The Divisiveness of Demographics

penny e pluribus unum america us united states demographicsYou remember the story of Solomon and the Baby?  Solomon was able to smoke out the true mother of the child by threatening to divide it.  The fake mother, who must have been awfully cynical, was down with his solution.

That’s something I never understood.  I mean, what would this woman do with pieces of a baby?

The de facto  motto of the United States used to be E Pluribus Unum:  “Out of Many, One.”  Because unity is a pretty nice idea, actually.  In 1956, however, Congress scrapped this expression of unity for an official motto:  “In God We Trust.”

You may recall that God was very big in the United States in the 1950s.  Something had to save the country from the imaginary boogeyman that was Communism (which was “godless”).  Congress also added God to the Pledge of Allegiance.  The words “under God” were sandwiched inside the expression “one nation, indivisible,” de-emphasizing a powerful phrase on national unity.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the 1950s saw a drift away from the ideal of “one people,” however imperfect in practice.  This same period saw the rise of modern advertising and its focus on population demographics.  The broadcast reach of the new electronic forms of mass media encouraged vast sums of money be spent on advertising.  This money, in turn, encouraged clever ad people to refine the art of the sell by targeting specific demographics.

There’s a reason why a Presidential Campaign can qualify for – and win – a “Marketer of the Year” award or two.  Political Campaigns are, in fact, Advertising Campaigns.  And Advertising Campaigns have little to do with the intrinsic value of the product – is there really a difference between Colgate and Crest except preferential personal taste?

pie chart people demographicsA central idea of modern advertising is crafting the message for a particular market.  Over 18 months before Election Day, the Clinton Campaign had decided her coalition would be “communities of color, millennials, [and] women.”  Rather than talk about directions for the country or issues that affect everyone (such as climate change), the Clinton Campaign had already decided, for example, that white men would not be a key part of its marketing strategy.

Is it therefore surprising that white men didn’t take to Hillary Clinton’s messaging?  Her message was never aimed at them.  By premeditated design.

We live in a world of increasingly precise demographics and micro-demographics.  Our Internet activity is tracked and mined – over a period of years. Computer algorithms use this information to predetermine what ads we see on social media and what items pop up in a search. The precision messaging further accelerates the trend of isolating one demographic from another.

Evolution theory states that particular traits are naturally selected by the characteristics of a specific environment.  Our once fluid, broad national culture has been intentionally fractured into a thousand different digital pieces, each homogeneous within itself.   We are evolving into various cultural subspecies.  And, just as in the case in natural selection, the more specifically adapted and optimized the species is for a particular environment, the more rapid the extinction when the environment changes in the slightest.

We are nearing that point in our culture.  As the great advertising and social media companies continue to refine our environments to micro-targeted homogeneous perfection, we are losing the ability to communicate with one other.  Our local sociological environments, defined by corporations, are only inhabited by like-minds with like-concerns.  There is no need for debate in circles where there is no difference in perception.  Our perspective, however flawed or misrepresented, becomes the standard view.

Within this uncritiqued, standard view, the slightest misconceptions can grow, like weeds, into gross inaccuracies.  And, like weeds, these gross inaccuracies are deeply rooted.  It takes considerable effort to eradicate them.  Today, different demographics in America are operating with different views of reality.  Most Americans are either too lazy or too fearful to step outside their corporate advertisement demographic bubble.

glass heart broken demographicsConsequently, we’ve grown to see each other as more different than alike.  Divided by age, gender, race, orientation, or income level, we seem to have forgotten that we are all human, of the flesh, and anchored to a fragile planet that sustains us.

For example, despite the vast political and competency differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, neither were forced to address climate change in their debates.  Both also steered clear of any substantial statement on the Native American efforts to prevent a pipeline from both passing through sacred ground and threatening their water supply.  Advertising teaches us to accept the fake choices between Tesla and Ford rather than real choices between cars and mass transportation.

These are general issues affecting the broad populace of America.  Corporate giants, meanwhile, are helping politicians judge us by the color of our skin rather than the content of our character.

And, following the example of the politicians, we end up believing in those divisions, too.

It’s true we won’t have a female president for a while yet.  On the other hand, it was not possible to vote in the Californian Senate election in 2016 without casting a vote for a woman of color.  The press hardly took note of this and that lack of notice is significant progress.  The political race was about neither ethnic race nor the genders involved.  In fact, California now has two female Senators – just as it has for the past 24 years. But that, too, is hardly noticed in the press.

That’s progress.

And there will also be progress when those who voted for Trump will become as vocally concerned about the hate crimes being perpetrated in his name as those who did not vote for him.  Outrage at inhumanity has nothing to do with demographics or group identity.  A hate crime on any American diminishes America as a whole.  Those who voted for Trump bear a special responsibility in recognizing that.

broken eggWe must once again believe in America as a whole.  We have more in common with each other than with the politicians, regardless of party, who live inside the isolated bubble of the Beltway.  Their perception of us is through demographics.  Mass media marketing is for the politicians’ benefits, not ours.  For if the demographic dicing of our society continues much longer, all the President’s horses and all the President’s men will not be able to put our country together again.

About Kevin Delin

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Kevin Delin took a few writing courses (among other things) at MIT from playwright A.R. Gurney and author Frank Conroy. In addition to writing a monthly column for Footlights, he uses his extensive tech background, including a PhD in Physics, and work experience in both Silicon Valley and NASA to advise those who want to ground their entertainment in science. He's also contributed pieces about art and culture to American Theatre, LA Weekly, Script Magazine, and Stage Raw. You can follow him on Twitter @kdelin and find his other writings at kevindelin.com.

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