Demagogues and dopamine

December 15, 2017

Joseph McCarthy, demagogue

In these trying times, I’m thinking of demagogues and dopamine. Back in my grade school days, we learned about civics and history. We saw how Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy earlier in the 20th century had created needless strife and suffering. The black-and-white videos of their rants as they raised the rabble seemed dated and quaint. We were reassured that they were eventually discredited and faded away.

Father Coughlin

But history has a way of repeating itself. Instead of the wild lies and accusations of Senator McCarthy, we have a political leader who brazenly and routinely lies about anything and everything. Father Coughlin is long gone, but we have a leader of a Christian university who blames sexual assaults on public schools, of all things.

This brings to mind a vocabulary term which my 9th grade civics teacher, the kindly old Mrs. Bird, taught me:

demagogue (noun): a leader of the rabble; one who attempts to control the multitude by specious or deceitful arts; an unprincipled and factious mob orator or political leader

These days the media, which naturally seeks to engage readers by keeping them riled up, breathlessly and endlessly reports on the lies, outrages, and transgressions of our leading politician. How could such a despicable person rise to such prominence? It’s quite simple: demagogues feed on attention, and it matters not whether that attention is positive or negative.

As Kieran McCarthy put it in his marvelous blog post, “How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue“:

The first thing to remember when you’re dealing with a demagogue, is that your first instinct is always wrong.

When a demagogue says or does something that offends you, you have to restrain yourself, because the obnoxious and offensive stunts of a demagogue are like a big, juicy worm.

And you, my friend, are the fish.

If you see the worm, become righteously indignant, and take the bait, he’ll have you hooked, and you’ll be right where he wants you.

He further points out:

It’s not just that demagogues say what they say just to get rise out of us. They do, but that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that they’re counting on the righteous indignation of the outgroup to promote the message to the ingroup. Without the righteous indignation of those who oppose the message, the demagogue gets no attention at all, and thus has no influence.

Kieran McCarthy knows how to defeat demagogues

So let us heed the advice from one McCarthy on how to disarm another: to defeat a demagogue we must exercise self-control and restraint. Here are his three ways to NOT defeat a demagogue:

Public Lectures

Lecturing a child doesn’t work. Nor does lecturing one’s political opponents. If the goal is to create a public record of your opinion, then criticizing a demagogue may achieve that goal. But if the genuine goal is to defeat the demagogue, then a public lecture will almost certainly have the opposite effect.

Loud Protests

Protests can be an effective tactic in strategic campaigns against injustice, and have been used at times to great effect. But publicly protesting a demagogue who is not yet in power is a foolish and self-defeating tactic. It only serves to give the demagogue more attention, which is what he needs to increase his influence. Even worse, if handled poorly, it can lead to sympathy for the demagogue, and create converts to a message that wouldn’t likely have cared for it otherwise.

Ad Hominem Attacks

Demagogues succeed because they trigger emotional connections with their followers. Mockery is an awful method of persuasion and does not sever those emotional connections. Rather, it merely strengthens those bonds and further entrenches the followers to their leader.

So what should we do? Kieran McCarthy goes on to encourage us to employ, for demagogues who have not yet risen to power:

The Silent Treatment

Demagogues are like mean, stray dogs. They’re relentless and persistent, and the fact that they are alive and well proves that they have well-honed survival instincts.

But if you stop feeding them, they will go away.

Let Your Actions Do the Talking

Every time we click on a link that talks about a demagogue; every time we post a comment or write an article; every time we whisper or shout their names, we’re doing them a favor.

If you want to defeat a demagogue, you must remain steadfast in your refusal to be a pawn in his game. And that means purging him completely from your information diet.

I am trying to implement that last piece of advice in my own life. Facebook has tracked my every Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry to construct an addictive rewards system out of my oh-so-personalized News Feed. It has constructed a filter bubble it entices me to live in, wasting my time and energy registering my responses and distorting my perceptions.

Please pay attention to what Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former Vice President for User Growth has to say:

I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew, in the back of our minds…something bad could happen…

It literally is a point now, where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works…

If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and rein it in. It is a point in time where people need to hard break from some of these tools and the things that you rely on.

The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem…

It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.


How our bodies use dopamine is quite complex, but it is certainly a key component in addiction because one of its many roles is signaling to us what is important. And we have to realize that living and liking in our Facebook bubble is no way to live or learn. So much of what fills our News Feed is NOT important, dopamine be damned. But we’re now acting like Pavlov and his dog, eagerly ringing our own bell with every Like on Facebook, drooling our lives away.

Sure, keeping up with friends and family is great, but what is the point in scanning and clicking a response to yet another link about yet another political outrage? That is not constructive engagement, but soul-sapping entertainment. And why should I care about the provocations of a narrow-minded firebrand who has not risen to power? We can avoid getting burned out by focusing on facts and analysis, rather than outrage and inflammation. We should put our energy into real-world actions and interactions over the ghost world of virtual reality.

So I’m fighting to defeat the demagogues and break the dopamine feedback loop. I’ve deleted most of the political posts on my Facebook page as they are mostly outdated and ephemeral. I will continue to post on political topics, but try to maintain my focus on factual analysis for those wishing to be informed, not inflamed.

And I’m steeling myself to begin ignoring many of the political posts in my News Feed, giving my attention only to ones centered in factual analysis, not click-bait. And I hope to focus more on what is truly emotionally rewarding: the posts which allow me to keep up with friends and family and what’s going on around town.

My goal is to spend less time on Facebook, freeing myself to read a good book and, quite literally, take a hike.

Won’t you join me, Friend?

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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