I have always been suspicious of cheerleaders. Not literal cheerleaders as in the (usually) female visual accessories to (usually) male sporting events (a sexist and retrograde phenomenon, if ever there was one, but that’s another post). No, the cheerleaders I’m thinking of are those who uncritically line up behind their preferred political party or religious perspective or ideology and, well, cheer along.
I am suspicious of people who seem literally incapable of noticing blind spots, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies in their own perspectives, who are resolutely unwilling to acknowledge that the other party might occasionally make a decent point, who seem to think that any admission that their team isn’t one hundred percent right about one hundred percent of things one hundred percent of the time is an admission of defeat, a concession of precious territory in a zero-sum game.
It seems like there are more cheerleaders than reflective citizens out there these days. This could simply be because of the Internet. In a context where traditional media is dying and everyone is desperately scrambling to secure clicks and the advertising dollars that drive them, media outlets are incentivized to traffic heavily in content that fuels our primal emotions of fear, anger, and anxiety. Each of us can easily select news sources that neatly reinforce every opinion we already have while stoking the fires of our rage at the obvious immorality and stupidity of others and plunging us further into anxiety about how the world is a very scary place full of very wicked and dangerous enemies. And that’s with more traditional forms of media. Social media is a different animal entirely. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter seem virtually engineered for cheerleaders, providing a 24/7 stage for the hyper-righteous, the already convinced, the true believer.
Now, I have heard some people describe cheerleading of the sort I’ve described as strategic in nature, a necessary evil in order to achieve pragmatic outcomes. In private, they would agree that their team isn’t right all the time and the other team occasionally says something worth praising, but they can’t admit this publicly because it might hurt their team’s chances of, say, winning an election. I get this, sort of, to a point. But it’s kind of sad that this is where we are, isn’t it? Mature, thoughtful discourse that evaluates ideas on their own merits instead of the political (or religious or ideological) garb that they’re dressed in seems utterly beyond us. Instead, we’re reduced to cheering along with the partial truths and bloated personalities and shameless advertising and info-tainment served up by our team in the hopes that in so doing we’ll get the less terrible option (in our view) for another four years.
But even while I acknowledge that some of our cheerleading might be strategic in nature and thus at least somewhat understandable, I think far more frequently it is down to basic human tribalism. We wrap up so much of our identities in our chosen team, particularly in culture characterized by pluralism in all its forms and the absence of anything resembling a shared meta-narrative. In a context where we all have this felt imperative to be constantly choosing and creating and curating our identities for ourselves (again, heavily fuelled by the media we consume), to admit that our side is flawed and conflicted and not altogether trustworthy is in a sense to admit that we’re flawed and conflicted and not altogether trustworthy. And who wants to do that?
The other day, I got an automated email from my Goodreads app informing me that there was a new book out by an author I’ve read. I was pleased to learn that Canadian author Louise Penny has a new novel out in the Armand Gamache series of murder mysteries. I’ve read pretty much all of these over the last few years on the recommendation of friends. They’re fairly formulaic, in many ways, but a Louise Penny book is a good thing to have on the nightstand. The anchor of the series, both morally and with respect to narratives themselves, is Armand Gamache, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Québec (the provincial police force). I forget which book it was earlier in the series, but at some point Gamache is passing on “four things that lead to wisdom” to one of his juniors in the police force. The key to wisdom, according to Gamache, is to become well-practiced in four crucial statements: “I don’t know. I need help. I’m sorry. I was wrong.”
It’s hard to imagine four statements that would get less traction or fit more awkwardly in our present context, characterized as it is by fervent moralism, reactive resentment, and selective outrage. Each one concedes far too much, intellectually and morally! And yet how desperately our moment is in need of a widespread embrace of these four statements and the wisdom they represent. Each one, an expression of human limitation and moral complexity and culpability. Each one, an implicit acknowledgement that others have something to offer us, even if they have a different perspective than us, even if they remain wrong about important things. Each one, an admission that there is a truth of the matter that is bigger and more complicated than our team and we who cheer them on.