Recently, I was asked by a popular financial media group to offer commentary on whether emotional appeals in car insurance advertising were misleading. I responded that while I didn’t necessarily think they were deceptive, I agreed that such promotions were broadly representative of general trends in marketing today. And quite purposeful. These days, advertising researchers have discovered that getting consumers to feel is almost twice as effective as getting them to think. Whether its geckos or emus pitching car insurance, or Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski hyping a cellular phone brand, reasoning and cognition are out. Humor, passion, anger, and fear are in.
It may be worth considering both what that says about our culture and what it means for the future.
In a word, we’re not perceived as a particularly cerebral bunch. Lest the Rachel Maddow-watching crowd and the NPR listeners think I’m excluding them, think again. The echo chamber that is today’s mainstream media confuses retweeting snarky memes for critical thinking. Simply said, marketers have assessed the cognitive waters out there and have appraised them as pretty shallow. They are meeting us where we are.
In other words, they are not summoning the cardinal virtues. Theirs is not a call for prudence. No one is beckoning fortitude or looking for self-control. It’s very much about intemperance.
Corporate social responsibility infantries brandishing “BLM” swords and slogans represent the vanguard of this movement. Its messaging is pure affect. A more thinking culture which knew its history might recall John Adams’ warning about the tyranny of emotions. Adams knew that unbridled passions seldom strike the mark for authentic justice. But that has been forgotten. Justice is not really the aim of critical race theorists. They are fueled by affect, fed by the feel instinct and their intention is only to stoke the feeling of justice.
Those whose raw emotion, rather than purposeful thought, guides their behavior live what my former colleague Tony Esolen calls lives “under compulsion.” In time, this can present serious problems.
We know children live this way. Toddlers see a colorful bouncy ball and will chase it into the street. They will inhale candy, cookies, and ice cream. Tweens obsessively follow the whims of friends, devouring social media and video games. Emotionally-charged teens irrationally act out, spending too much and driving too fast.
All of this, of course, explains why adults hold their young children’s hands, check for passing cars, direct toddlers not to speak with strangers, prudently serve dinner before dessert, lock the liquor cabinet, discard old medication, and hide the car keys.
Grown-ups also bolt the doors at night. They think. Lead with their brains. Ask tough questions. Make difficult decisions. It is why families need them. It is also why society needs them.
So, where have all of the adults gone?
They seem to be increasingly absent from our culture. From our public schools to college campuses and corporate boardrooms, they are hard to find. And this may be in part because in far too many kitchens in Any Town USA, grown-ups are disappearing. Replaced by middle-aged males wearing backward baseball caps, scrolling their smart phones from their man caves to track their fantasy sports leagues. And by women in their forties belting out the curse-laden lyrics of the Hamilton soundtrack while binge pelotoning and group texting girlfriends about the long-awaited final installment of the Fifty Shades series.
How have we become so infantilized?
Spending the last year locked in our homes hasn’t helped. It seems we learned during that time that while paternalism isn’t in vogue for actual dads, it appears to be very much in style for authoritarians in government and media. When the pandemic arrived, they were the ones who shut down out-of-favor businesses. They closed our churches. Canceled Holy Communion. And did so with barely a whimper in response. They brushed off questions and offered only limited answers through gritted teeth.
From the beginning, they reluctantly told us that the virus came from a wet market in China, but admonished us not to say so. Told us it wasn’t created in a lab and scolded us not to be xenophobic. Informed us it arrived in our neighborhoods in January but warned us not to be alarmist.
They commanded us to think of the virus as indestructible. To view its transmissibility as unstoppable. Yes, even outside. We were reprimanded: do not deny the science!
They directed us not to wear masks and told us that doing so was unnecessary, selfish, and unhelpful to the cause. Shortly thereafter, they told us that not wearing them was immoral and illegal. We were implored: bend the curve!
They assured us that maskless mobs rioting in cities presented no problem. We were rebuked for failing to understand that the virus understood systemic racism and that it saluted brave acts of social justice. At the same time, they instructed us that outdoor White House gatherings like the one welcoming incoming Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett were “super spreader” events.
Parents agonizing over the social, mental, and psychological health of their young children wearing masks all day were chided for not grasping the magnitude of the far greater threat to their children’s physical health. We were reminded of how lucky we were that at least the governor of New York understood what was best for us. We were urged to stop the spread!
And, of course, they reminded us to express gratitude for teachers’ unions. Moms and dads instructing their children how to calculate long division from their dining room tables were encouraged to take a moment to thank public school professionals, who were indeed first responders. Remember: we’re all in this together!
Recently, everyone from Joe Biden and CNN to Donald Trump and Fox News began imploring us to get ourselves vaccinated. Even more recently, throngs of pro-abortion celebrities and politicians began ordering our children to do the same. We are now told that it is critical to enlist everyone in the pursuit of “herd.” That every arm presents an opportunity.
For parents who remember American public schools spending billions of dollars on anti-bullying campaigns in recent years, this has been a bit confusing. In this world where up is down, we are left to speculate that perhaps bullying itself is not a problem. That its appropriateness is based not on what it is but on who’s doing it. Apparently, public school administrators can legitimately do it and do it effectively. It seems that if what matters most is getting twelve-year-old Suzie to march down to the in-school jab clinic during her one weekday that she actually has in-person class, then it doesn’t matter that it’s the baiting from the middle school mean girls that does the trick. Saving grandma is paramount. That grandma herself was vaccinated four months ago deserves no mention. Feel good. As Nike says, “Just do it.”
And regarding vaccine hesitancy, it doesn’t seem to matter if records were up-to-date fifteen minutes ago. No COVID shot? You are an anti-vaxxer. It’s also irrelevant that twenty minutes ago your accuser, the Michael-Moore-look-alike wearing the “Notorious R.B.G.” t-shirt, retweeted a story theorizing a connection between autism and MMR. Anyone today, in this moment, expressing the tiniest bit of hesitancy about being forced to choose between one authorized but-not-approved FDA vaccine employing brand new, previously unused mRNA technology and another sourced using an embryonic cell line should expect to be ostracized.
Any skepticism prompted by the documentation of the now more than 4000 COVID vaccine-related deaths in the “Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System” (VAERS) is deemed unreasonable and reckless. Sunny Hustin, co-host of “The View”, was direct about it. She informed viewers that those expressing vaccine hesitancy should be scorned. “We need to shun,” she encouraged fans. Michael J. Stern, the opinion columnist for USA Today explained how things will work in his perfect world: “Everyone who wants a vaccine will soon have one, and proof should be required to work, play and travel.”
And so today, the “well-behaved” and “responsible” apparently have their marching orders. Effectively deputized to stake out maskless neighbors minding their own business in quiet corners of town parks. Interrogations which seemed unimaginable not long ago have been introduced into the public experience. We’re left concluding that everyone deserves to know whether the stranger standing ten feet away from them at the beach is vaccinated. It’s hard to imagine what’s next. Perhaps if you’ve been curious about what prescription drugs the guy next door is on, tomorrow will be your day.
It is a strange time. As Catholics, we are left to make sense of how to navigate this bizarre landscape.
Perhaps we might consider how the infantilization of adults squares with respecting the inherent dignity of human beings. Or how bullying moms and dads fits with subsidiarity or if shunning conforms with our faith-informed understanding of solidarity.
And, of course, what all of this means for the common good. The time for being an adult has arrived. Given our past year, let’s pray we don’t discover it’s a “use it or lose it” thing.
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