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Jabbar writes: "The November midterm elections won't be decided by the tawdry Brett Kavanaugh debacle, the fluttery tinsel economy or Robert Mueller's probe into the clogged colon of Trump's alleged collusion. Instead, it will be firmly influenced by a simple reality-show trope that sanctifies one of the most destructive ideas to a democracy: 'Go with your heart.'"

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo: Getty Images)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo: Getty Images)

Don't Just Blame Donald Trump, Blame Reality TV Too

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, The Hollywood Reporter

09 October 18

Don't just blame Donald Trump for the current anti-intellectual threat to democracy, blame reality TV as voters "go with their hearts" instead of relying on research or reason, writes the NBA great and Hollywood Reporter columnist.

he November midterm elections won't be decided by the tawdry Brett Kavanaugh debacle, the fluttery tinsel economy or Robert Mueller's probe into the clogged colon of Trump's alleged collusion. Instead, it will be firmly influenced by a simple reality-show trope that sanctifies one of the most destructive ideas to a democracy: "Go with your heart." At first, that phrase can seem like a minor, even charming convention, but actually, this widely promoted platitude is a symptom of a way of thinking that is detrimental to maintaining American values.

One can see why encouraging people to "go with your heart" is so popular: It puts everyone on the same intellectual level. Forget experts, authorities, facts, statistics or science — everyone is an expert of the heart. Feelings now carry as much weight as the opinions of those who conduct extensive research, who spend years studying and compiling evidence before reaching any conclusions. By elevating the heart above the brain, we discourage people from being rational in favor of being emotional. And emotional people are easier to manipulate.

Here's how: A recent meme circulating on Facebook is a photograph of an amputee soldier in a wheelchair saluting — accompanied by the outraged message that Facebook had banned the photo as "offensive." More than 1.25 million people had viewed the photo, and there were many angry comments about patriotism, fake news, liberals, etc.

None of it was true.

Ten seconds on the internet would have proved that, but so many people are imprisoned by their confirmation bias that they can be led around by the "heart" by everyone from politicians to Russian trolls. Research, even for 10 seconds, is for losers who need evidence before being outraged. The cellphone is the greatest single educational tool in the history of the world, yet many don't use it to get smart, only to justify calling others dumb.

We are often too quick to dismiss pop culture as the frivolous flotsam of an indulgent society. Yet, when closely examined, pop culture can be a revealing portrait of the civilization that creates and celebrates the TV shows, apps, video games, movies, music and other trendy expressions of their needs, desires and fears. It's a media cage fight to articulate our core values and principles.

Reality television is deep in that fight, throwing elbows and eye gouges to America's ideals by dismissing with such evangelical zeal the Age of Reason's 200-year-old premise that "knowledge is power" in favor of the much easier and more socially harmful "go with your heart" (aka "go with your gut"). Reality shows — including the Real Housewives and Bachelor franchises and various MTV millennial series like The Challenge and Teen Mom — have highly pivotal moments in which a castmember must make a crucial "life-altering" choice. Invariably, the person announces that they must go with their heart (or gut). Sometimes, they ask a friend for advice, which is almost always an evasive variation on "listen to your heart." (Memo to crappy friend: If the person knew what was in her heart, she wouldn't need to ask you for advice.)

When this inevitable moment arrives — it arrived six times in one episode for Becca Kufrin in her Bachelorette season — the person declares with tearful ferocity, and a half-turn toward the camera, that they must follow their heart. It's sadly clear each time this statement is made that the person actually hears in their heads the battering of hands of the television audience applauding their spiritual moment. This idea that a person "just knows" what's right is romanticizing the kind of intellectual laziness that makes all forms of bias possible. This elevation of instinct over intellect is curious since reality show castmembers are so often massively wrong, as almost every episode of every show has proved (see Becca's engagement to Ari).

The "truthiness" that Stephen Colbert once satirized is now so ingrained in our culture that many voters no longer feel the necessity to rely on verifiable facts to choose their candidates. They have been unburdened from what was once their patriotic duty of examining a candidate's record and the veracity of their statements to choose who would be best for the job. Even when faced with a politician who makes multiple contradictions and utters proven lies, they embrace the mist of false hope. Rudy Giuliani's "Truth isn't truth" statement; Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts"; and President Trump's suggestions that the National Enquirer should have received a Pulitzer Prize exemplify the widespread and increasingly accepted practice of verbally stoning those who speak truth and facts, from journalists to experts to scientists.

How has this rampant anti-intellectualism, which historically is always the first step toward fascism, spread so thoroughly through the American society that once lauded the kind of rational thought that ushered in the Enlightenment and the Renaissance?

Well, look at Trump, who often brags that he doesn't need to prepare to meet with world leaders to discuss complex negotiations because he has great instincts and goes with his gut. Before meeting with North Korean despot Kim Jong Un, Trump acknowledged he didn't need facts or information from experts, he would rely on "just my touch, my feel." Even though this technique usually results in him issuing false statements (an average of 7.6 a day, according to The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column), getting facts wrong and having to go back on his promises, he still relies on his gut. In proudly admitting this, he encourages other Americans to do the same.

"Going with my gut" is like saying, "I'll jump off this cliff because my gut says the water below is deep enough." Reality shows perpetuate the childish idea that we have innate superpowers when it comes to detecting sincere love matches — which explains the U.S.' high divorce and adultery rates — or making political decisions. It also explains why every time Trump gives an impassioned speech, he rises in the polls, even though what he says is often verifiably inaccurate.

Here's a sobering thought for those depending on their gut to judge truthfulness: According to an article on the American Psychological Association website, "Research has consistently shown that people's ability to detect lies is no more accurate than chance, or flipping a coin. This finding holds across all types of people — students, psychologists, judges, job interviewers and law enforcement personnel."

That's what made the Brett Kavanaugh vs. Christine Blasey Ford Senate Judiciary Committee hearing an essential lesson on the dangers of going with your gut. Ford gave a measured, restrained version of the events she recalled. The judge raged and wept and insulted and pouted with his amplifier cranked to a Spinal Tap-worthy 11. His tactic, perhaps encouraged by Trump's success, was to blast enough emotion in the audience's face that they would be persuaded without evaluating the flimsy content of his actual words. He lied, he equivocated, he bared his partisan fangs — all of which should disqualify him from serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. But Republicans continue to preach the gospel of follow your heart because they know anyone using their head would recognize this threat to democracy.

In the movie High Fidelity, Rob (John Cusack) blames his many disastrous relationships on listening to thousands of pop songs that have romanticized love and clouded his decision-making ability. By the end of the movie, he says, "I've been thinking with my guts since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I've come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains."

Unfortunately, reality shows have so idealized the notion that guts trump brains, the midterm elections are in danger of being decided by voters who choose to ignore the facts and vote based on a romanticized ideal perpetuated by reality TV — which has all the substance of an Ari Luyendyk marriage proposal.

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+55 # 1dfnslblty 2018-10-09 18:11
Excellent and important essay.
Good explanation for potus, scotus and handfuls of non-representin g representatives.
Also accounts for disgruntled workers at all levels.
Bravo, KA-J
Keep writing.
+21 # grace100 2018-10-09 22:00
Thank you for your wisdom, intellect, courage and heartfelt challenge to sappy character and characters!
-2 # wrknight 2018-10-10 00:52
Sorry, I can't buy it. Reality shows, like all the other media trash, simply reflect what viewers want. If viewers didn't want this trash, they wouldn't watch it, and if they didn't watch it, sponsors wouldn't pay for it. This is all reflected in the Nielson ratings that show the number of viewers watching.

The blame for Kavanaugh, the blame for Trump all all falls back on the people. If people want to drink the Kool-Aid offered by the media, the pols and the hate mongers, they make that choice freely. No one puts a gun to their head and says watch this show or vote for this lunatic.

If people don't want to use their native intelligence to inquire, analyze and exercise independent judgement, that's their choice. And that's what happened. They chose willingly to watch the reality shows, Fox TV and drink the Kool-Aid, and they chose willingly to vote from some part of the anatomy not related to the brain.

And then there were those who didn't vote at all. All 40% of them who are too absorbed in whatever they are doing to bother to do their one civic duty. And so, we are now saddled with Trump and Kavanaugh and others of their ilk.

Democracy is supposed to be governance by the people, but if the people abandon their civic duty to govern, those who seek power will fill the void.
+11 # BetaTheta 2018-10-10 14:33
Sorry, but this sort of defense of the media’s “free marketplace” is as big a cop-out and abdication of responsibility as the consumption of schlock itself. You seem to have missed the entire point of the article, which is to advocate for and promulgate a return to rational decision-making . Just sitting back and sneering at the masses is hardly a productive use of one’s words.

A good start is installing politicians who, rather than exploiting emotionalism, will strengthen institutions that promote critical thinking. (hint: NOT the current GOP).
+5 # lfeuille 2018-10-10 19:02
I think it's similar to addiction. Getting what they want leads them to need to up the sensationalism level and want more and more outrageousness. What used to be titillating begins to seem bland.
+21 # janie1893 2018-10-10 01:03
Mr.A-J--I become more in awe of your insight and intellect with each essay you publish. Thank you.
Reality TV is relatively cheap to produce and earns as high ( or higher) revenues as more high quality productions do. We are all to blame for reality TV because we accept it!
+21 # ddd-rrr 2018-10-10 08:19
THIS ARTICLE is amazingly insightful! Thanks, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for writing
this article! Adding this to the noticing of the rot tossed out by Fox "News",
the wall-to-wall scam-and-near-s cam advertising on TV that
also "trains" people to not think, the incessant blathering of such
as Rush Limbaugh (and many others) being accepted as "truth" by those
who cannot (or who choose not to) think, and the absence of good early education
teaching children how to think critically and ethically, explains much of what
has caused our current political absurdities and dangers to exist.
Also contributing to this are the overtly corrupt statements
of "beliefs" by many politicians (mostly on the right),
with declarations of propagandistic nonsense
regarding economics and government.
-9 # mashiguo 2018-10-10 10:13
So far as I know, Trump was elected by the Electoral College.

Why not blame the constitution?
-1 # wrknight 2018-10-10 12:13
This is what bothers me about your comment as well as the author's position. People don't want to take responsibility for their own actions. They want to put the blame somewhere else. It's always someone else's fault, never mine.
+2 # lfeuille 2018-10-10 19:06
In case you haven't notice there is a campaign to scrap the EC either by having states vote to give all their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote, or directly by constitutional amendment whichever come first. So it is getting part of the blame, but there is more than one cause.
-1 # dbrize 2018-10-11 08:39
Quoting lfeuille:
In case you haven't notice there is a campaign to scrap the EC either by having states vote to give all their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote, or directly by constitutional amendment whichever come first. So it is getting part of the blame, but there is more than one cause.

The campaign to “scrap the EC” is highly unlikely to succeed. Proportional EC is a better possibility though it too faces serious hurdles.

Interestingly, under all likely proportional plans, Trump still would have defeated Hillary in EC votes.

Losers always want to change the system. Count on it.
0 # lfeuille 2018-10-13 00:02
Depends on how many state legislatures the Dems take back. It will eventually succeed if not this time. But that wasn't the issue. The constitution is being blamed in part are efforts are underway to correct the founders mistake.
+12 # zepp 2018-10-10 13:58
Abdul-Jabber is right, but the problem didn't begin with reality TV shows. Americans have believed that an uninformed opinion is just as valid as an informed one, a fallacy reinforced since the 18th century, when the meme of the average joe outwitting the savants and proving them wrong first caught on. The notion of "All Men Were Created Equal" (quite aside from the fact that most African Americans might beg to differ) led to an undesirable belief that my third-grade knowledge is equal to or better than all those collitch fellers who think they know it all. It's a comforting and dangerous fallacy that allows people to ignore error and dismiss information they don't like.
0 # Caliban 2018-10-11 00:40
"Creation" and "education" are different matters. So, how about "All men are created ignorant"?
-5 # Robbee 2018-10-10 18:18
"no more mister nice guy!"

"the gloves have come off!"

the bromance flowing from dickhead to progressives is officially caput!

dickhead just renamed his campaign to save congress from dems his campaign to save congress from socialist lefties who can go to "venezuela!"

perhaps nobody here noticed, but in 2016 dickhead gave bernie a free pass!

there was a one-sided armistice such that, when bernie lost the dem primaries, naturally dickhead called on bernie supporters to become dickhead supporters!

yesterday, the gloves came off!

progressive dems are now socialists who st. dickhead will drive to venezuela!

this is how dickhead will play these mid-terms! signed in blood!

what does it mean?

it means that progressives are free to stop browbeating dems! we ARE the evil dems!

it frees us from making dems public enemy #1! - no bones about it, WE are public enemy #1!

in 2017, when bernie was the most popular politician in america, so many of us held a shiny, pollyanna notion that in 2020 bernie was a "shoe-in" for prez? no?

we are about to find out if a socialist is a shoe-in for any national office!

this is our watershed moment!

the writing is on the wall!

detente is caput!

mark my words! we are in for an ever-ascending shit-storm over running a socialist for prez!

as Kareem intones - "Don't just blame Donald Trump for the current anti-intellectu al threat to democracy" - 9 October 18

be forewarned! wake up! promote bernie!
0 # starhelix 2018-10-19 09:28
Fortunately, I can say I've never seen a reality show of any kind because I prefer truth and justice to fill my mind. However, there's no reason to discard fables altogether. When I was 16 years old and my baby brother was just 12, I took him to Madison Square Garden to see our WWF heroes in the flesh. We had a grand old time. Yet, neither of us would have had any trouble discerning the difference between this WWF show and actual reality. Donnie Donuts is now our president because too many Americans have lost the ability to tell the difference. God help us all!

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