The Sad Machinery of Controversy Creation

Ben Haggerty is having a tough week. The artist known as Macklemore is coming off one hell of a year, however. His breakaway hit ‘Thrift Shop’ has amassed more than 533 million views. He went home with two Grammys this year after an incredible performance in which 33 same-sex marriages took place. In short, dude’s got heart.


But like any ascension, numerous detractors are trying to drag him down. Earlier this week this one website, more concerned with hits than content, helped create a controversy over Macklemore’s costume at a surprise EMP performance in Seattle. Charges of anti-Semitism blew up Twitter in seconds.

You can see the costume in the picture above, alongside a shot of Greg Jacobs’s costume in a video for his band’s 1990 hit, ‘The Humpty Dance.’ Both involve equally irrelevant masquerading. As far as I’m aware, Shock G’s enlarged nose never sent people into a downward spiral of racism and retorts. Then again, this was pre-Internet when journalists, for the most part, were actually writers.

I’m not here to defend Macklemore’s music. I like ‘Thrift Shop.’ It’s a fun pop song with an inspiring message. In fact, all of his music has an elevating quality, which is why he’s become so immensely popular. Before this past year—the man’s been releasing independent albums and touring since 2000—he was predominantly confined to America’s heartland and northern territories, dropping rhymes about dealing with addiction, supporting same sex marriage and the lunacy of brand name retail.

Critics railing against ‘Thrift Shop’ probably never took the time to watch the 15-minute documentary on the making of the video—perhaps the length was beyond their capacity for attention. The origins of this self-funded project, with the rapper himself loading up the rental truck with equipment, offer an insight into his creative integrity. He had no idea the track would blow up like it did. He was following his passion.

That gets lost in moments like the response to his EMP performance. Logic flies out the window. Why would someone who has spent fourteen years building a career uplifting his culture out of a tragic history of racism and bigotry decide to throw it all away to take a jab at Jews? He wouldn’t, and didn’t, yet people are more concerned with bolstering their own public image by taking down those who have achieved more success than them. And that’s a shame. 

In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr reports on the ways that the screen is different than any other technological medium in the past. The myriad distractions make it challenging to focus for long periods of time, resulting in what he calls an inability to engage in ‘deep thinking.’ As he writes,

With writing on the screen, we’re still able to decode text quickly—we read, if anything, faster than ever—but we’re no longer guided toward a deep, personally constructed understanding of the text’s connotations. Instead, we’re hurried off toward another bit of related information, and then another, and another. This strip-mining of ‘relevant content’ replaces the slow excavation of meaning.

Hence, Macklemore is a racist. No worries about what he’s stood for all this time.

I experienced this last week when writing about my recent experiences dealing with cancer. While the support was overwhelming, on the website’s Facebook page I read a number of such comments: my cancer had to have been caused by inner guilt; prayer would be more effective than doctors; magnets could prove more helpful than chemotherapy.

I’m predominantly immune to nonsense like this, but it does point to a deeper cultural problem. Instead of thinking through what is being written, people respond with whatever is in their head at that moment. This is a longstanding issue with the comments section on websites and blogs, detracting from substantial progress that could be made with constructive criticism and honest dialogues. 'Look at me' replaces 'let's investigate this.'

Hence, Macklemore. As long as he’s on the scene, others will continue to promote their own agendas at his expense. That says much more about them than him. Instead of standing on the shoulder of giants, it once again points to our sad trend of trying to bring them down to our level.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.