Back to the Sources
Experts estimate that the average consumer sees 10,000 ads a day. Slogans like “Just Do It,” “Drivers Wanted,” and “I’m Loving It” are easily recognizable to the modern ear. But what if advertising has penetrated beyond just products and services? What if it has saturated our lives so much that we hardly notice? Think of these familiar mantras: “Build Bridges Not Walls,” “Love Trumps Hate,” or “Believe Women.” These political slogans sound almost identical to any major ad campaign. Yet when the political space becomes transformed into an advertising space, it changes civic debate into slogan wars. And he with the best one-liner wins.
While it may seem easier to don your tribe’s T-shirt and march away from a discussion, this current cultural trend stands as an alarming threat to liberty and a civil society. Rather than discussing, debating, or examining the evidence of an argument, we yell a catchphrase. Or we simply parrot sound bites. Yet neither method takes the time to analyze and discuss, to weigh the positives and negatives of an issue. Neither method approaches a problem with a mind open to creative solutions or evidence-based results.
Indeed, our culture steers away from factual discussions because they can “hurt people’s feelings.” However, when we cannot have an honest discussion for fear of offending, we have lost our ability to truly connect. Political correctness ironically sought to provide “tolerant” guardrails for our communication but has ultimately yielded a society that fears open dialogue.
Moral relativism, which denies the existence of truth, has further resulted in everyone’s “perspective” being held as equally true and valid, regardless of the facts or evidence. It says, “We all have different ways of seeing this issue.” While that may be true, evidence points to certain perspectives being more intellectually feasible than others. When a society cannot identify one position as being morally correct or intellectually feasible, debate becomes useless, and thinking becomes futile. This stands as an extraordinarily dangerous trend in a governmental system designed to be run “by the people.” When the people cease to think, how can they produce a reasonable society?
Another large contributor to the lack of dialogue stems from the public education system that often prizes memorization of answers over analysis. Critical thinking scores in higher education have also plummeted, as reported last year in The Wall Street Journal. In more than half of the 200 schools reviewed, “at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table.” When thinking for oneself is not taught, students begin to prefer another person’s interpretation of data to analyzing a primary source on their own.
Further, as a result of our overprocessed, fast-paced world, our ability to stop, to read, and to think has become compromised. A preference for videos over reading has turned our culture into a primarily visual culture that relies on another person’s interpretation of facts rather than our own primary-source discoveries.
However, the human heart longs to seek, to understand, and to know. This longing does not apply only to certain generations or times in history. Rather, this need for analysis, discovery, and connectedness stands as a hardwiring of human beings. Reacquainting ourselves with this basic need will help us to rediscover what it means to be human, to live civilly, and to be part of something greater than ourselves.
The Renaissance marked a period of a return to primary sources, classic texts, and ancient philosophy. In Latin it is called ad fontes, or “back to the sources.” Thus, the current lack of dialogue in our culture presents a unique opportunity to return to primary sources and to ourselves. Groups like the National Review Institute Fellowship Program, The Policy Circle, and The Trinity Forum foster dialogue between people about liberty, morality, economics, and what it means to live in a civil society. Whether in a program context or informal meetings in a home, ordinary Americans can begin discussion groups centered around what really matters for the future of our families and this country.
Perhaps at this cultural crossroads of advertising we have an opportunity to return to primary sources, to discussion, and to reason. Such a return would benefit our country not only on an individual level but it could give meaning to our divisions and perhaps result in better unity, better understanding, and a better country.