As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been reading a book called Mediated, by Thomas de Zengotita, which examines the ways in which a pervasive media has altered the way in which we perceive the world. He has lots of interesting examples, but today’s topic will be his discussion of the demise of heroes in a mediated culture.
Most of us know Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, that he gave the Gettysburg address, that he learned his lessons on the back of a coal shovel, and that he was assassinated. And that he was a great man. Notice how there are lots of blanks in that knowledge. de Zengotita’s premise is that it is precisely because of those blanks that most people consider Lincoln a hero. When there are blanks in what we know about somebody, we can idealize them by filling those blanks in ways which are wholly positive.
Such blanks would no longer exist in today’s paparazzi culture. For any given celebrity, one can learn _everything_ about them, from what they like for breakfast, to how they spend their free time. They are no longer heroes, standing at a distance, with us able to place them on a pedestal and idealize them. Celebrities today are “real” people, with all of the faults and problems that “real” people have.
An example that de Zengotita uses to illustrate how quickly things have changed – FDR was in a wheelchair during his entire presidency sixty years ago. And his constituents had no idea. Can you imagine anything like that happening today? Bill Clinton couldn’t keep his hands off an intern behind closed doors, and it was worldwide news. There are no access barriers any more, no mystique. We can’t have heroes, because heroes need to be removed from everyday life; once it’s revealed that they’re just regular people, the mystique is gone.
I think this is an interesting phenomenon because it illustrates something rather fundamental about the human psyche. I kind of touch on this in my localized generalities post, but one of the amazing things about the human mind is how it effortlessly and automatically fills in gaps in its knowledge; so effortlessly, in fact, that we barely even notice that we’re doing it. It is relatively rare to find people who know what they do not know; most people make assumptions and then are dismayed and shocked when others do not share those assumptions (e.g. my reaction to discovering Orson Scott Card’s reactionary political views). Such assumptions lead to the kinds of confusion I talk about in my thinking different post.
This phenomenon of filling in the blanks is why I think horoscopes and Tarot cards are fascinating. They make general pronouncements, and our brains figures out how to adapt those pronouncements to our own life. “You will take a journey” can be interpreted as a physical journey (business trip or vacation) or emotional journey or spiritual journey. But our brains flip through the possibilities and decides on an appropriate interpretation, and all we can remember later is how well the predictions matched our life, when it’s our brain that did the matching (see the sci-fi book Code of the Lifemaker for some scams that psychics use along these lines). I enjoy looking at horoscopes and Tarot cards precisely because they’re fuzzy – by observing the interpretations I make, I can find out what my brain is concerned with.
I think it’s also interesting that when we don’t know something, we tend to assume whatever works to best preserve our worldview. We think the best of our heroes, and the worst of our villains. We almost would prefer not to learn the “facts” rather than disrupt our images. I have definitely noticed myself being afraid to go talk to speakers I respect after talks, for fear that my idealized picture of their brilliance will have to be replaced by the mundane realization that they’re just people. And I’d be loath to watch a documentary on what a good person Karl Rove is (not that one exists, but you get the idea).
There’s something here, something about the connection between how our brains fill in the blanks, and how that reinforces our worldviews, but I can’t quite get a handle on it today. There’s the connection between horoscopes and de Zengotita’s discussion of the demise of heroes, but I can’t figure out how to generalize it. I started writing this post hoping that it would emerge in the writing, but it didn’t. Alas. I’ll poke on it more later, but I’ll put up what I have, and maybe somebody else will have an idea.