Sound bites in today’s world are as inevitable as they are the nemesis of clear thinking. Politics thrives on sound bites. Why use a hundred words to explain something when you can have more impact with two or three? Slogans and phrases are intended to arouse emotions, which they do, but in social media they can harden into opinions and battle cries, or conspiracy theories, which somehow replace research and critical thinking. "Who has time for debate and research when you already know what’s true.” a friend commented facetioudly to me. But at the same time, he was deadly earnest.
President Franklin Roosevelt was an early expert on arousing urgency without scaring everyone to death. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” made us think we were practically guaranteed to win the war that was about to envelop the world. No one wanted to dwell on the tfate of Pearl Harbor and the loss of half of our Navy. Roosevelt showed leadership by inspiring confidence, while Churchill often added sarcasm or wit. “When you’re going through hell, keep going,” he said. This was an era of using phrases positively, to invoke patriotism and the common cause.
Then something changed in politics toward the end of the twentieth century. The whole idea became to scare people to death. Images and sound bites—the ones you couldn’t get out of your head, and would influence your vote—had the power of an addiction: ”Make love, not war," “Blood and soil,” “cancel culture,” “Black Lives Matter,” “White Power,” “Willie Horton is coming for you,” “We are Q.” The word “disinformation" is getting replaced by “freedom of speech” and “opinion.” This is an example of what one historian called “totalist language…where a slogan protects itself from scrutiny or analysis as it builds social and political power."
I wish the next George Orwell would grab the mic soon. A novel like 1984 needs to be updated to include AI, hacking academies, and spy drones. The only constant will be the autocrat who runs it all.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.