The polarising world of therapeutic politics

The more personalised 'news' now consumed via social media is building political barriers rather than breaking them down.

Nicholas Barrett
24 February 2016

Flickr/Michael Vadon

, CC BY-SA 2.0

How do you know you’re right? It’s a consequential question because for a democratic society to be responsive, there have to be occasional shifts of public perception. But in recent years, our relationship with the news has nudged us away from the ability to develop a common consensus. Instead of learning about an ambiguous and complicated moral world, we increasingly seek reassurance because it is easier than ever. The result is an increasingly polarised political landscape with the potential to delay and disrupt the flow of new ideas: 'therapeutic politics'.

In short, therapeutic politics is what happens when people engage with politics in a way that makes them feel good about their previously held beliefs instead of confronting challenging new ideas. It is the habit of reading, writing and watching that which conforms with our pre-existing political positions. Many of us are being cut off from the realities of the world around us. How did it become so easy to get lost in our favourite narratives and what are our therapeutic reading habits doing to the political landscape?

Jeff Jarvis is an American journalist and author. He writes BuzzMachine, a popular blog about the news media. Back in April, Jarvis delivered a lecture at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. It was called “To Hell with Mass Media”. In the Palazzo dei Priori, once known as Perugia’s “New Palace of the People”, Jarvis enthusiastically declared that the age of journalists trying to talk to all the people at once was over. The mass media, he said, had been killed by digital abundance. To survive and succeed in today’s competitive media landscape, publishers have to talk to their audience as individuals, as opposed to a diverse populous. Journalists, he says, should aim to provide a service, a more personalised experience for the reader. This tactic is entirely understandable, the days of loyally subscribing to one newspaper or gathering around the television for an evening news broadcast are coming to an end. The digital revolution has allowed a diverse range of website, blogs, YouTube channels and podcasts to democratise the old world. There is more choice than ever and that in itself is becoming a problem.

After his speech, I had the chance to ask Jarvis whether we should be worried about people becoming entrenched and polarised in their political beliefs. I cited the persistent and petulant denials of man made climate change on Fox News. “History,” he told me “has always had idiots and jerks who refuse to pay attention to the facts.” He’s not wrong, but these idiots and jerks now enjoy their own alternative reality of tabloid pseudoscience and in America global warming has become a partisan issue, with one party trying to solve the problem while the other bury their heads in the sand. How could they possibly get away with this kind of flat-earth denial in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence? They get away with it because the providers and consumers of news have become intolerant of opposing ideas and settled for therapeutic politics.

Instead of providing a news service, Fox provides a confirmation bias service. Initially, the channel’s predecessor, Television News Incorporated (TVN), was conceived by Roger Ailes in 1970 in a memo he wrote for his paranoid boss, President Richard Nixon. The memo was entitled “A Plan for Putting the GOP (The Republican Party) on TV News.” In the memo, Ailes writes “Today TV news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: people are lazy. With television you just sit, watch, listen. The thinking is done for you.” The point was also to “provide pro-Administration” news on behalf of the Republican President. And while TVN died after failing to save Nixon from the newspapers, Ailes would find himself establishing Fox News to do a similar job 20 years later.

Fox News, is probably the most obvious example of therapeutic politics. The typical viewer is old, white, male and conservative. It would be inaccurate to describe the belligerent Fox News anchors as propagandists because propaganda is designed to persuade. Those who indulge in the journalism of therapeutic politics are rarely propagandists, more often they resemble prison wardens guarding the ideological exits. Each event provides fresh building material to bolster the political silos of the mind. To the left wing therapists, a race riot is always the result of racial and economic exclusion, to the right-wing therapists a race riot is what happens when society allows a deficit of personal responsibility. Nobody learns anything because each side simply becomes further entrenched. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and the ad-revenue they can generate, this phenomenon has now travelled beyond commentary and into reportage; a trend well documented by Jordan Liles in his criminally underappreciated YouTube series, The Rise of Political Clickbait.

The internet is a perfect environment for therapeutic politics to flourish. It is easier than ever to banish opposing writers and online publications from your Facebook news feed, which has become one of the most popular sources of news on earth. And the rise of Facebook as a news service isn’t just a habit of young people, a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center indicated that the increased trend of Americans who regard Facebook as a news source (now 63% of us) cuts across almost every demographic. So instead of us all seeing the same news stories, we each curate our own comfortable worlds of relentlessly refreshed reassurance. If the bubble is ever pierced, it’s often done with the articles shared by our friends, who usually share our socio-economic backgrounds and are unlikely to harbour views that differ dramatically from our own. We use the news we do like to service our own biases, while the sources of news and analysis we don’t like, be they people, blogs, or news organisations, can be unfollowed and permanently disregarded in an instant. This proliferation of soft-core scorn for the other side matters because history is bound the present us with new and challenging problems we will need to solve.

If these problems become partisan, as climate change has in America, they will be exacerbated by zealots. Right now, the most infamous unintended consequence of Fox News is the ongoing phenomenon of Donald Trump. The Republican front-runner tells his followers that those in the press are incorrigible liars. They can’t be trusted. Trump has recently been described as “the Uber of politicians” because he has cut out the middlemen between himself and the electorate to disrupt the established political order. In doing so he is effectively sealing off his core-supporters from critical influences, he encourages their right wing reactionary tendencies and they do the same to him. The reason Trump can describe Mexicans as “murderers” and “rapists” as well as threatening to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, is partly because there is nobody left to define the line in the sand. Ultimately, Roger Ailes lost control over the phenomenon he created, Trump and others like him have caused havoc in the republican primaries. The monster is no longer in need of Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, in Britain, therapeutic politics has taken hold of the left. After its defeat in the 2015 election, the Labour party turned in on itself. Party members, who represent a relatively narrow segment of the British population, elected a staunch socialist with little or no regard for the wider electorate. The ascent of Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as a repudiation of Tony Blair’s third way, when the Labour party capitulated to the right on economic policy, the legacy of which was permanently stained by Britain’s disastrous involvement in the Iraq war. While losing popularity on the left, the domestic direction of the Labour party under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did reflect wider public attitudes, which have tended to turn towards the left on social issues and towards the right on economic issues.

In 2015, the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn revitalised many on the left who felt betrayed or left behind by New Labour’s third way adaptation. The problem for the left is that in Britain, they have always been a minority. That’s why during the rise of Corbyn, the party’s membership went through the roof while the party’s popularity continued to fall through the floor. There are now almost no serious political commentators or pollsters in the UK who believe that Corbyn could win a general election, and many of his supporters agree, but that doesn’t seem to matter because for many of them the point isn’t to win and gain power, the point is to have a principled opposition to David Cameron. The problem is that while strongly held principles without power can make people feel good, they can’t do much more than that.

Supporters would be forgiven for believing that Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Nigel Farage, and even centrist figures like Hilary Clinton, could rebuild their relationships with the pubic if only they were covered with fairness and accuracy. The problem is that the new world of therapeutic politics makes this almost impossible. Many Corbyn supporters suspect that most of the British press is constantly preparing to persecute him, regardless of what he actually says or does. These supporters would probably be correct in their assumption. But that’s because the British media editors know that their readers don’t read political news to be challenged and are taking advantage of this. The only way for the best leaders and ideas to prosper is for us the readers to afford the opposing side the same degree of curiosity and oxygen that our own ideas would need from them if they were ever to grow. There is no single political tribe currently capable of shaping the world by itself, and none of them are going away any time soon.

At this point, therapeutic politics becomes an intellectual dead-end because our political opponents will almost never change their mind. A recent study by American social scientists indicated that the best way to make and win an argument against a political antagonist is by understanding and adopting their moral perspectives and explaining yourself from their point of view. We lose arguments when we overestimate the appeal of our own values and argue for our positions solely from our own perspectives. When we do that, we simply alienate our opponent. I emailed the study’s co-author Matthew Feinberg, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the University of Toronto. He explained that “we experience our moral attitudes as intuitive facts that everyone else must also experience. It is extremely difficult for us to take the moral perspective of others because we often do not even recognize that others have a different perspective, and if we do, we automatically view this other perspective as wrong and not worthy of us comprehending.” I then also asked Feinberg how we could break through to those whose views we find to be the most alien in comparison with our own. I cited Donald Trump’s supporters. “I would say that no matter what we believe ourselves, we should try to understand where everyone else is coming from. This, by no means, suggests that we must agree with their point of view. But we must understand why these individuals are so entrenched, and by understanding their perspective, we'll be less likely to dehumanize them – which just entrenches them further – and more likely to find ways to persuade them, or at least loosen their grip on the entrenched positions they hold.”

Jeff Jarvis was right to predict the demise of the mass media; therapeutic politics is certainly here to stay. The only thing we can do to preserve an open political and public sphere is to be aware of the enclosed communities we so easily wander into and to constantly challenge ourselves and the information we consume. When reading or watching news, opinions or analysis, we must always ask ourselves what we are learning, whether or not we are predisposed to like what’s in front of us and most importantly of all, whether or not it bolsters a familiar sense of ideological comfort. The best ideas, perspectives and narratives will survive such scrutiny and if you think you possess the best ideas already then you’ll have nothing to lose.

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