important to note that this remarkably successful YouTuber saw no need to source her claims. Her work stands on the merits of its performance and political momentum, not on whether the claims made are demonstrably true or false.
Zinnia replied to the video, and included in her reply’s description a respectable quantity of evidence for her counter-claims.
Fact check: Blaire White is wrong on transgender kids, part 1 (Gender Analysis)
Zinnia’s video cites an article she wrote in its description which contains a plethora of sources on the subject:
You will note from the like/dislike bar that it was insufficient to convince Zinnia’s audience. Note when watching the videos the difference in audio mastering quality, breath control, camera discipline, etc. Once again, presentation and salesmanship trumps substance in any marketplace. Blaire White responded to the videos with vitriol
So we see that diplomatic, researched, careful criticism has little currency to offer in comparison to the spectacular, or at least comparatively professional show an able salesperson can display. This presents a sort of paradox for a salesperson of ideas—most people know that ideas about weighty topics like immigration, incarceration, inequality, injustice, and so on, ought to be carefully considered, and researched with a detached, critical mindset. It’s possible that a person who consumes the salesperson’s performative, emotional display might feel some anxiety in this regard in quiet moments—are they really looking at the facts? How can they be sure they’re being rational and thinking everything through? This is when branding becomes vital.
Branding is defined as “The marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.” entrepreneur.com continues:
“Simply put, your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from that of
your competitors. Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be.”
Small Business Encyclopedia – Branding
There is a particular brand identity within YouTube with a storied history: The “Skeptic” community. YouTube Skeptics largely began their careers debunking the theories creationists, global warming deniers, and conspiracy theorists, and gathered quite a large following in doing so. They quite easily appeared reasonable and logical in comparison to the buffoonery of their counterparts, and quickly developed an image for themselves as representatives of science and critical thinkers. However, the people in question were largely entertainers—only a handful were scientists, and, predictably, not all their arguments were of the highest quality. But again, high quality arguments are unnecessary, and too much attention made to the quality of one’s argument can be detrimental. TJ Kirk, or The Amazing Atheist claimed he was “smarter than Thomas Aquinas by an order of magnitude,” and attempts to disassemble the foundational philosopher and theologian in a 15 minute video with such stellar arguments such as “we cannot understand infinity:”
Thomas Aquinas Sucks | The Amazing Atheist
(If I may be offered a brief rabbit trail at TJ’s expense, there is a special irony to this video. In countering Aquinas’ argument that there cannot be an infinite series of movers, The Amazing Athiest claims “we cannot understand infinity,” before descending into inflammatory rhetoric. Unfortunately for him, the compression algorithm Youtube applied on his video utilizes infinite set mathematics: http://www-users.math.umn.edu/~garrett/coding/CodingNotes.pdf )
But the weakness of these arguments did little to slow TJ’s momentum. Even in what we could now describe as their nascent stages, the performative aspect of their content was clear—TJ’s claims are made with bluster and angry confidence.
But their Creationist counterparts steadily began to dry up—YouTube had decidedly become their domain, and there was no longer an overarching discussion to attract followers. See again CGP Grey’s video—competing “anger germs” are in fact cooperating, and without a position to be angry at, the germ dies. However its replacement was soon to follow. In 2011, when atheist Rebecca Watson reported a minor incident which made her uncomfortable at a skeptic organization where she was discussing sexism in the atheist community, the backlash was vicious and sudden.
About Mythbusters, Robot Eyes, Feminism, and Jokes
The renowned atheist speaker and writer Richard Dawkins mocked the video:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.”
The original post on freethoughtblogs.com where Dawkins made this statement has since been deleted. It is still available verbatim in Watson’s article:
The Privilege Delusion | Rebecca Watson
Ms. Watson never compared her situation to those of women in Saudi Arabia or Iran, but even as she attempted to explain that the growing strawmen of her arguments were dramatically overblown, the marketplace had spoken. There was no place for feminist critique of the atheist community, certainly not on YouTube—and anti-feminism, rather than atheism, became the new topic of discussion for the skeptical community. The community divided, and the battle lines drawn then that still largely exist today, though the topics have changed. Anti-feminism has extended into various right-wing positions, and feminism, in turn, has expanded to a variety of left-wing positions. A new argument had begun, but the skeptics’ opponents were quite different this time—largely cut from the same cloth, often highly educated, and accustomed to having a principled discussion. This ought to have been a formidable obstacle, but shockingly, they had no real need for a change of strategy—rather, they simply took initiative and immediately treated their former compatriots with the same derision as they did their Creationist enemies of old, and business as usual largely continued, with only the involved factions changed.
It took some time for feminists to realize that they were no longer discussing ideas with comrades, but in a proper brand war. Rather appropriately, the skeptic community’s critics provide them the pejorative name “Rationals(TM),” indicating, quite accurately, that they have reduced logical discourse to a brand name to disguise the inherently emotional and performative discourse they actually provide. By branding themselves as rational, by giving their promise to their consumers, the Skeptics were able to survive a drastic change in political identity without losing a large section of their audience, and indeed gaining a considerable portion more–many of whom may have been their political rivals a few years earlier. As their acerbic atheism became sidelined to their anti-feminism, creationists and Christians were drawn into a community where they were once a defining anethema. The YouTuber Creationist Cat further demonstrates this in a video linked below.
Behold: The Future of SKEPTICISM! | Creationist Cat
(You can see immediately that he came from the same school of performance as the skeptics—note the thumbnail design, title, like bar, etc. I apologize in advance if his shtick is a little grating.)
In this marketplace of ideas, there is no clear delineation between the sales pitch and the product—the outrage and comedy and bluster are what is offered, largely ticketed as entertainment, and once you have bought that you have bought the product proper. Therefore, an enemy is needed to maintain controversy. The salespeople themselves do not necessarily consciously seek out opponents, but understand they rely on such on an instinctual level. They may wish for their enemies to disappear in their videos, but their revenue is reliant on the constant production of some new object of outrage. And there is no better way to produce this outrage than the spectacular live debate.
3. Debate: Entertainment vs. Education
Here is where the differences between our Idea Mall example and a typical mall begin to widen. In the Idea Mall of YouTube (much like its Cable News predecessor) debate is a popular spectacle. Debates and response videos are often framed in gladiatorial terms, an epic clashing of minds and personalities not too dissimilar from a professional wrestling match. Such debates rarely have proper framing or moderation, and instead tend to descend into rabbit trails and personal hammering. Channels often follow-up their debates with a sort of post-analysis, often carrying provocative titles with all caps for emphasis, in the manner seen with Thunderf00t’s videos. This is debate as entertainment, and it is quite different from debate as education. Predictably, the former is far more popular. Let us look at two contrasting examples.
First, let’s look at Blaire White’s video, “Heated Debate with a Genderqueer Feminist,” where she debates with fellow YouTuber ContraPoints. Contra brings many sources to the front when she needs to back up a point, and refutes many of Blaire’s assertions without Blaire offering much in terms of factual counter-argument. But the general consensus in the comments is that Contra lost. Looking at the performative aspect of the debate, it’s not hard to see why—Contra wore a silly-looking wig to pass off as a joke, but became genuinely angry as the conversation went on, while Blaire remained composed. Even as her actual points were refuted or her arguments contradicted eachother within minutes, Blaire never lost the tempo or rhythm of the debate, and remained firmly in control of the performance. Two things can be noted about this debate—first, it’s poorly moderated. The moderator, Sh0eOnHead, rarely interjects in the conversation, or does anything to alter it. Second, the framing of the debate was personal, on Contra’s assertion that Blaire was a “bully,” which offered a natural slide into the personal, mudslinging environment Blaire was accustomed to and consistently slid the narrative of the debate away from any factual points. Throughout the debate, Blaire remains the superior saleswoman, as Contra–despite having a superior argument on her side whenever the debate slid into serious points of facts–simply lacks the performative skill necessary to compete in this particular arena. This is a debate of entertainment–and Contra only succeeded in entertaining her detractors with an incompetent show.
Heated Debate w/ Genderqueer Feminist | Blaire White
Now let us look at a contrasting example, a debate between YouTuber “Sargon of Akkad” and Dr. Kristie Winters. Sargon’s skills are largely complimentary to Blaire’s–he’s an excellent showman, deftly conjuring emotions of outrage and derisive laughter from his audience towards whatever target he chooses. But he suddenly removed from a context where those skills are worthwhile. The debate has a specific question to be answered, has enforced, uninterruptable timeslots, active moderators, and prerequisite sources the debate partners must each cite. Suddenly, the bluster that would’ve won Sargon a debate in his own arena is useless–he is forcibly muted when he interrupts answers to his own
questions or begins on long demogogic tangents, his lack of sources and information become increasingly clear as he runs out, and Kristie remains sportsmanlike throughout the debate, even reminding the moderators that Sargon has some extra time left. His position truly crumbles in the following exchange late in the debate:
Sargon: “Other people will use different theories [than feminism] to analyze this data.”
Dr. Winters: “Like what?”
Sargon “I don’t know–I don’t care.”
Formal Debate: Sargon of Akkad v Kristi Winters | The Skeptic Feminist
The reader knows what I will extoll now—look past the substance and look at the performance. Sargon performed poorly in this debate not solely because he was incorrect—were the debate framed differently, matters of fact would be made unimportant. He performed poorly because he was prepared for a debate in which facts were secondary to performance.
Sargon made an apologetic follow-up video after his performance:
Reflections on the Kristi Winters Debate | Sargon of Akkad
Note that Sargon’s premiere self-criticisms are largely on his rhetoric. Startlingly, he claims he over-prepared for the debate. If one is married to the premise that Sargon was preparing for a meeting of factual claims, this seems preposterous: YouTuber Hbomberguy responds that Sargon “doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and he wants to know and care less,” in the video linked below. He mentions the debate as an aside to criticizing a petition Sargon made. Video linked below:
Sargon’s Petition: A Measured Response | Hbomberguy
But perhaps Hbomberguy missed what preparation Sargon was referring to—Sargon likely over-prepared for a specific kind of debate, the kind that is won with bluster, demagogic rhetoric, and grandstanding—not with sources and carefully constructed arguments.
The principle difference between ContraPoints and Dr. Winters is not solely that Contra was a poor debater and Winters was a good one, or that Blaire was a good debater while Sargon was a bad one–their background, skill set, and approach to debate are largely similar. Rather, the principle difference was a matter of framing and moderation. Freeform debates between people who talk into cameras for money are uniquely disposed to descend to clashes of personality and ultimately goes to whoever is quickest with a quip or loudest with an assertion. Since debate on YouTube is so rarely moderated in a professional manner, we can expect far more examples in lieu of Blaire vs. Contra – the facts, even while being stated, will be obscured by showmanship.
4. The Marketplace & The Spectacle
In Guy Debord’s critique of consumer culture, “The Society of the Spectacle,” he argues that society is taken over by a spectacle as a side effect of late capitalism:
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” -The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 1
in which passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity:
“The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than “that which appears is good, that which is good appears. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.” -ibid, thesis 12
Debord notes that not only does this degrade knowledge about the real world, but it also hinders critical thought. We see this demonstrated in the branding of the skeptical community: the spectacle of commodity fetishism has crept into the very ideologies we hold, each one being treated as a brand name, even the very concepts of logic and reason reduced to a sales pitch:
“…The spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of the conditions of existence. It is its own product, and it has made its own rules: it is a pseudo-sacred entity. It shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market. All community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement in which the forces that could grow by separating are not yet reunited.” -ibid, thesis 25
This spectacle, which Debord describes as a fundamental aspect of modern capitalism, makes it increasingly difficult for people with opposing ideologies to dialogue with each other, not because those people themselves are simply closed-minded sorts, but because the medium they interact with supplants their discussion with passive identification. While YouTube is our given example of an Idea Mall, it’s far from the only one available online—Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr also have automatic algorithms which conspire to straddle you into a particular way of looking at the world. This is why people on opposing sides of a given political spectrum appear to operate with two different sets of facts or relevant news, and what might be front page news for a solid week on one side might barely get noticed on the other, or only commented on once or twice dismissively.
Worse, we begin to internalize the spectacle as this passive identification becomes a greater part of our self-identification, and we see ourselves, or even the people we’d like to be, in the machine-made gestalt of opinions and data which, ultimately, exists not to uplift us, but to maximize our exposure to advertising. Even being aware of this horror does not offer escape from it—fooling the algorithm gets increasingly difficult, and even attempts at centrism or a balanced media diet can become their own brand with their own competitors—there are plenty of young centrists who extoll the virtues of “hearing both sides” while simultaneously looking down their noses towards either for not listening to each other enough. This is not solely a personal failing, but demonstrates there is no way to game the system–the house always wins.
We need not aspire to The Free Marketplace of Ideas. We already live in it—and it is not the calm, collected forum of conversation one might expect from Plato’s Academy, but a cacophony of performative outrage and mockery we might expect from Maury Povich or Judge Judy. Angry laughter will supplant nigh-any chance of serious discourse, and in a marketplace measured in attention rather than quality of discourse, it will always win.
Nor should we aspire to any modification of this ideal, such as a controlled marketplace. Which megacorporation or government agency do you trust to moderate your discourse? Should Google, or the US Government, begin its own official news channel on YouTube and aggressively drown out their competitors by force? What would this even achieve, except another iteration of this marketplace’s previous iteration, similar in form principally to cable news?
Those who want their ideas to flourish in the grand scheme of human thought have no choice but to join this marketplace of entertainment, and there may be ways to eke out a living on its sidelines without ultimately selling your soul to the aggrandized mythology of the debate or spectacular outrage news pieces. But personality, shock, and humor will forever have an advantage on coherent analysis unless we ourselves take initiative to ensure they do not.
Perhaps in focusing on our own, smaller communities, we may be able to create a space where such performances are not tolerated, where people with opposing ideas can soberly discuss their differing approaches and improve themselves. It may feel like we’re fighting a doomed guerrilla war against vastly superior opponents, but it’s doubtful we’re the only ones involved, and we can always do more in our own local communities and with our friends to encourage this approach to discourse.
So, at least in our private lives, let’s boycott the Marketplace of Ideas, and instead, let’s have a Harvest Festival of Ideas—don’t bargain with a consumer audience over competitors, share your ideas freely and let your former competitors, now compatriots, speak too. Perhaps we can reach a point where we are no longer in a struggle with one another, but in a combined struggle towards truth–perhaps our different ideas can cooperate instead of competing, and make the world a better place together. Perhaps there is still a place, somewhere on this blasted hellscape of spectacle and advertisement, for civil discourse in 2017.
6. Personal Notes
With that out of the way; this topic is deeply important to me. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of self-criticism and reframing the idea I have of “culture war” not to mean right vs. left, but rather parties interested in having useful conversations versus parties interested in maximizing the attention aggregated to them. Even as I write this, I have to admit there is a part of me that admits we must descend into Realpolitik—vacuous and insidious as it might be, an idea MUST engage in the marketplace of ideas to flourish, and however well-considered their beliefs may be, those considerations are meaningless if they don’t have the showmanship to back it up.
But engaging in that marketplace seriously inevitably means you’ll get infected by it, drawn into the deleterious, swirling whirlpool of neo-celebrity gossip and putting on your own “showman’s face” to best draw a crowd. Eventually, the line between you and that face gets blurred, and you can even lose control of it as people expect you to adhere to what you present to them rather than who you are as a person.
In a social media landscape, this is a consideration EVERYONE has to bring to the table. I actually feel really uncomfortable showing my real face on most social media because it feels like an admission that a particular swirl of my social media footprint represents the whole of who I am as a person, even though I know it doesn’t. (There’s a great film on this concept written with astounding prescience in the 90s, Satoshi Kon’s “Perfect Blue.” I have to recommend you give it a watch sometime, but be ready for some seriously messed up themes of sexual assault and violence.)
If you actually read this monster, good on you. I worked hard on sourcing everything and keeping a solid, structured, logical through-line. I hope it made you think a bit, and I’m excited to learn what you think.