OCALA, Fla., May 5, 2014 — Observing today’s political discourse has allowed me to realize something: Most people have no clue what they are talking about.
Whether they are pundits, politicians or prospective voters, people all seem to be focused more on a narrative than on a fact-based discussion. This leaves the country with misinformation, if not intellectual, deficit.
For those of us who have not bought into a narrative, the question of what has gotten into our friends’ and neighbors’ minds cannot be ignored. Thankfully, the life’s work of one man can teach us more than a few lessons.
Marshall McLuhan was a revolutionary. Though few outside of select academic circles recognize the Canadian philosopher by name, we owe virtually every development in modern media theory to him. Aside from predicting the the Internet roughly thirty years before it became a reality, he coined the famous phrase “The medium is the message” in his 1964 bestseller, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
Ever since then, this fundamental insight to the process of advertising has guided strategists from Madison Avenue to Main Street in presenting their products persuasively.
Considering that, McLuhan’s aphorism should be regarded as one of the most practical in popular vernacular. If you are served a steak dinner cooked to perfection on a garbage lid instead of on fine china, you will be repulsed. That the dinner itself is excellent matters not a bit. The first impression has been made, a hungry stomach turned into a nauseated one.
As one might imagine, McLuhan’s medium-slash-message connection can be seen in the political arena. For example, throughout the 2008 election cycle, when Barack Obama spoke about economic inequality, he was jeered endlessly by right wing partisans. However, exactly four years later, when Newt Gingrich used a similar argument against Mitt Romney, the very same partisans cheered him on.
How could this be?
Simple: When Gingrich delivered his spiel, he did so from the self-described position of a hardcore Reaganite. The aura derived from this was enough to convince those partisans to accept a position they otherwise would have found totally unacceptable.
Indeed, for a great many people, perception simply is reality.
Considering the monumental impact of McLuhan’s perspective, one might wonder why nobody crafted such a meme long before him. Could it be that someone did, but stated it in a considerably more nuanced way? Or, was McLuhan’s being on the forefront of science and commentary just that?
In either case, the lesson provided is sound: if one has something to sell or an idea to promote, style often eclipses substance. I would argue that this is a monstrosity, but believe that self-confirming biases would lead most to disagree with me.
Then again, the medium is the message.
Much of this article was first published as The Medium is the Message: A Simple Reality in a Complex World in Blogcritics Magazine.