I know it’s only August, but we may have reached peak 2017, the year that apparently watched 2016 in all its insanity and said, “Hold my beer and watch this.”
I’m referring to the decision by ESPN to switch a play-by-play announcer from the upcoming Virginia vs. William and Mary football game to another broadcast because of his name: Robert Lee. The network now claims it was afraid Lee, whose lineage is not Confederate but Asian, would become the target of internet memes and social-media posts because of the violence two weekends ago related to a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, where the Sept. 2 game will be played.
The story, first reported by frequent ESPN critic Clay Travis of OutkickTheCoverage.com, was so outrageously absurd that it seemed made-up. But often these days, the truth is stranger than fake news. And it points to a phenomenon for which I’d like to suggest a name:
The ubiquity of stupidity.
It would seem paradoxical that we are surrounded by ignorance and foolishness. Never in human history has so much knowledge been so readily accessible by so many people. Never have so many become so specialized in their pursuits or fields of study. We should be awash in expertise, going from strength to strength in both intellect and wisdom. In some respects, we are.
Yet, so much of our public discourse, and so much of the decision-making by our institutions both public and private, grows steadily stupider. It’s not wisdom, nor often something so basic as fact, that holds sway. Political correctness and over-protectiveness do, as in the ESPN case, play into it. But they don’t fully explain why it feels more and more like we’re beset by idiocy.
Rather than the cream rising to the top on social media or, increasingly, the traditional media, we instead are constantly dragged down by the dumb. Worse than that, we revel in it. The more bumper-stickerish a thought, the greater its popular appeal. Heck, that’s basically the entire premise of Twitter. Only a world choking on stubiquity would greet the internet’s offer of limitless space for expressing and hashing out ideas and enhancing our understanding of one another with an ethos of tl;dr but I’m gonna comment anyway.
It was funny back when humor was the main objective. It’s not anymore. Increasingly, outrage is the sentiment people seek to express on social media.
Yes, ESPN was being overly, ridiculously protective of Lee and was foolish to think no one would catch wind of his quiet change of assignment. It’s a safe bet Lee has gotten more unwanted attention in the last day than he would have gotten during and after his broadcast of the game in Charlottesville. But you know what? There is also a non-zero chance the network was correct to think someone, somewhere, would react to a man named Robert Lee announcing a game played in Charlottesville not with just memes or jokes of varying degrees of humor and crudeness, but with a sense of outrage and indignation — and that their outrage would spiral into a full-blown PR crisis. After all, we love to elevate the stray stupid comment as somehow representative of “the other side” or, even stupider, our own. (The next time you see something mind-numbingly stupid a celebrity has tweeted about politics, regardless of their political persuasion, check out how many times it is liked or retweeted, and how many people express agreement with it in the mentions. It’ll drive you to daytime drinking.) Thus are we treated to the spectacle of a corporation doing something stupid, to prevent a potential act of stupidity that would cause the company and its announcer a headache.
Understand, I’m not defending ESPN’s action here. I’m just pointing out that people will do stupid things when they’re afraid others will do stupid things. Stubiquity prevails.
And unless I underestimate online America in 2017, the responses to ESPN’s decision will only amplify the stupidity, whether in defense or disagreement. The network’s only saving grace? Someone will come along and do something even dumber before too long.