I assume that negative political advertisements work – otherwise why would they be paid for? That is, if they didn’t work we would be rid of them by now. But do they convince or merely cement the opinions of those already inclined to the position being advocated (if the negative ads can be described as advocating). This kind of discourse is not going to bring about positive change.
To change someone’s opinion requires that person to make a choice. It cannot be forced upon them. It also requires openness to new ideas, especially those we might not be accustomed to entertaining.
Civilization is the willingness to listen to others, trying our best to keep our prejudices and preconceived ideas in check. That is not to say that all ideas are equally valid, I firmly believe that truth is objective and not subjective, and that reasonable persons can get to it. If history has shown us anything, it is that ideas can be the most dangerous things of all. But all ideas deserve a listen until we figure out their value.
But, the exchange of ideas without civility can have the opposite effect. If we go beyond the bounds of legitimate persuasion towards coercion, we may get our way for a while, but resentment of those forced to toe the line will grow and we will find ourselves in a worse position than before.
On the other hand, if we don’t engage in thoughtful, open dialogue our society will not get better and will likely get worse. Solutions will be found as we venture towards truth.
In my recent book I wrote about the increasing balkanization of culture:
Increasingly, people interact with other people who tend to hold the same views on things. There are magazines, web sites, and radio and television stations catering to specific social and political beliefs. A person can spend the majority of his or her time surrounded by ideas and beliefs that resonate with them and avoid arguments that might challenge their worldview. (i)
Further, because we look to sources that we agree with us, we don’t spend enough time analyzing what they tell us.
The result of the acceptance of the sound bite is the poverty of effort directed towards understanding ideas we encounter. On the surface, many ideas seem appealing and plausible, but may not hold up to a rigorous examination of their underlying assumptions. Rarely are ideas subject to an examination of their foundations. (ii)
It seems to me that negative political advertisements work precisely because they appeal to our prejudices and our unwillingness to dig deeper to find the truth. They are less about convincing others through well-presented arguments to come over to your side, and more about discouraging supporters on the other side from voting.
If, like me, the onset of election season, which now never seems to end or begin, and the negativity it entails drives you crazy, consider whether the advertisements or the society that consumes them are the problem. Would an open-minded, critically-engaged, and reflective society permit the vitally important question of how our society is run to be settled in such a way?
(i) Songs of a Semi-Free Man, Deep River Books (2012), 11.
(ii) Ibid., 75.