The path of one-upmanship is a treacherous road. You either have to keep improving, almost exponentially, or eventually you’ll lose.
Alas, our society is too far down the path to turn ‘round now. And that only means one end.
Facebook has become a putrid sea of hatred and bile. One side wants to prove its point. The other, the same. And they’ve resorted to name calling and fact-shifting to ensure they advance to the next round of Roast Wars against one another.
I’m as guilty as anyone. What I wouldn’t give for the day when social media was about what you had for lunch and kittens.
One can say it is the true trickle-down economy. Our politicians start calling each other names, playing games and one-upping each other in PR stunt wars to rile the electorate into siding, one way or the other. But the real root of it all is Comedy Central.
I’ll pause a moment while you laugh, roll your eyes or otherwise write off the rest of this explanation. But if you bear with it a moment, you’ll see that Comedy Central is no laughing matter.
Prior to Jon Stewart’s takeover of The Daily Show in 1999, insults were reserved for dark comedians and VHS tapes of Dean Martin roasts. They were subversive and underground. The only mainstream ones were reserved for TV sitcoms, so the worst that happened was barroom arguments ended with a barb being repeated.
But when Stewart took over the fledgling pseudo-news program, he turned it into a consumable resource for a younger generation. Over the course of 16 years behind the desk, the razor-sharp comedian called newsmakers to task with witty jabs and clever hooks.
By the time his mark of calling out the bullshit in politics took hold, more than half of younger Americans listed Stewart’s 30-minute farce as their primary source of news.
Let that sink in for a minute.
And no, I’m not exaggerating. According to Pew’s 2004 research on media habits, 54% of Americans 18-24 reported getting at least some news on the 2004 presidential election from satire shows like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. By the time Stewart left in 2015, the (dare I say) fake news show was dominant as a news source among an entire generation. According to the Public Religion Research Institute then, Stewart and spin-off show host Stephen Colbert were the most trusted source for news for one in 10 young Americans.
Humor programs aren’t intended to teach people how to behave in public discourse. But since the Millennial (and adjacent) generation found little value in traditional media outlets, that’s exactly where they learned it. Unfortunately those of us a little older took the bait and joined in the new era of one-upmanship.
We live now in a Mic-Drop Society. Everyone tries to win the argument with a stunning insult or knowledge bomb the other person can’t possibly counter. Then they do, but with their own. And so on, and so forth.
Discourse then devolves to one side giving up, giving in or being declared the “loser.”
Debate, however, is not about winning and losing. It is about discovery and understanding.
Karl Popper, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century said of debate, “I may be wrong and you may be right and, by an effort, we may get nearer the truth.”
Sadly, Comedy Central’s “news” programs, its roasts and the behavior it has inadvertently conditioned an entire generation of Americans to exhibit may prevent us from ever discovering the truth about anything.
At least some of us will find it funny.