How Clickbait Punditry Is Blinding Us

Stop saying "John Oliver Destroys Trump." Nobody is being destroyed.

Politics Features Media
How Clickbait Punditry Is Blinding Us

In this life, there are several sure things. Death, taxes, ninjas—oh yes, and the constant habit that liberal sites have of telling me that some pundit has DESTROYED or DEMOLISHED, CRUSHED, or EVISCERATED conservatives. This kind of language is usually used on Hot Take clickbait links.

EVISCERATION does happen — occasionally, someone is metaphorically destroyed in a debate — but it occurs so rarely that we ought to stop using that term, and terms like these. It’s a serious diminishment of the language, and more to the point, it annoys me. I’ve seen it so often that it’s lost all its weight.

Look, I also believe in hyperbolic and exaggerated terms, to put it mildly; they’re my outrageous bread and my utterly astounding butter. But use of exaggerated terms should always be placed within a larger context: you can say Colbert blew the roof off the universe with tongue firmly in cheek.

However, if you are telling me with utter sincerity that someone WRECKED SHOP and your shop is only slightly mildewed, I am going to cast doubt on your powers of observation.

If you’re going to claim someone was WRECKED by punditry, it better be a shot of the opposition sputtering and spinning futilely on the floor. Otherwise, you’re not describing destruction. Being dissed is not the same thing as being EVISCERATED.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Jon Stewart too. For years and years I agreed that he SLAYED or DOMINATED the competition. Remember when he went on Crossfire? That was a legitimate DESTRUCTION. Well done, thou good and faithful comedy show host.

Yet that noble mantle began to seem more dented, more basic, when Stewart, even the godly Stewart, went into full half-life decay and most of his critiques decayed into shrugs and “Whuhhhh?”-type reactions. Soon, even his use of the most entry-level question was regarded as a dank rhetorical atom bomb, worthy of standing ovation.

And even if Stewart had stayed gold right up until the end, the problem of Hot Take Clickbait would’ve remained.

In our society, we use euphemisms for impolite words: we call torture “enhanced interrogation.” But, in turn the euphemism becomes dirtied by its own place in the language. So new words are added, until those words in turn are degraded, and so on forever.

For example, during the Cold War, countries who were unaligned with the Soviets or the U.S. became the “Third World.” These were generally nations with post-colonial status, or countries thought “peripheral” by the “core” states. Most of these countries were poor and possessed little power. Eventually the term “Third World” was used to mean “a poor, under-developed, backwards nation.” This was thought, correctly, to be a pejorative phrase, so the term “Developing Country” was used. Steven Pinker called this dynamic the “euphemism treadmill.”

This process I’m describing I call the Evisceration Treadmill, and there are two problems with it.

The first is that it’s an abuse of the language. The most obvious point here is that if you claim that someone or some point is metaphorically DESTROYED when it is not, in fact, destroyed, then you lessen the impact of the word.

I make this point with a caveat. Generally, being a member of the language police is double-edged sword. The trade-off we get for a gentler and more precise way of speaking is the existence of linguistic conservatism and tedious punditry.

There’s a limited amount of time here on the Earth, and the less I have to endure Bookstore Clerk No. 1453 explain the Latin roots of the term “decimated,” the better. Remember, every minute you spend listening to some beardo explain about the right use of the term “graphic novel” is a moment you could spent doing other things: watching the sun rise over the bodies of your enemies, for instance, or carving off-white driftwood into your own very private bust of Claire Underwood.

In this case, however, language policing is necessary, because this isn’t just a century-old square like William Safire telling you that his dickey is spinning because someone didn’t use French in their fanfiction correctly. This is about the infantilizing of my beloved left. If a pundit is said to ANNIHILATE, EXPLODE or even RITUALISTICALLY EAT THE SOULS OF HER ENEMIES, I need some follow-up.

Otherwise, these will become terms which mean nothing, and we will have to go find new ones. In other words, if you call literally everything Trump does “fascist,” then it will be harder for everyone to believe you when he really does something fascist. Incidentally, this is how we get to a world where Rahm Emanuel is considered a “liberal.”

The second and far more important problem is that the Evisceration Treadmill gives the audience an idea of political victory which is false. On the Treadmill, political victory is not a thing which one participates in, but a thing which is consumed. The kind of political victory which the Evisceration Treadmill celebrates is not real-world political victory—organized coalitions of people agitating successfully for change—but performative victory. In other words, this is a kind of political practice which isn’t concerned with activity, but with holding a kind of symbolic rhetorical pose. It is a politics which can only be celebrated by a certain set of persons in a certain circle of certain similar values.

Obviously, Oliver is a pundit, and Noah and the rest are as well, and what they’re doing is providing entertainment and information. It’s silly to criticize them for not adequately nationalizing the steel industry, lobbying the Congress, or picking up the swing voter; that’s not what they’re there to do. We can’t fault the satirists for failing to move the world on a lever. The political comedian is a man or woman holding up a mirror.

Is it really their fault if other people love what they say, and professional marketers use words like CRUSH or WOW to advertise what they’re doing?

I can’t criticize people for being excited. What we ought to avoid, however, is the weird mirror-house effect which comes from this media. There is a close marriage between the world as seen on Facebook and the world as seen if one only watches the Daily Show. “But the right does it too,” you say. True; but liberalism prides itself on its rationality and evidence, and avoiding tribalism. The same amen circle which gives aid in times of travail can also bind. Didn’t liberalism suffer from its own epistemic closure this time around?

Living in one’s own media ecosystem is all-too-easy. It doesn’t indicate that a person has been brainwashed by manipulative powers. It simply means that habits are easy to fall into, and that people adopt the inbuilt beliefs of their communities. Indeed, there is nothing sinister about it, any more than there is anything particularly dark and ominous about resting in a chair all day long.

Yet we must pay attention to how much of our time we spend sitting. We must be aware of how easy it is to fall into unhealthy habits in a sedentary life, just as we ought to know how easily, how smoothly received opinion is swallowed once we are on the Evisceration Treadmill. Otherwise, we will find ourselves utterly JAILED and TRAPPED by our own OPINIONS. And it will be much harder to CLICK HERE—or anywhere—TO FIND OUT MORE.

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