Sunday, February 14, 2010

Pitfalls of the echo chamber

In the past week, musician John Mayer and former South Carolina First Lady Jenny Sanford experienced what life is like outside their respective echo chambers, and neither could have been thrilled with the results.

Mayer's story is well known at this point: during a Playboy interview, he dropped the "n" word, called his, urm, manhood racist, shared personal details of previous relationships with starlets and, all in all, revealed himself to be a cad of the first order. He spent a couple days apologizing for his comments and even cried onstage to demonstrate how genuinely remorseful he was.

I'm not sure it's working: a Google search for "John Mayer is a douchebag" returned 115,000 hits. That's a lot of douchebaggery.

The thing is, Sanford's faux pas was arguably worse. A pampered musician saying something stupid is no more rare than rain in Seattle; Sanford owes a great deal of her current celebrity to people feeling sorry for her, and her comments could help derail that.

Sanford appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and at one point lamented no longer having convicts helping her out around the house. That sounds like a joke, right? But she was serious: apparently, South Carolina governors have local convicts come over to work in the gardens, and these convicts liked the family dogs so much they'd help take care of them, too. Jenny misses their help, it seems.

Watch the video here.

It was a strange sight: this rich, white, politically powerful woman regretting she no longer had forced labor to do her bidding. And how much of that work do you think was done by black males, who I'm guessing comprise a fair portion of South Carolina's imprisoned?

You see where I'm going with this? Rich whites + the American South + forced black labor = a subject no single intelligent person in the world would want to touch in a million years unless they're talking specifically about the horrors of America's slavery past. Trying to peddle a pity party tome about your cheap, unfaithful husband? Try not to highlight what an ignorant spoiled brat you are.

Stewart, for his part, understood the hole Sanford was digging for herself and teasingly mocked the situation, but Sanford lacked the good graces to follow his lead and dig herself out by acknowledging that her comments maybe seemed a little off-putting, or be recasting the scenario as something less distasteful than my equation, above.

Both situations highlight the problem of echo chambers, those situations in which people can have their own opinions (AKA their own B.S.) bounced back to them so frequently and at such a high volume that they begin to believe that there is no reality other than their own. Sad to say, it's not just the sycophants and yes men giving voice to these echoes, but the national media, as well. Tiger Woods scandal, anyone?

But -- and I almost can't believe I'm saying this -- I'll at least give Mayer some credit: he came to recognize his offense, albeit in a rather slobbering fashion. Ms. Sanford, on the other hand, is probably just sitting in her rocking chair waiting for her "boys" to arrive and fix her landscapin' right up.