I’m a huge Queen fan. And with the Olympics coming up, “We Are the Champions” seems a fitting song choice for our theme this week. I’ve always thought of Americans as champions. We’re the best – in all sorts of ways. It used to be that we defined success by whether the country was succeeding – generally prospering domestically and succeeding on the world stage against foreign enemies. And then inside of this bigger frame, we did American politics as a secondary activity.
But now it seems that winning – being the champions — in politics is the primary fixation. Our political system is not primarily concerned with how the country is fairing, but rather has been reduced to whether or not our side is “winning.” With winning being measured in a variety of ways – by how many followers we have, what kind of news coverage we attract, how many congressional seats we hold, if we have the White House, how many governor’s mansions and state legislatures we control. If we command enough attention and hold enough of these seats of power to be dominant, shut out the other side and not be required to compromise on any part of our agenda – well, then we are “winning.” And in this context, communication of all kinds is weaponized.
Everything from who you buy your pillows from to what brand of ice cream you eat are now apparently signals for what political team you are on. And don’t get me started on mask-wearing – that’s a sure fire tip off to your political leanings.
I’ve written before about how everything we do is a form of communicating.
Every minute of every day, we as humans are communicating. By the things we do, the things we don’t do, the things we say, and don’t say. Every moment we are communicating something to someone. Every utterance, every eyebrow raise, every motion, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the pictures we post – all communication all the time. And 9 times out of 10 (particularly these days with social media) our communication is done with an intent to get a reaction.
Communication is so important to our human experience we are constantly inventing new ways to do it. We used to carve on cave walls, then eventually we spoke and wrote, we sent telegraphs, talked on the telephone, we broadcast over the radio and eventually television. Hell, at one point we even wrote in the sky. Now we send emails and text messages (talking live is so 1990s). And we spend countless hours posting on Facebook, tweeting, Snapchatting and Instagramming. Because, after all, a picture is worth a thousand words…we take that quite literally these days.
Why do we need all these ways to communicate? It’s exhausting! What is up with us? Well, I believe it’s simply our nature. We need to express ourselves to one another – to create connection. We need to belong. Create community. We need help and to help others. We need to know each other. We need to express our emotions — our desires, our disappointments and our triumphs. It’s as fundamental as our need to breath.
And because communication is so essential to our daily lives – our happiness and our survival – in today’s over-saturated communications environment, there is intense competition for our attention.
The media platform Axios in a recent article stated “Attention is a commodity.” That stopped me in my tracks. It hadn’t occurred to me in that way, but they are 100% right. Being able to attract and hold people’s attention, or better yet get them to actively participate in online conversation, is a huge commodity these days. It is the heart and soul of brand building in today’s media environment. There are a ton of young people today who’s career goal is to have their own YouTube channel. Hundreds if not thousands of people have become celebrities based on their ability to attract an online audience – and most have been able to monetize that activity.
All of these channels of communication allow us to customize and choose what content we devote our attention to. Not like the olden days of my youth where you literally had 4-5 channels of television and you just had to accept what showed up on those channels when you happened to be sitting in that one spot in your house that had the magic box in it. Now, content is “ON DEMAND” literally – we get it when we demand it. And we get what we demand when we demand it. This is so great, right?! With all this content, people will be smarter and more informed. Everyone will know more about the world, culture and science. We will know how to take better care of ourselves, our neighbors and better educate our children. Right?
Well, so far, it seems not so much. Right now, what we seem to be getting is not the best of what is possible given this massive amount of information at our beck and call. What we seem to be getting is, well, a retreat into what is familiar and comfortable. Despite all that is available to us — imagine a beautiful buffet of the most amazing and healthy food – we seem to be going for the mac and cheese. Comfort food. We are seeking content that reinforces our sense of self and belonging. We seek people who look like us, think like us and live like us. We are not seeking anything that challenges our thinking or expands our horizons. And our political system is reinforcing this feedback loop. And God forbid if my comfort food is mac and cheese and yours is meatloaf. We will go to war online over what it means to be part of the meatloaf crowd versus the mac and cheese crowd.
Over time, in this media climate, we have forgotten that we are all in this together. That the country – and its success – is what matters. Not our personal success or the success of our respective team. Major politicians seem more concerned with the growth of their Twitter following than the economic growth of their districts, let alone the country. I see no disruptive force on the horizon to change the state of play – as long as the media business model remains the same.
I for one am on the lookout for the disruptive force that incentivizes a focus on the greater good — what’s best for the country and being champions on the world stage. Both sides claim in their talking points that they believe they are fighting for what’s best for the country. But it doesn’t take long for the true motive to be revealed – winning. Or put another way, beating the other side. “We are the champions my friend, and we’ll keep on fighting ‘til the end.”
The way I see it, there is no American flag with just blue or just red – we need both. Or everyone loses.