Why do TV and political flyers feature attack ads? Why won’t a candidate just tell me what he/she intends to do, rather than to assassinate the opposition? Why do ads suggest the “other” insurance company won’t answer your plea? Why does the evening news feature robberies and wrecks? Why display danger?
Well, threat—real or imagined—is exciting. Compared to a tiger on your tail, everyday concerns are boring. The army told me the best defense is an offense—the way to stay alive is to make the other guy die for his country. But must warfare, dominance, and submission be the model for meeting and greeting, buying and selling, caring and sharing?
There’s more underlying the promotion of conflict than vicarious physical threats, scenes to fill the absence of real physical challenges in humdrum urban life. There’s a reason that con is more popular than pro. There’s a reason for publicizing what you don’t want, rather than promoting what you do want. There’s more to it than just the plain cussedness of candidates and retail competition.
We seek righteousness, and the low-cost way to be right is by making others wrong. But there has to be more to it than that, some reason why looking good is done by making someone else look bad.
So why the attack ads? Because we have a social model: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”*
In the natural world of tooth and claw, he who wins eats. In the absence of winning meat in a primeval hunt, winning has become the objective in other things—including politics. Our sociology has evolved in the last 10,000 years; our physiology has not. Winning is the objective in sports, even if (or especially if) it kills the players. It’s the objective in big finance, although that can kill the economy. It’s the objective in big banking and big business, although that’s killing our middle class while it also kills the environment.
So what’s the point?
The point is winning—and winning is a poor social model. The objective really isn’t in being right, the objective isn’t in doing well. It’s in winning. Winning for its own sake. The winning is then justified by right-and-wrong. Hatred, even a symbolic hatred, generates a shared belonging—a group, a membership, a social identity. We’re social creatures, we all want to belong to a group.** We used to gather, cheering at a public execution. That became politically unacceptable so we watch it vicariously, night after night, program after program, in TV crime drama. To be interesting, a story must have conflict, and the ultimate conflict is killing. By watching the same sports and crime programs, we have something to share when we get to the less-than-thrilling job the next morning.
Unfortunately, killing the other party is now the objective in congress, even if the other side promotes something good. The method is to be anti-, anti-anything, because you can’t win by being pro. Winning might be the “only thing,” but it’s not healthy. Until the political and religious leaders criticize winning as a poor social objective, winning by either side will drag down the neighborhoods and the nations.
So make ’em talk about the problems instead of bad-mouthing the other side. I’ve said it before: Whatever the problem, if you can’t talk about it, you’re powerless to change it.
* Attributed to Vince Lombardi, football coach, who also said, “A school without football is in danger of deteriorating into a medieval study hall.” Well, it’s true that our big universities are not known for their social justice teams.
** Most of us. You can name a few of the other kind.