When ratings and numbers become the bane of political discourse

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

DEMOCRACY has always celebrated the dictum that the voice of the people is the voice of God. But a fixation on the supremacy of numbers, as reflected in popularity ratings, can undermine the very spirit of good governance, particularly when numbers override substance.

Students of political theory worth their mettle would tell you that, in fact, Aristotle who is regarded as the father of Western political science considered democracy that is based on the rule of the many as a flawed type of rule. For Aristotle, democracy can easily descend into a tyranny of numbers that does not necessarily translate into a just, rational and moral polis.

The tyranny of numbers was seen when emperors of Rome considered the voice of the howling crowd in the Colosseum as their basis on whether they will spare gladiators or send them to death.

If one wants to be biblical about this, Jesus Christ’s crucifixion was sealed when Pontius Pilate acceded to the mob that chose to free the thief Barabbas.

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These two are the precursors of modern-day surveys. The howling, angry or otherwise bored crowd hungry for entertainment or simply craving that their wants and desires be satisfied, or even just their irrational capriciousness fulfilled, can now be found in the viewers, readers and likers in mainstream and social media.

The growth of capitalism has even further strengthened the stranglehold of popular opinion on decision making, where rationality is no longer based on the inherent message or politics of an option or product, but on whether it will sell to the consumer or citizen. Ratings translate to revenues, and revenues lead to profits which are the ones that feed the capitalist enterprise.

The ratings game is so pervasive in entertainment media, where networks compete for viewers in order to stay afloat. Thus, popular television no longer brings messages that people need, but instead pander to what they want. It is here where programs that are educational or informative struggle to survive, even as noon-time shows that feed into the materialistic nature, misery and the search for quick fixes of people, and soap operas that present the worst in them, rule supreme.

The political implication of this is severe. It further enables the shifting of the political culture of people away from substance of policy into the shallowness of scandal and intrigue.

What sealed this fate further is when even news and public affairs programs were subjected to the ratings game. These turned journalists into agents no longer of pure information that people need so that they can become citizens, but as sellers of optics and spins that people would buy. No one would watch the primetime news if there would be no dramatic intrigues. News and public affairs programs were transformed into reality soap operas, even as politics became a spectacle to be covered by journalists who are forced to compete for ratings.

We are now complaining about the politicization of the mainstream media, yet we do not realize that their predisposition to give a spin, to post click-baiting headlines and to emphasize drama and not substance, are precisely what we wanted them to do, else we tune out and settle into watching sports, game shows or soap operas.

The pervasiveness of capitalism engenders ratings to rule over the messaging. It commands what product to sell, what plot of the narrative to tell, which show should be cancelled, which character should be killed, or which anchor or co-host to fire.

What is more horrifying is that this fixation on numbers has even infected academia, where universities are rated and ranked based on some scoring mechanism that privileges reputation, number of publications and exchange faculty and students. The argument is that faculty members producing more publications translate to quality, to a point that instead of focusing on teaching minds and having impact on society, that universities end up fixated on rankings and publication citations.

It is in this atmosphere ruled by numbers that the political game is even more enslaved by the logic of the power of the many, regardless of truth, reason or justice. It now appears that truth is what the many would like it to be, regardless of truth itself.

Social media, with its democratization of access to the production and reproduction of public discourse, has further laid the foundation for the tyranny of numbers. Here, ratings are now expressed in the number of likes, followers, views and engagements.

In late capitalism where social media becomes a major arena, ratings have become even more the bane of public discourse. They privilege scandal, intrigue, sex, violence and conflict over those that people need to become human, and to become informed and rational citizens.

The template is still the same. The lynchpin is not the things that are close to the heart and about topics that feed into our humanity. These will not rate. A feel-good post will not get as many likes in the same way that feel-good TV would not rate.

What is rewarded are the bashing and trashing kind that panders to the basest feelings of anger, hate and discord. Tinkerbell personalities singing “Kumbaya” will get fewer followers compared to those who curse and attack their political pet peeves.

People tend to justify this as expressions of outrage, as a cathartic moment for people to let go of their pent-up emotions.

But if we are not careful, these could become exactly the same emotions that ruled mobs in coliseums that sent gladiators to their deaths. And if we are not conscious of its dangers, this is the culture that could bring symbolic death to our humanity. And it can turn our political landscape into its burial ground.

This is definitely not the change that we want to see, simply because it is not what makes us who we are as a people.

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