Chris Beem

Talk Radio in a civil society

By - Feb 25th, 2010 11:32 pm
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sykesonthebrain

Sykes on the brain

A couple of years ago, Charlie Sykes did an interview with Mike Gousha at the Marquette Law School. Gousha asked Sykes if he thought his radio talk show was entertainment. Sykes responded, “Well, what’s the opposite of entertainment? Being boring? I just don’t think I have a moral obligation to be boring.”
This exchange has stayed with me since I first heard it, for the question it raises demands an answer: What is entertaining about Charlie Sykes? The answer can be found in, of all places, neuroscience.
Through new technologies like MRI, scientists can actually watch how the brain responds to stimuli. Studying people reading or listening to political stories, ads and arguments, scientists have learned that politics is about finding stuff that make us feel good.
No matter our political persuasion, we humans like to have our most basic emotional commitments reinforced. That reinforcement releases chemicals in the brain that give us pleasure. It feels so good, in fact, that the brain unconsciously steers us towards media, individuals and arguments that we are already inclined to support. It works the other way too. When we confront ideas and data that conflict with our pre-existing beliefs, we feel uncomfortable. It is so uncomfortable that the brain will — again unconsciously — come up with ways to reject the argument, preserve our beliefs and make the conflict and distress go away.
So Charlie Sykes’ show, and talk radio in general, is indeed entertainment. Every day, hosts like Sykes tell listeners that their beliefs are correct, that they are smart and moral to think and believe the things they do. This experience is pleasurable. He also validates their innate desire to dismiss or denigrate the positions of anybody who thinks otherwise. Our brains are looking for reasons to do so, and hearing them likewise feels good.
So what? One might ask. We are all endorphin junkies, and if that’s how talk radio listeners get their fix, who is in any position to argue?
Here’s what: democratic politics is about more than entertainment. It is premised on the effectiveness, and indeed, the necessity, of rational debate. The American founders well understood that emotion and partisanship were inescapable, but they also believed that partisanship must operate within brackets. For starters, a free people must not allow partisanship to come before our common commitment to the truth, or (really what amounts to the same thing) the good of the country.
Now brain research confirms these brackets do not come naturally. On the contrary, working within them is hard work. We do not want to take seriously the arguments of those with whom we disagree. It hurts to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. Yet, if we are really to live up to our responsibilities as democratic citizens, that is precisely what we are called to do. And that means we have to work at it.
But Sykes’ comments reveal that he does not accept these brackets. In fact, his shtick is to malign and belittle not just those who disagree with him, but also the very idea that these skills are valuable and worth developing. Civic discipline is boring, he says. It is a lot more entertaining, a lot more fun, to act as if there is nothing of value in your opponent’s argument, and as if your opponent himself is, at best, a benighted fool and, at worse, a force of malevolence.
He’s right. It is more fun. And cheese fries taste better than carrots. But the world is an ever more complicated and dangerous place. The stakes are extremely high. And at this very moment, our politics manifests a partisanship that slouches toward pathology. Given all this, entertainment is not enough. Not nearly enough.
Last week, as it does on the third Monday of every February, the Senate opened for business by reading Washington’s Farewell Address. In it, Washington said, “The common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it.”
To Sykes and every other talk radio host — and their listeners — the point ought to be clear. They, like all of us, do indeed have a moral obligation, a civic duty, to place truth and fairness before our desire to be entertained. If being boring means doing the hard, grownup work of citizenship, then here’s to boring. We could do with a lot more of it.

A couple of years ago, Charlie Sykes did an interview with Mike Gousha at the Marquette Law School. Gousha asked Sykes if he thought his radio talk show was entertainment. Sykes responded, “Well, what’s the opposite of entertainment? Being boring? I just don’t think I have a moral obligation to be boring.”

This exchange has stayed with me since I first heard it, for the question it raises demands an answer: What is entertaining about Charlie Sykes? The answer can be found in, of all places, neuroscience.

Through new technologies like MRI, scientists can actually watch how the brain responds to stimuli. Studying people reading or listening to political stories, ads and arguments, scientists have learned that politics is about finding stuff that make us feel good.

No matter our political persuasion, we humans like to have our most basic emotional commitments reinforced. That reinforcement releases chemicals in the brain that give us pleasure. It feels so good, in fact, that the brain unconsciously steers us towards media, individuals and arguments that we are already inclined to support. It works the other way too. When we confront ideas and data that conflict with our pre-existing beliefs, we feel uncomfortable. It is so uncomfortable that the brain will — again unconsciously — come up with ways to reject the argument, preserve our beliefs and make the conflict and distress go away.

So Charlie Sykes’ show, and talk radio in general, is indeed entertainment. Every day, hosts like Sykes tell listeners that their beliefs are correct, that they are smart and moral to think and believe the things they do. This experience is pleasurable. He also validates their innate desire to dismiss or denigrate the positions of anybody who thinks otherwise. Our brains are looking for reasons to do so, and hearing them likewise feels good.

So what? One might ask. We are all endorphin junkies, and if that’s how talk radio listeners get their fix, who is in any position to argue?

Here’s what: democratic politics is about more than entertainment. It is premised on the effectiveness, and indeed, the necessity, of rational debate. The American founders well understood that emotion and partisanship were inescapable, but they also believed that partisanship must operate within brackets. For starters, a free people must not allow partisanship to come before our common commitment to the truth, or (really what amounts to the same thing) the good of the country.

Now brain research confirms these brackets do not come naturally. On the contrary, working within them is hard work. We do not want to take seriously the arguments of those with whom we disagree. It hurts to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. Yet, if we are really to live up to our responsibilities as democratic citizens, that is precisely what we are called to do. And that means we have to work at it.

But Sykes’ comments reveal that he does not accept these brackets. In fact, his shtick is to malign and belittle not just those who disagree with him, but also the very idea that these skills are valuable and worth developing. Civic discipline is boring, he says. It is a lot more entertaining, a lot more fun, to act as if there is nothing of value in your opponent’s argument, and as if your opponent himself is, at best, a benighted fool and, at worse, a force of malevolence.

He’s right. It is more fun. And cheese fries taste better than carrots. But the world is an ever more complicated and dangerous place. The stakes are extremely high. And at this very moment, our politics manifests a partisanship that slouches toward pathology. Given all this, entertainment is not enough. Not nearly enough.

Last week, as it does on the third Monday of every February, the Senate opened for business by reading Washington’s Farewell Address. In it, Washington said, “The common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it.”

To Sykes and every other talk radio host — and their listeners — the point ought to be clear. They, like all of us, do indeed have a moral obligation, a civic duty, to place truth and fairness before our desire to be entertained. If being boring means doing the hard, grownup work of citizenship, then here’s to boring. We could do with a lot more of it.

Categories: Commentary

0 thoughts on “Talk Radio in a civil society”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Chris, nice piece but why only limit yourself to right-wing entertainers on the radio. What about former left-wing entertainer and talk show host Al Franken. What about the incredibly liberal Joy Cardin or Ben Merens at WPR? And what is wrong with believing your views are correct? I am more impressed by a person who has convictions and the ability to defend them than someone who is a jelly fish and willing to roll at the moment of challenge. Finally, this country is NOT a democracy. The constitution does not give unfettered power to the simple majority. We are a Republic, which follows the rule of LAW to protect and sustain the rights of all people, including the minority!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Patti,

    Thanks for responding. Let me take these comments in order.

    1. Of course it’s true that both sides engage in this sort of behavior. But the issue is talk radio, and that is almost exclusively a right wing phenomenon. More importantly, it seems to me all too easy and all too common to respond, “Oh yeah, well look at the other side!” Either the argument holds or it doesn’t.

    2.I am not saying I want people to be nice. I want them to be fair. It is not the same thing. In fact, I think it is a lot harder, it shows a lot more gumption, to take your opponent’s ideas seriously, represent them fairly, and to engage them responsibly. It’s easy (and jellyfishy!) to misrepresent your opponent’s position.

    3.I am just fine with the First Amendment. I’m making a moral argument, not a legal one. As for whether we are a democracy or not: Of course this is not direct democracy, but there haven’t been many of those since Athens. Ask yourself this question: Who is the sovereign? Who rules? “Of the People, By the People, For the People.” Sound familiar?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Chris,

    Are there some quotes from Charlie Sykes, other than the one you listed, which you either neglected to include or were edited out?

    If not, where do you make the leap in logic from Sykes stating he wants his show to be entertaining and not boring – to that meaning he conducts his show such that it “maligns and belittles” opposing views. My guess is that Mr. Sykes would disagree with your conclusion.

    And in regards your comment about the dominance of talk shows by conservatives – what is your explanation for that and how do you explain the fact that obviously due to the number of listeners, a lot of liberals listen to conservative talk radio?

    Btw – and I assume you know this – talk shows such as Sykes, Belling, et al are not part of the news departments of their respective radio stations. That distinction is made quite clearly to anyone who has listened to radio talk shows for any amount of time.

    Anon Jim

  4. Anonymous says:

    I just don’t think the claim is controversial. Maligning and belittling opposing views is just what he does.

    As for why the Right seems to take more to the talk radio format, that is an interesting and important question. Folks on both sides have their own explanations, but I find them wholly unpersuasive. Is there something about our brains that accounts for the difference? I don’t know of any data on this question, but I bet it is coming.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Chris,

    If I accept your opinion that Sykes “maligns belittles”, I just hope you are not under the illusion that does not occur as much if not more in the liberal media as well in regards to conservatives.

    That would be truly clueless if you do.

    Anon Jim

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