In the chaos and controversy that is America today, “thou shalt not bore” has become the rallying cry.
So it’s not surprising that when Kanye West headed south by saying slavery was a “choice,” the media saw it as a boredom-breaker and howled as if on cue. Just in case that wasn’t enough to keep the audience mesmerized, Kanye doubled down by professing to be a soulmate of President Donald Trump. For both, mission accomplished.
Yet lost amid all the clamor, Saturday Night Live understood it best: They transformed this controversy into entertainment with a comedic sketch suggesting life can’t go on without reveling one more time in the shock of it all.
That’s because a majority of Americans now respond to an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not bore.” This credo may defile faith and threaten virtue, but it’s legitimized every day by one reality — as long as it commands a large and attentive audience, the show goes on.
There’s a Scrabble-like word to describe this new American moodiness — “controversiality” — defined alternately as an expression of opposing views, a war of words, or a prolonged and heated focus on something that draws battle lines and hardens opinions. We are attracted to it, controlled by it, and feed off of it while still condemning it.
The difference today, versus years past, is who practices and perfects it. They are provocateurs who tweet by the minute and speak without limits. They deem the short game the only game, without regard to consequence or history. They use controversy as a marketing tool, not as a pathway to enlightenment.
This is not to suggest that history is shorn of champions who held inexplicable opinions that bother us to this day.
Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest peace activists in history, once called black South Africans “uncivilized, troublesome, very dirty … like animals.” Thomas Jefferson, America’s most esteemed Founding Father, proclaimed native Americans “justified their (own) extermination.”
John Lennon, a musical prophet for generations, confessed he “used to be cruel to women; I was a hitter.” Bob Marley once justified raping his spouse with a cavalier “you’re my wife and you’re supposed to.” And Winston Churchill, who urged England on through its darkest days, played to a darker side by remarking, “Keep England White is a good slogan.”
These words are hard to hear coming from larger-than-life social and political icons, but they were largely overcome by lifetimes of meaning and by a more forgiving world — a time when honor wasn’t stained by a 10-second video grab or 20-word social media post.
Today, we live in a world of whirlwinds, where controversy is part of every story and every move. Where the president should be impeached before the truth is known. Where Robert Mueller, a decorated war hero and long-time FBI director, apparently should be fired as special counsel before his investigation is complete. Where women making allegations of unthinkable harassment are withered by unrelenting questions about their own character. Where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Speaker Paul Ryan are criticized just for getting up in the morning.
This is happening because we, the people, allow it and encourage it. It fuels rage and ratings. It is instantly contemptuous but insanely captivating. We live in the moment, where we’re all too willing to forgo value judgments as long as we are entertained. As a great cartoonist in an earlier age once observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Now there are times when controversy is good, especially when it stirs passion and motivates action long overdue. To wit: a public demonstration that leads to the end of racial inequality, or a boycott that incites better behavior by one nation among the world of nations, or a march by 17-year old perennials that breeds calls for school safety and safer gun laws.
I’m all for the 11th Commandment as long as it bears this asterisk: hallow boredom whenever it helps quell the bedlam, whenever it means the silly still makes room for the serious, whenever it allows for reflection as much as it does reaction.
Walt Whitman once said, “I loaf to invite the soul.”
Has there ever been a better time for that than now?
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.