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The dangers of morality plays
Critical thinking is in short supply in good vs evil narratives
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One of the paradoxes of the modern world is we’ve never had access to more information, more data about everything imaginable and yet we seemingly never struggled so much to make sense of what is going on and agree on a path forward. The tendency is to react to this mess of abstractions and interdependence by retreating to the comfort of morality plays. David Leonhardt, writer of The New York Times’ consistently well-done The Morning newsletter, laid this out well recently in regards to what he calls the “Covid fable.”
People are attracted to stories with heroes and villains. In these stories, the character flaws of the villains bring them down, allowing the decency of the heroes to triumph. The stories create a clear relationship between cause and effect. They make sense.
What’s more, we write our own dramas, and we always cast ourselves as protagonists. The problem, as Covid has shown, is “the real world often does not lend itself to moralistic fables.” And that’s because people are more complicated and, often, a jumble of contradictions while the virus has taught us the needed humility to recognize there is a lot we don’t know. After all, this pandemic has done a good job of making a lot of people confidently predicting its future course to look bad. “Better to stay silent and thought the fool than speak and remove all doubt,” as Abe said in pre-Twitter times.
The morality play had its heyday in the Middle Ages. You can imagine the attraction of a simple tale of the forces of virtue against the forces of evil. After all, the Black Death had wiped out at least a third of the world’s population. People only grew to about 5’ 5” tall, didn’t have penicillin and tended to die in their 30s. I’d be in the market for some simple explanations of what the hell was going on.
Perhaps this is a new Covid acceleration, but the morality play has oddly become a defining feature across societies, particularly as the polarization in our politics spreads into most areas of life. We tend to be more pessimistic about our current times. After all, back in the 1930s people in one poll overwhelmingly said people in the “horse and buggy era” were happier. Whether it’s the battles over “cancel culture,” people actually rooting for more Covid deaths to prove their virtue, the maskholes masquerading as freedom fighters, crypto cultists, or climate change deniers, many have turned from the difficult task of critical and independent thinking and instead retreated to the reassuring embrace of dogma. The political lens is an easy way to make sense of the world. No need to think through the details, just with the gut (and whatever your preferred political tribe is peddling).
Needless to say, this isn’t purpose-built for a complex world. What we need more than ever is a willingness to address challenges with open minds. At our first permanent office, a salesperson had brought in one of those framed motivational posters that every company office needed at that time. It was a Steve Jobs quote: “Never compromise.” I was horrified. If nobody compromised, we’d have “Lord of the Flies” on our hands. Better approach is don’t compromise of principles and ruthlessly compromise on just about everything else.
As Leonhardt points out, the danger of morality plays is it leads to poor decisionmaking. The pandemic has shown quite clearly the need to be able to change course based on new information. That’s hard to do when you have a Manichean view of the world. The worst decisions tend to be made based on emotion, and morality plays are all about triggering emotional responses, particularly our own (sometimes) latent pride. Once we cast ourselves on the side of virtue, changing course and embracing uncertainty becomes more difficult.
I’m reading “Crashed,” a book by Adam Tooze on the decade of financial crises and what to make of them. One salient fact of the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis is how morality plays were deployed. The people who took out mortgages were cast as irresponsible. The cascading financial shocks that started in the U.S. and UK were dismissed by European countries as evidence of Anglo-Saxon laisez faire ideology run amok. (Of course, Europe was pulled into the crisis since its banks too were exposed.) When the sovereign debt crisis rolled around a couple years later, the EU decided to cast the Greeks as irresponsible cheats, leading to a disastrous austerity policy that shrank the economy by a quarter and pushed youth unemployment to 50%.
The media business operates within this context. Too often people fall prey to their own prejudices, choosing to cast heroes and villains and pretend that their is a side of virtue and a side of evil. The media’s gleeful pile-on of Facebook is a case in point. Facebook’s power is a problem, without a doubt, one that government regulators will need to address. But too many publishers have used Facebook, along with Google and the ad tech industrial complex, as an excuse for poor business choices in the pursuit of neverending growth. Facebook is a convenient foil. The go-to knock now is that Facebook is the same as the tobacco companies. It’s to blame for everything from political polarization to teenagers feeling bad about themselves to all of society’s superficiality and addiction to “profilicity.”
By the same token, the issues of user privacy and data collection practices tends to lead to righteousness. Publishers cast themselves on the side of virtue while “the platforms” are recklessly vacuuming up as much data as they can. Never mind that these same publishers are deploying dozens of ad trackers on these articles decrying data. And for all the hand wringing over data collection, it’s hard to see a future in which advertising is less reliant on data overall. The methods will change, that’s all. But all that complexity of the “Rube Goldberg machine” of digital advertising has led Scott Galloway to conclude the entire $200 billion U.S. digital ad industry is a scam. I’d say check his stock picks before taking his sweeping conclusions as gospel. Makes for good TV, I suppose.
But dichotomies are better for marketing. On the data front, a special shamelessness award has to go to Apple, which is brazenly trumpeting “privacy as a fundamental human right” while using restrictive data policies to box out competitors and increase its ad business. Amazon has for years made hay out of its supposed laser focus on the customer, only behind the scenes it is putting its thumb on the scale in order to promote its own products ahead of third parties.
A major knock on platforms is they deploy dark patterns to hook users on their products, collecting more data to target more ads. Terrible. But have you tried to cancel a subscription to a major newspaper? Make sure to call during business hours and block out a good half hour to fend off the desperate efforts of the “saves team” to keep you. Publishers love to complain about the ad quality of Taboola and Outbrain, yet they choose the short-term revenue afforded by true clickbait over optimizing the network for quality. You get the ad network you deserve.
Even the rebalancing of business models from ads to subscriptions comes with a moralistic edge. Suddenly, to have an ad business is somewhat dirty -- the audience is the product -- when it’s just a model, neither good nor bad intrinsically. Ads make sense for a lot of editorial missions, not for others. Never made sense for BuzzFeed to claim it wouldn’t run display ads. It was always silly for The Athletic to make a big deal about not having ads. Naturally, The Athletic now has ads. Better to be realistic about diversifying than cling to dogma.
Crypto’s inevitability rests more on its narrative than utility. A group of independent thinkers, sick of government profligacy and a rigged financial system, band together to build a new, decentralized system that, apparently, will somehow usher in an era for prosperity for all, not just the few. Needless to say, those with doubts are quickly cast as villains. Have fun staying poor.
The early future of the office debate was positioned as a virtue contest. The Boss Class isn’t dumb. They decided to cast those hankering for Cubicle Life as the go-getters, the ones who just wanted it more. Those rethinking the role of work in life — slackers. This is a good narrative. The problem is it runs up against the reality of no evidence to support offices being a source of creativity -- I’ve had more ideas running than sitting in offices despite spending 10x the time in offices -- and the market reality of the power pendulum swinging back toward labor. The debate was always fake. There is no one single way of working across a group of people. Offices were always the lowest common denominator and bluntest collaboration tool, better for the “soft work” of gossiping and building relationships than “hard work.”
My hope is we move beyond morality plays. Simple, neat, overarching explanations of complex situations are satisfying -- look at Q Anon, great story -- but the pandemic has shown we need more, not less, critical thinking, along with ideological flexibility in meeting an array of challenges.
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