It bears little repeating that something is terribly rotten in America. We all know this, and we’ve all spent the better part of the past few years muttering about “polarization” and “reaching across aisles.” Amidst this head-scratching, vacuous cultural commentary abounds. Conservative provocateurs slink around college campuses and film oblivious students stammering over gotcha questions. Peaceable academics write bestsellers explaining the condition of impoverished rural Americans to subscribers of The New Yorker. Twitter influencers exhort their followers to speak out and shut up and educate themselves.
We — the left-leaning students of America’s selective universities — are appalled by the idiocy of our fellow citizens. How could anyone believe that a human being is illegal? Why would millions take issue with the truism that love is love? Who are the retrogrades insistent that we stall the forward march of progress? On social media and among like-minded friends, we justify our outrage with soundbites and one-liners. Why do we believe that abortion should remain legal? Because “my body, my choice.” Why do we object to reactionary tirades against the mainstream media? Because “news isn’t fake.” Why do we think European countries should welcome the boats of refugees arriving on their shores? Because “no human being is illegal.”
Most of us know that these slogans prove nothing. But who cares about proof in the viral era? We ignore our opponents’ strongest objections and claim victory. The intellectually honest voice in our heads suffocates beneath a glob of regurgitated mantras. With a dying gasp, it whispers that the debate about abortion hinges not on chauvinistic impulses to control women’s bodies, but rather on disagreements about when life begins. It croaks that the assertion that “news isn’t fake” makes little sense. News isn’t a monolith; when we speak of it, we often mean commentary or opinion. Is any human being “illegal”? The question amounts to semantics. We understand that national borders afford certain people (i.e. citizens) privileged access to certain areas. Questions about whether we should change our immigration policies or implement open borders deserve thoughtful responses. But the simple observation that “illegal immigrant” is a misnomer does not constitute an argument in favor of ending deportations.
Well-meaning objectors interrupt. They claim that behind each slogan lies a coherent philosophy. Those frustrated by brazen denials of climate change research cry “science is real” into the warming void. Survivors of authoritarian regimes recoil at the spectacle of post-truth politics, hence their insistence that “news isn’t fake.” Historians who have studied the history of Western interventions abroad bridle at nativist rhetoric. They remind us that we cannot classify people by migration status. After all, the human story is one of endless displacement.
The objectors have a point. Used wisely, slogans can incite productive debate. They can gesture toward the fault lines that divide our nation. They can catalyze movements that ultimately lead to broad social change. Slogans also offer avenues for political engagement to those who would not otherwise have the time or resources necessary to join the conversation. They distill complex issues into simple catchphrases and level the discursive playing field. They are open access and copyleft and legible to children and adults alike.
The issue is that simplification cannot coexist with nuance in the long run. Slogans might galvanize us into action, but they won’t lead us to meaningful solutions. To argue otherwise is to mistake the road sign for the destination. What perils await us in a sloganized digital world? Consider some titles of the educational content shared by Instagram’s righteous: The history of American imperialism in five slides. Ten things you need to know about the War on Drugs. Why you should be mad about what’s happening in Kashmir (read time: less than two minutes).
To be sure, this rapid-fire activism can encourage conversation about current events. It can unleash the force of virality. It can incite huge outpourings of rage or sadness or surprise. But hot takes and slogans can also poison debate. They can lead us to mistakenly believe that we understand complicated questions. They can make us think ourselves exempt from the demanding operations of thought and discussion. For any given issue, the slogan offers two positions: the correct one, or the one that only an evil moron could hold. When we accept this division, we drive ourselves into a state of collective hysteria. How could millions of people around us fail to see the nature of reality? Why do they remain stubborn in the face of our pithy slogans? The upside is that we bond with our fellow rational beings over the strangeness of our political adversaries’ insanity. Each passing day convinces us more of our righteousness. Good must beat evil. The slogan must prevail.
Is there any hope from here? Are we content to watch America writhe in torment for the few years that remain before it implodes? (Some readers will respond with an emphatic “yes.”) I would like to suggest one potential way forward: Let’s stop blithely mischaracterizing our opponents’ views. Let’s recognize that the slogan cannot supplant the essay, that the soundbite is a poor substitute for the full conversation. Before engaging in debate, we should “steelman” (as opposed to “strawman”) rival beliefs. We must be able to give thoughtful responses to the strongest objections of those on the other side. Note that I am not calling for a supine political centrism that affords equal merit to all ideas. Some people have stupid, or dangerous, or immoral views on matters of great importance. Other people have reasonable views with which we may strongly disagree. The danger lies in our inability to tell the difference.