Why did the cartoon recently published on the cover of New Yorker magazine fail so spectacularly.
The cover depicts Barak and Michelle Obama in the Oval Office of the White House. Barak is dressed as a Muslim imam, while Michelle is decked out as a terrorist, while the couple is surrounded by anti-American and pro-Terrorist images.
The intent of the cartoon was to satirize the view that some ultra-conservatives are embracing that Barak Obama and his ife as anti-American and pro-Terrorist. However much money the McCain administration and the Republican Party has spent on the political campaign, nothing has been nearly as effective in damaging Obama than these lies spread through e-mail with a push now and then by Fox News.
However, many people did not see the cartoon as satire. The reaction, even Obama and many of his supporters had a hostile reaction. (See, Los Angeles Times, Barack Obama calls New Yorker cartoon an 'insult against Muslim Americans') Why is that? Has America lost its collective sense of humor?
Actually, no. Americans know, somewhat instinctively, about how communication works. People do not have time to stop and think about every piece of information that they come across. They only have time to give it a cursory glance. They form a quick opinion (based more on emotion and pre-conceived ideas than on the content of what they see), then they move on.
The vast majority of the people who will see the cover of the New Yorker magazine will not think too deeply about it. They will glance at the cartoon, which will generate an instant emotional reaction. They will then attach that emotion to Barak Obama and, over the next four months, interpret further information through the lens that this cartoon generated.
This instant, unreflective, shallow interpretation of the cartoon for a lot of people will be the idea that the Michelle and Barak Obama hold pro-terrorist/anti-American sympathies who are trying to gain control of the White House. The cartoon ends up reinforcing the very ideas that the author intended to ridicule.
Even people who know better will have a gut reaction that will suggest, "It's probably nothing, but why take chances?"
Some people will see this tendency to glance at a cartoon and derive instant conclusions that are at odds with the facts to be a moral failing. There is something wrong with people who do not take the time to understand what they see and who form snap decisions instead.
However, they would be mistaken. We do not have a choice but to form snap judgments.
Look at the huge amount of information that exists in the world. Before you can even start to understand it, you need to decide which parts of it you are going to spend time understanding, and which you will largely ignore. This means taking a glance at a huge quantity of information and forming quick opinions. From this initial scan, some elements will catch your eye. Those are the parts that you will look at in more detail. It will be a very small percentage of the total amount of information available. For the vast majority of the items we come across in an average day, we glance at the head lines, make our snap judgments, and we move on, looking for the item that strikes enough interest to generate a more thorough examination.
There is no way out of this. This is a part of the real world in which we must live, and it does us no good to pretend that things are or can be any different.
Whatever you write, whatever you say, whatever you post on your blog, you can trust that most people who encounter it will skim across the surface, then move on. A small percentage are going to be willing to spend the time to look at the issue in detail. Because, every moment that somebody spends looking at your article in detail is a moment they cannot spend doing something else that interests them more.
Instead of lamenting reality and wishing we lived in an alternative universe where different natural laws apply, we should accept reality and plan to act accordingly. We should recognize that people must skim the surface of most information they encounter, and ask ourselves, "What am I communicating to the average skimmer?"
In my own blog, the message that I seek to give the average skimmer is, "If you don’t have time to give this subject some serious consideration, then please move along. This material is not meant for skimmers."
But that's just me. This does not imply that there is anything wrong with writing for skimmers. Somebody has to do it. Hopefully, morally responsible people will accept the challenge of providing skimmers with a useful understanding of important issues.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am dividing the world into 'skimmers' and 'deep readers' (implying that the latter are morally superior to the former). There are a lot of subjects in the world. Deciding to become well informed on one of them requires deciding to skim many others that would otherwise take too much time to study. The brightest people in the world in one area of knowledge are, at best, skimmers of all other subjects that she does not study.
In over 1000 blog postings, I have yet to write on the subject of illegal drug abuse, because this is an area where I have only skimmed an understanding. I haven't had time for anything else.
The list of things that each of us only skims the surface of is humongous.
The New Yorker magazine failed to take this into consideration, and created a cover that communicated the opposite of what they wanted to communicate.
Others see the need for the bulk of the population to skim most subjects as an excellent opportunity to exploit them for political or social gain.
For example, President Bush announced that he will sign an executive order to allow more offshore drilling. At the same time, he blamed the Democrats for the energy shortage. The story is that the Democrats were blocking access to oil, thus keeping the price high, and causing the people to suffer.
In doing this, the Bush Administration decided to use the necessity of skimming to once again manipulate the American people to act against their own interests. Off-shore drilling will not have any effect on gasoline prices for years, will have a small effect even then, and uses up oil reserves that ultimately makes us even more dependent on other countries (by destroying our options). Off shore drilling is not a solution to the problem of gas prices. It is a way in which the executives of oil companies can make billions of dollars while the people are deluded into thinking they are made beter off.
The Bush Administration is counting on the necesity of skimming to make sure that only a few people see the true implications of their actions.
We certainly have reason to promote an aversion to using the necessity of skimming as an opportunity to deceive people, just as we have reason to avoid the harms of being deceived.
The lies of the Bush Administration will encourage people to vote for Republicans who have no good answer to the problem of the high price of energy. Smart Republicans know that offshore oil drilling will do nothing to help the average consumer. What it will do is help wealthy oil company executives make a ton of money selling oil, while distracting the people from options that actually do have a chance to help.
It would be a mistake to lay the blame on the fact that people simply skim the news – we do not have time for anything else. The blame rests on those who take advantage of this fact in ways that are beneficial to them but harmful to others. This is where the moral fault lies, and this is where the tool of moral condemnation should be applied.