Sunday, September 30, 2012

Don't Talk; Communicate.

In the 2004 motion picture Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey's insightful character, Joel, makes a rather profound statement: "Constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating." Joel's assertion should be broadcast across this wonderful country for all to hear, and then blasted directly into the earbuds of the internet prowlers known as blog commenters. This may be prejudiced, and altogether rude, but I always picture these commenters, especially those who hone in on political blogs, as tired, middle-aged men and women sitting in their bathrobes in their dark basements at one in the morning, eyes bloodshot and arms tired from staring at the computer, shaking their fists, and forcefully pounding out hateful comments to those brave bloggers who dare share an opinion contrary to that of said bathrobe-wearing Joe Schmo.

Anonymity on the Internet

Anonymity. Some consider it one of the greatest parts of the Internet. You can say something and not worry about your boss, parents, or kids find out it was you; you can become anyone you want or don’t want to be; and you can practice one of the most frequently cited amendment to the United States Constitution  the first, which establishes free speech. Anonymous sites are often known for their raw, unfiltered material as a result of their anonymity, and the founder of the controversial uncensored online imageboard, 4chan, Christopher “moot” Poole talks about anonymity on his site at a TED talk at the TED2010 convention in February 2010 held in Long Beach, California.

Examining the "Rally to Restore Sanity"

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has always toed the line between wise-cracking faux news and biting social criticism. In interviews, Stewart has always maintained that his place is in the peanut gallery, but in October of 2010, he took an unprecedented step out of the audience and into the political playing field. Jon Stewart (in conjunction with Stephen Colbert) held the Rally to Restore Sanity in the National Mall of Washington D.C. The event's motto? "Take it down a notch, America."
The Rally's website explained, "We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler." The idea of the Rally was to attract no specific demographic or political party, instead to   bring notice the Americans who are alarmed by the dramatically polarizing tactics of both sides. Was this event an embodiment of an American moderation movement?

Unsurprisingly, the answer depends on who you ask. Stewart identified the problem behavior on both sides, calling out Tea Partiers who compared President Obama to Hitler, as well as liberals who claim that President George W. Bush should be deemed a war criminal. To put this in James Klumpp's terms, Stewart's event intended to achieve moderation through transcendence, (as opposed to compromise) by encouraging Americans of all parts of the political spectrum to rise about hate rhetoric and embrace their commonalities. Stewart's intention, however, was distorted by the various filters of the media dialogue.

Fellow pundit Bill Maher criticized Stewart's lack of a partisan stance, saying "It was all nonpartisan and urged cooperation with the moderates on the other side forgetting that Obama tried that and found out...there are no moderates on the other side." Many viewed the rally, which was a likely response to Glenn Beck's "Restore Honor Rally" earlier in the year, in the same location, as a liberal foil Beck's conservative moment. Stewart acknowledges his own left leanings, and his audience base for the Daily Show is primarily liberal, thus there was also a disproportionate turnout of Democratic and liberal citizens. Still another group saw the Rally as little more than a ratings ploy, that had nothing to do changing American politics or rhetoric.

When the day of the Rally came, an estimated 215,000 people turned out to advocate for a change in tone for the political conversation. The event itself consisted of musical artists, appearances by Daily Show correspondents. As well as speeches by Stephen Colbert and Stewart himself. The theme of Stewart's speech, is that that polarization in rhetoric and in government, does not really reflect the divisions with the populace. "If the picture of us were true, of course, our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own?" This goal appeals do the definitions of extremist rhetoric offered by Guttman and Klumpp, because it strives for the absence of divisiveness and the demonization of individuals. 

The validity of Stewart's intent, or the actual success of the resulting Rally is still contested, but seems the Stewart could be an advocate of moderation in our midst. Do you see this effort as a move to moderation (successful or failed), or a clearly partisan movement? Or even a financial ploy?

Donald Trump: A Lesson in Campaign Extremism

Donald Trump recently said, “I feel a lot of people listen to what I have to say.”  This quote perfectly encapsulates the power that Trump believes he possesses, a duty to tell the American people the unaltered truth, no matter how extreme. Trump started his career as the son of a New York mogul but over the past several years has evolved into far more than that.  A man’s journey from business magnate to political personality is not new to American politics, but Trump’s self-positioning as an answer to Obama makes him a perfect reflection of our current political state.

            To fully understand Trump’s current political relevance, one must examine his history.  Donald Trump was not always the conservative firebrand he is today.  In fact, he was originally a supporter of liberal politics.  According to the Business Week article “Trump’s Run for President Requires Memory Loss,” author Kevin Hasset reveals Trumps contributions to Democratic candidates such as Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Harry Reid and Hilary Clinton.  He wasn’t even a registered Republican until 2009, choosing to support withdrawal from Iraq and instating US universal health care.  So what changed? What made a former independent with liberal leanings decry Obama as “the worst President in history” and join the extreme political right?  The answer is a current political environment that more than ever rewards the loud and extreme. 

            Politics has always favored the bold.  The young, brash Kennedy clearly overshadowed the droll Nixon and George W.’s good ol’ boy routine was much preferable to Gore’s pale, bland demeanor. But politics has also always had a filter to self regulate extremists, favoring the moderate voice.  Those deemed too extreme by the American public (an admittedly unreliable judge of character), they were relegated to the sidelines, part of an underground fringe movement.  Fanatical proponents of views such as moon landing doubters or 9/11 conspiracy theorists were sequestered away from the public circle. The onset of the 24-hour news cycle and increase in opinion journalism has changed this balance. No longer silenced, those with radical and even blatantly false viewpoints found a soapbox to reach America.  No where is this more evident than in the “birther movement.”  The belief that President Obama is not a natural born citizen and therefore unfit for office began as a radical movement but soon found acceptance within the mainstream Republican party. Despite the release of his birth certificate in 2008 and legal evidence to the contrary, several Republican party officials demanded more evidence and they soon found a leader in Donald Trump.

TROLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL: Trolling and How it Creates Group Cohesion and Hilarity

What can you do that can put you in jail in the United Kingdom, make and destroy your friendships, all while giving you and those who can take a joke a decent laugh? Bothersome rhetorical questions? No. Trolling? Yes.

But what is Trolling? As defined by Know Your Meme, a website made to describe the functions of the internet to those who are new to and/or are now paying attention to the internet, Trolling is, "an Internet slang term used to describe any Internet user behavior that is meant to intentionally anger or frustrate someone else. It is often associated with online discussions where users are subjected to offensive or superfluous posts and messages in order to provoke a response."

One Expensive Shouting Match

What does 5.8 billion dollars buy? Seriously. What does it buy? A ticket to Mars? A professional sports team? An absurd number of fast food hamburgers? In the end, there is a lot you could do with fifty-eight forklift pallets of Benjamin Franklins, but there is one thing 5.8 billion dollars is guaranteed to buy this year: a heck of a lot of political advertising.
In total, 2012’s US federal elections are set to be the most expensive in history with an expected 5.8 billion spent on rallies, registration drives, and advertisements to sway voters. While this only represents a modest seven percent increase over 2008’s 5.4 billion [1], the thing that makes the money in this year’s election so significant is the way in which it is being channeled. Besides personal war-chests and national party support, independent groups are dumping mountains of cash behind candidates. These “Super PACs” and “social welfare organizations” fly by innocuous names (e.g. “Americans for Prosperity”) but have shown their clout by dropping a deluge of negative advertising on their opponents. As a voter, I wanted to learn more about how these organizations came to be, where the mass of funding is coming from, and if their actions are developing a more bitter and polarized campaign.

How Fear Drives Polarization

Why is it that liberals don’t watch Fox News and conservatives don’t watch MSNBC?  Why do people prefer to talk politics with their like-minded friends rather than with those with differing opinions?  How is it that discussions between liberals and conservatives often end up as argument?  Without attaining too much depth on the matter, one should be able to discover that the answers to these questions are the same as why political issues are expressed as dichotomies, why campaign ads feature personal attacks of opponents, and why news media tends toward the sensationalist rather than the relevant (not that the two are mutually exclusive).Of the many ways in which people do choose to answer these questions, I believe that they can be boiled down to two factors: pride and insecurity, both of which are derived from fear.
            As is often the case, an individual’s beliefs are more than just their beliefs.  They become part of an identity, part of how someone perceives the world, and as a result, an attack on a set of beliefs can become a personal threat.  Now there will always be people who are so set in their ways that they refuse to acknowledge the relative epistemological frailty of the human capacity.  However, I believe that the majority of people realize that most beliefs, regardless of the conviction with which they are held, are not waterproof.  It is the coupling of this vulnerability with the personal nature of one’s assurances that leads to fear and hence polarization.
Having established this base, let’s return to one of the questions from the opening paragraph.  The greatest reason why people are reluctant to enter into discussion with those of differing views is not because they don’t approve of confrontation or because they don’t feel validated in their opinions.  It’s because that very feeling of validation is, in large, reinforced by the stereotype that the other is deficient in some sense, be it in morality, reason or common sense.  When people attempt to justify themselves, they do so by seeking positive reinforcement for their belief system.  However, they also do so by seeking reasons why the alternative is an unacceptable worldview.  In a truly honest discussion, what might then happen?  You might find that you and your opponent might in fact share ground on some issues.  You might find that he/she makes a valid point that’s worth considering.  You might also find that your opponent is not at all morally deficient, but in fact shows several admirable qualities.  More importantly, you might find that you need to reconsider your stance or even admit that you were wrong. 
This can be a terrifying prospect: terrifying enough to make discussions of the kind described above a rare phenomenon.  Rather than accept compromise or defeat, more often than not a discussion will simply devolve into an argument, terrifying enough so that people blockade themselves off with their media and community of choice and terrifying enough to make the national demographic a divergent one.
Chris Duerschner

Polarization in Business
                What would Coke be without Pepsi, a lone cola company with a single, weak product and a mediocre advertising campaign? Without competition, new markets would not be created, products would not be invented or innovated, and advertising would be a joke. The concept of competition itself has created massive associations such as the NFL and NBA that bring in and dish out more money than most people can comprehend. With so much of our society depending on the businesses that competition built, it is safe to say that it is a necessity. Therefore, polarization must be necessary as well, but not just any basic polarization. Businesses need extremism.
                Although it is a bold statement, it has proven true in the past and will continue to be true in the future. The easiest way to see extremism in business is in advertising. In 2012 a major company would spend $3 million for a 30 second commercial during the Super Bowl just so the minuscule amount of people watching that have never heard of them would consider buying their product. It is extremism at its finest, yet it happens year after year, and why?
                Perhaps the most interesting study of the issue was published last year by a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin’s Eau Claire campus. In a paper titled “Super Bowl Ads Linked to Firm Value Enhancement,” the authors bypassed traditional measures of marketing efficacy in favor of directly measuring stock market outcomes. Companies that buy Super Bowl ads, they report, end up outperforming the S&P 500 during the subsequent week. (
                A business can't afford to sit back and tell people that their product is not the greatest thing since sliced bread. No, they get out there and sell to as many people as possible, and the best way to do that today is to be extreme. People love extreme. They want to be told that if they buy a product it's going to be the greatest decision of their life, and that all the other choices aren't worth their money. Imagine these companies stayed quiet and moderate, decided to cut down on the ads, maybe make a compromise with their opponents saying that they are just as good, and start being realistic about the value of their products, then what?
                These concepts are easy to see in politics as well. Two companies (candidates) are selling a product using an array of advertisements in order to persuade the public that they are selling the best product for the consumer (voter). I believe that if it were not for some level of extremism, the candidate would not successfully persuade the voter that their product is supreme.
                In the end, whether extremism and polarization are viewed as positive or negative, I have no doubt that they are necessary in the world of business and politics. In order for a company to build itself it needs competition, it needs to show that their business is “good” and their competition is “bad”, and it must be bold in its attempts to expose its products to the world if it wants to generate a profit and contribute to our country's economy.

China, Presidents, and A Whole Lot of Nothing

As the election draws near, the issue of China has once more found itself in the middle of a mud fight.  On one hand, Obama and the democrats seek to demonize Romney for policies he approved while in control of Bain.  Meanwhile, Romney and the republicans are aiming to pin blame for continuing loss of jobs to China on a failure to act by Obama.  And stuck in the middle of this dispute is the battleground state of Ohio.

For many states, the so-called "Great Recession" has hit hard.  For some, such as Ohio, a state ranking third in manufacturing behind only California and Texas, the blows have landed even harder.  From January 2002 to January 2012, unemployment has risen by 4.4% to 10.9% as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Even as the rate has decreased in recent years, many people in Ohio blame the loss of jobs, predominately in the manufacturing industry, on the shipping of jobs overseas to China and other low-wage regions.  Many people who may well be casting the deciding votes in a state as closely contested as Ohio.  As such, both the right and the left have launched a veritable deluge of ads (like those above) intended to sway those in the middle.  Indeed, between the two candidates, almost thirty thousand commercials were aired this past month pertaining solely to China.  If this election is to be decided by a single state, neither candidate is going to have to say he didn't give his all in Ohio.

Political Polarization Over the Years

Polarization happens. We can all see it when we turn on the TV, go online, or do a variety of other things. One of the main ways we can see polarization in the world today, though, is in politics. Some may say it is worse now more than ever. Has the situation of politics always really been this extreme? Or has something changed over the years that perpetuated more hate between political parties and created a larger gap between the two?

Subduing the Self-Assertion: The changed campaign presentation of President Obama in 2012

Extreme campaign tactics are regarded as a source of conflict in our election process.  Self-assertion is a widely employed tool through which candidates present themselves as the redeemer of a particular society.  Because contemporary American politics are pervaded by self-assertion, an effective way to analyze the device would seem to be analyzing a specific example.  Potentially the source of great contrast, I will make an effort to demonstrate the way the 2012 Obama campaign differs from its 2008 version in its projection of the candidate.  In this discussion, I’m interested in evaluating self-assertion as a widely used political tactic that depicts the politician as a redeemer, not in characterizing any party or candidate as inappropriately self-righteous.  From the outset I would like to make clear, I don’t necessarily consider self-assertion an inappropriate trait in politicians and chose President Obama’s campaign simply because his 2008 efforts seem to have centered on the bold claim that one man could bring “hope” to a nation.

Replacement Referees: A Common Foe

The Creation of a Common Foe in the NFL
          Recently, referees from the National Football League could not come to terms for a contract agreement with the League commissioner Roger Goodell. Surely you have all heard through some medium of the travesty that is the replacement referees. These unfortunate, but brave people became the most hated human beings in professional sports history in just a matter of weeks, when in reality, they were just trying to do their jobs, and in most cases performed quite adequately. Why then, were they hated so badly? This question leads into a rather interesting discussion over the rhetorical tactic of creating a common foe. The replacement NFL referees are a perfect example of a common foe.
            The extremist tactic of creating a common foe is widely used in all reaches of society, for a simple fact exists: people love to hate. In World War II the United States pulled itself out of an economic depression as it rallied against Hitler's armies. In 2001 the Bush administration used the face of Osama Bin Laden as motivation for Congress to approve a war in the Middle East. Beyond these examples lies many, many more just like them. This is due in large part to the makeup of the human brain. Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert claimed in a 2011 lecture that the human brain is chemically programmed to respond exponentially more actively to a threat that has a human face. He uses global warming saying that, "If global warming was led by short man with a large moustache then it would have been stopped years ago." Using this type of logic it is clear how powerful of a tactic the common foe can be.
            The replacement referees experienced all of this firsthand. Although a large question remains, "Who framed them as a foe, and for what purpose?" The purpose is unclear, but the media is undeniably responsible for painting the scabs as people to be loathed and hated. Jim Rome, an often out-of-line but always interesting sports radio host absolutely tore apart the replacement referees as early as pre-season week one. He included sound bytes on his radio show of the replacement referees misspeaking as they announced rulings. ESPN began showing replays of missed calls all over their popular programming, yet many of the missed calls would have been missed by any official. But because of this negative portrayal, people who had yet to even watch them officiate a game had the idea instilled in their brains that the replacement referees were a huge threat to the NFL. I believe that the media reported so frequently on the replacement refs not just because people like hearing about it, but because Goodell would not budge on the contract negotiations until America called for action.
            This call for action came on Monday September 24th. The Seattle Seahawks were hosting the Green Bay Packers on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, arguably the NFL’s biggest stage. On the very final play of the game, the replacement officials completely botched a call that directly changed the outcome of the game. (This play can be seen in the video above.) That night, ESPN reported that the league office received 70,000 phone calls from NFL vans, criticizing the replacement officials and calling for Goodell to give in to the demands of the strinking referees. The next day, the strike was over.
            Undeniably America’s hatred towards the replacement refs yielded the results everyone sought. It is incredible how effective the tactic of creating a common foe was in this particular instance. The age old rhetoric tactic of creating a common foe showed once again how powerful it is. What is also interesting is how this human tendency for hatred is used as motivation for mindset not only in politics but also in many aspects of society. The referee strike of 2012 ultimately showed us that by making a common foe, things get done.

Interview with Dr. Monica Brasted

Our second podcast is an interview with Dr. Monica Brasted, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication at the College of Brockport. We read "MoveOn: The Rhetoric of Polarization" in a 2012 issue of Relevant Rhetoric.

In this episode:

*MoveOn's polarizing tactics
*Email as a key medium for polarization
*Whether or not we've become desensitized to polarizing rhetoric
*What's MoveOn up to lately?

Below the jump...

Crazy, Radical People Sell

                Why Do Crazy, Radical People Sell?

  A change in political media and representation since the 1960's.

      Over the course of the last few decades, there has obviously been a shift in public attention from the written word of a daily newspaper to news broadcasts, blogs, YouTube channels, and late night satire. While the evolution of these information communication methods in itself is not where polarization comes into play, it does in the content they air.

This depictions of Joe Biden shows that the skewed political rhetoric
of today wants people to think of politicians as
crazier than average individuals. 
      The main factor is that rhetoric that is polarized to one direction is what catches public attention. People want something to identify with; even if it means they're not associated with the opposing group. Therefore, media plays on this desire and skews productions to make them two things: entertaining to watch and blatantly one-sided. The most recent Saturday Night Live video of a mock Obama speech is a mild example of the way media points to one direction through broadcasts that wouldn't have been present in the 1960's. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Home Sweet Home: The Divorce Proceedings of a Nation

 The Civil War was an exceedingly gripping battle for America. It was internal, on the home front, and involved the changing of opinions through non-physical means. Although there is a century gap between the America of today and the America of 1865, there is still a similar internal war. The only difference is that it is soundless, concealed, and making its way into the bloodstream of Uncle Sam. Unbeknownst to many citizens, we have unconsciously been making choices that lean us closer to our favored political party and then inflating our beliefs in it. It is a war of lifestyles as Bill Bishop explained in his novel, The Big Sort. Our political views have meshed so deeply into the fabric of our being that we now attribute our lifestyles to our political party. 


Polarization can be a controversial topic. Some people believe our population is becoming more polarized with each election and/or generations, while of the other hand some people deny the fact that polarization may even exist. Although, not everyone can agree whether our population is becoming more polarized or not or even if polarization does exist, we can all agree on one thing, that gerrymandering does exist. Since, we can all agree on the fact that gerrymandering exists, I think it is wise to take a closer look at gerrymandering and the effects it has on political polarization. To get a better sense of gerrymandering we will start with the basic definition and history, then the process and the effects on political polarization.

The Media's Extremist Tendencies

It is widely accepted in today’s society that all media has a bias. Networks such as NBC, CBS, and Fox News bring up immediate connotations of “liberal” and “conservative” in the minds of many Americans. The far right and far left media is fueled by the public’s tendency to gravitate towards listening to one’s own beliefs. Individuals enjoy hearing arguments that agree with their pre-existing points of view. This tendency, called selective exposure, is explored in Farhad Manjoo’s essay, True EnoughOf course, not all news networks lean extremely in one direction. While it is impossible to remain completely unbiased, news sources such as CSPAN, Christian Science Monitor, CNN are considered moderate because they tend to cover both sides of the story. These media outlets are well respected, but they are considered a minority because selective exposure is so prevalent in our society. Moderate news sources do not obtain as much attention as their extremist relatives because they do not cater to a certain audience. That is not to say that they are not as popular, or don't have as many viewers. Instead, it is a statement regarding extremist news sources tendencies to cause controversies. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Extremism: A Matter of Perspective

With today's media coverage, it does not take long for an outrageous comment from a disgruntled citizen or an offbeat belief of an aspiring politician to find its way into the ears of the American public.  We are all familiar with Akin's now famous comments on what he describes as "legitimate rape."  Many of us frown upon the Mormon practice of posthumous baptisms.  When the American public becomes familiarized with beliefs like these, we are quick to ask the question, "What were they thinking?" or "How could they be so foolish?"  Certainly, beliefs such as posthumous baptisms or that rape could be considered legitimate seem to go against the grain of popular opinion.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Humor of Extremism and Polarization

     Polarization is a serious issue that alarms the American public. If two sides will never agree on anything, American's worry that nothing will ever be changed for the better, or no problems will be solved. However, some people on the web would rather take a lighter stance, and show the funny side of polarization. As silly as these video's may seem, they do offer their own interesting insight. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Episode 1: Dr. Roderick Hart

Each of our interviews will be made available as a podcast. You can subscribe to our In Search of the Common Podcast here.

In this episode:

*The significance of China bashing over the years
*The beauty of hate's dialectic
*A modest proposal for changing Olympic swimming
*Extremism as attacking for the sake of attacking
*Why Presidents can't fix economies
*The importance of having a sharp knife to cut the meat
*How the internet has made us third graders
*How speed hurts
*On the significance of staying empirical
*Love as an investment in the other

Below the jump...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What's Our Process?

If we are going to successfully make a documentary this semester, we need to have a refined process for doing so--especially regarding the interviews we will be doing all semester.

Well, here it is:

1. Read articles.
2. Discuss articles.
3. Brainstorm questions using Google Docs. This was radically generative (1 of 3 pages showing).

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Harry Clor, On Moderation

So this semester, we are making a documentary. It is going to be about moderation, extremism, and group polarization--and that's about all we know. This is (hopefully!) going to be an organic process driven by student engagement with stellar readings and the authors that wrote them! While the students will be blogging on various topics throughout the semester, I plan on documenting the actual process of making the documentary--registering our highs and lows.

We began our semester by reading Harry Clor's excellent On Moderation: Defending an Ancient Virtue In a Modern World.