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Mindless quotation is like distracted driving
On safe driving habits, disreputable cable channels, and the problem with amplifying bad-faith provocateurs
After the widespread arrival of cell phones, it took a while for people to realize the dangers inherent to their use while driving. Mobile phones are tremendously useful tools, but it takes a considerable effort to do the education necessary for people to realize that the seduction of alerts and text messages needs to be tuned out while conducting a vehicle down the road.
■ Laws aren't always the solution. Some things that are bad for us call for awareness more than legislation, either because they demand self-discipline that can't easily be enforced, or because the harms they create are not fully intuitive and highlighting them helps people to see the need for voluntary compliance with good behavior.
■ Just as we collectively have internalized the dangers of texting while driving, we need to internalize the dangers of amplifying provocateurs. There are many running about, and they are responding to a feedback loop of incentives that encourages them to say things of escalating absurdity in their pursuit of attention. Say enough outlandish things to a devoted audience, and it might just land you a show on a disreputable cable channel.
■ Those provocateurs have to be tuned out, not just by people avoiding them in their own news and social-media feeds, but also by those who erroneously believe they are performing a public service by quoting the provocations in order to express revulsion. When, for example, a Presidential candidate espouses an utterly preposterous proposal to lay off half the country's civil service, he is not trying to be taken seriously. He is attempting to be so outlandish as to draw an outlandish response from others.
■ The temptation to point and shout in the direction of outlandishness is strong, but it has to be balanced by the self-discipline to realize that amplifying craziness, even to criticize, still serves to amplify craziness. If an absurdity must be pointed out, it can be done without using the provocateur's words or likeness. When they act in bad faith, the rest of us don't need to go along.