I used to love John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show. I used to share every episode of it. I used to be a big fan.
But the more the 2016 US Presidential election approached, the more John Oliver was dissing Donald Trump. The more he criticized, caricatured and stigmatized the Republican candidate. The more he described him as unreliable, stupid and dangerous.
Was he right? I do not know. And I do not care. Whether this description is relevant is not the focus of this blog post.
Instead, what I shall argue is that it is precisely this stigmatization of Trump that indirectly made Trump popular. John Oliver’s criticisms did not damage Trump’s campaign; they fed it. The more Trump became hated by the Democrats, the more Republicans defended him, and the more these Republicans successfully rallied the swing votes. To the point where, in the end, Trump might have won the election thanks to the vicious circle that John Oliver bootstrapped.
Yesterday, I released a video on my (French) YouTube channel entitled “Dear Conviction, mutate into a viral infection”. The video anthropomorphizes a conviction and explains the mechanisms that will help it become viral.
The ideas presented in the video are not new. They had been researched by empirical psychology and sociology, and brilliantly presented by CGP Grey.
According to this analysis, convictions are like viruses or germs that are transmitted through metaphorical sneezes: speeches, tweets, videos and other web medias. As a result, and especially in the modern age where sneezes are more contagious than ever before, popular convictions are not convincing convictions. Popular convictions are convictions that get people sneezing.
Yet, you can easily get people riled up by sneezing at them ideas they strongly disagree with. In fact, it is precisely when being sneezed at by such enraging ideas that people will be sneezing their own convictions with the greatest virulence. In other words, if you want to get people strongly engaged in a cause, the best way to go seems to be to show them why the opposite side is deeply biased, wrong, stupid and dangerous.
But beware, as your side grows, so will the other side. In fact, if your side is itself irrationally biased — which, let’s face it, is almost always the case — then the other side will easily collect plenty of reasons to regard your side as deeply wrong, stupid and dangerous.
From this point on, the louder side will no longer be the side whose convictions is most empirically justified or scientifically based. The louder side will be the angrier side.
Now, you might argue that we live in democracy and, as a result, the angrier side need not be the winning side. The winning side should be the larger side. But perhaps the key figure to understand how the angrier side can now become the winning side is turnout. Turnout for the 2016 US Presidential election was, according to Wikipedia, 55%. Most voters did not vote. Only angrier voters did, as well as those that got hooked by angrier voters.
While John Oliver definitely successfully made Democrat voters angry, I would argue that he made Republican voters angrier. If you are a Democrat, you might not have felt it. But his mocking jokes are incredibly violent. He has made Republicans angrier than any other Democrat could have.
So, to sum up, democracy requires a larger side (plus or minus electoral college voting weirdness). But in the context of low turnout, the larger side were to be the angrier side. Yet, John Oliver mostly made Trump’s side the angrier side. Thus, it seems to me that John Oliver favored Trump’s election.
I certainly have my own bias concerning Trump (which I’m sure you’ll easily guess). But the point of this post is not about how to favor your favorite candidate or how to oppose your least-favorite one. The point of this post is to stress the counter-intuitive consequences of (poor) arguing. Mocking, stigmatizing and caricaturing a conviction is actually likely to promote it. This holds for sharing mocking, stigmatizing and caricaturing web medias as well. And more generally, such arguing techniques only increase an already increasing ideological segregation (see Are American More Divided Than Ever).
Needless to say that, since I made this observation, I have stopped sharing John Oliver’s content. It is perhaps time we promote other styles of communication.