Andy Warhol's aphorism on everyone experiencing fifteen minutes of fame, though presciently characterizing an accelerating world, was a perspective from a more languid and less peripatetic time. If you doubt this, look no further than a twitterstorm, when a tweet by or about a pop star or athlete triggers a viral response, first across social media and then the mainstream media; strum und drang rage, while nuance and perspective are lost.
As the means and methods of electronic communication exponentially expand, identifying and separating the factual, useful, and insightful from the erroneous, extraneous, and hyperbolic becomes ever more difficult. Alas, this is the human version of the Shannon-Hartley theorem, with the signal (news) often lost in the noise. I too am often guilty, tweeting, and retweeting memes and headlines with inadequate thought, contributing to the detritus of reasoned communication.
Individual thoughtfulness and perspective are the burden and responsibility afforded by ubiquitous, instantaneous communication. As we disintermediate communication and information sharing, we each must become thoughtful editors, deciding for ourselves what is newsworthy and shareable.
In the heat of the moment, with mounting pressure to respond to still unfolding events, it is tempting to offer hasty and ill-informed opinions. Commentators pontificate, sound bites are replayed, and social media storm, while memes ricochet through the global infosphere in an echoing cacophony. In such a cauldron, emotions rise, strong opinions form, and judgments are rendered, often in minutes or hours.
To Ponder and Understand
Few issues, even ones of principle, can be assessed and evaluated so quickly, nor are they so simple as to be reduced to a 140 character précis, no matter how wise or insightful the writer. Most topics, and certainly the important ones, warrant informed exploration, careful consultation, and thoughtful reflection. This takes time – days or weeks– and occasionally months or years. Indeed, the very act of preparing a response, whether a speech or an essay, forces one to contemplate and consider history, context, and multiple, sometimes discordant perspectives. Such is the nature of informed assessment and discourse.
Difficult though it is to believe, there was a time when the adiabatic compression of communication cycles and hyperkinetic velocity of information quarks did not seem like Brownian motion, induced by the heat of mutual interaction. Debates and perspectives could evolve over months and years, shaped by extended information gathering, rather than in minutes and days, driven by a ravenous demand for instant outcomes.
The Power of Informed Oratory
Long-form oratory once defined public debate, and in the hands of a skilled and informed speaker, it still can. Daniel Webster's Second Reply to Hayne transformed this country from an uncertain federation of states into a strong union. His ringing cry – union and liberty, now and forever, one and inseparable – became the defining statement on the limits of states' rights, rivaling in some ways that of the Federalist Papers. Such was the influence of Webster that in Steven Vincent Benét's fanciful telling, Dan'l bested the devil himself.
Nor can one ever read or listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's stirring I Have a Dream oration, with its haunting line, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," and not be moved by both the power and the content of the message. The speech defined an image of justice and equality that we still seek to realize, as recent events have reminded us.
Each spoke from prepared notes, but also felt free to expound extemporaneously. Both drew on a lifetime of study and experience, and from that preparation came rhyme and meter, cadence and timing, imbued with eloquence and power, grandeur and simplicity.
As perhaps the greatest orators of their respective centuries, the seminal speeches of both men warrant careful study. Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate recounts Webster's oration and its immediate and long-term impacts on the country. Dr. King's speech, and the circumstances surround it, are powerful reminders of the inequality and injustice we have not yet addressed.
I am a strong believer in the democratizing power of electronic media. Broader access has given a global voice to many who were heretofore disenfranchised and silenced. When egregious statements or acts warrant an immediate and unqualified condemnation, unfettered and uncensored communication is a powerful force for justice. As many have rightly noted, evil triumphs when the good fail to raise their voices.
Yet there is also a crucial place for long form oratory, as both Senator Webster and Dr. King showed us. Their voices and their messages echo across the ages. I cannot imagine any of our quarks of de minimis, instantaneous interaction – sound bites, tweets, texts, emoticons -- doing that.