I still remember Keith Olbermann’s sometimes ironic, sometimes dead-serious takedowns of politicians and people in the public eye. His show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” on MSNBNC (2003-11) started, supposedly, as a parody of the style of Bill O’Reilly’s show “The O’Reilly Factor” (1996-2017), then on Fox News. While Olbermann never achieved the brilliance which Stephen Colbert displayed in his all-out O’Reilly parody on the “Colbert Report” (2005-14, sorely missed!), he perfectly captured the tone not just of his time, but even more so of the time we’re graced (or cursed?) to live in.
Olbermann’s key segment was called “The Worst Person in the World”, in which he provided a regular, and predictable, personality assassination on live television. If you had never heard of “argumentum ad hominem”, an argument directed at the person rather than the issue (“argumentum ad rem”), here it was, celebrated with gusto. It captured the time perfectly. The administration of George W. Bush, as it had to survive its rocky start after a contested election victory, and then the attacks of September 11, 2001, was a frequent and convenient target. Olbermann, the perfect showman, seized the moment and provided regular attacks against the people who committed politics he did not agree with. This was something not seen before in such a drastic and caustic style, putting even O’Reilly (whose show I really did not care for) to shame. As an all-out celebration of vicious partisan commentary, the show was a success – but what may have then been a welcome outlier to some, seems to have become the norm now, not just in journalism but in everyday life. As a previous sports commentator, Olbermann seemed to have forgotten the saying that you may hate the game, but not the player.
(To not throw Olbermann under the bus completely: he also had moments of true profundity, and changed the discourse with his powerful defense of gay marriage by just stating, in its baffling and utterly revealing simplicity, that it is just about love, and the freedom to love who you want. He also calmed down the part of the nation that listened to him with endearing readings from James Thurber’s fables.)
But back to the point about argumentative style.
Everybody you don’t like is now the worst person in the world, everything you don’t like is the worst thing in the world, liking may exist, but disliking something or not caring for or about something is out. It’s either like it or hate it. Hate is the new normal, and declaring who you like or hate is expected in everyday discourse. At the same time, the idea of “liking something” has been turned into a consumerist and corporatist tool that has completely destroyed its original meaning. Can I really “like” a certain brand just as a “like” the comment somebody made?
This culture of constantly declaring your positionality is disturbing, as it removes all sense of productive ambiguity and expects everyone to blast out their opinion into the world every chance they get. Even more disturbingly, you are now supposed to have an opinion about everything, and are tied to this opinion forever. Maybe you liked brand A in the past, now you like brand B till something better comes along or you become nostalgic. Maybe you agreed with position X back then, now favor Y, and in the future tend to return to X or choose Z.
What happened to the idea of changing your mind? If information or societal circumstances change, should we not be allowed to adjust our positions? Is not an opinion something that should be a momentary snapshot of serious judgements made depending on the specific moment in history? Do we not change over time? Are our tastes and preferences supposed to be constant? I cringe every time when people are supposed to only like the style of music that was popular when they were growing up. How limiting. I guess I have been growing up then for several millennia, appreciating music since ancient Egyptian styles. I don’t believe in limiting our horizons.
The attack on other opinions is, of course, always waged in the name of democracy, on all sides. This is nothing new,. of course:
“For, to state the truth in few words, whatever parties, during that period, disturbed the republic under plausible pretexts, some, as if to defend the rights of the people, others, to make the authority of the senate as great as possible, all, though affecting concern for the public good, contended every one for his own interest. In such contests there was neither moderation nor limit; each party made a merciless use of its successes.” (Sallust, Conspiracy of Catilina, ch. 38)
Ironically, this pretense of democracy promotion directly feeds into consumerism and marketability. Only if you voice clear opinions and preferences can market analysts and pollsters make sense out of you. Thus we surrender our capacity for a truly democratic exchange of ideas – which necessitates our opinions to change from time to time – in order to succumb to commercial market pressures and to make a mockery of an honest marketplace of ideas.
Olbermann and O’Reilly eventually ended their respective engagements, whether voluntarily or not. O’Reilly fell due to personal failures, supposedly. For the eventual end of Olbermann’s show, I credit Ben Affleck’s brilliant Saturday Night Live skit, in which he took down a hapless landlord for discriminating against his cat, “Miss Precious Perfect.” Affleck revealed Olbermann’s pomposity, defanged, or rather, declawed it. Humor is always more seditious than righteous indignation, and Jon Stewart’s sobering critical voice sorely missed.
The legacy of this ad hominem style, sadly, seems to continue with – quite literally – a vengeance.
Aren’t we tired of it yet?