The Declining Importance of Character and Other 2018 Trends

By Sergei Samoilenko

Many media and political analysts struggle to adequately explain today’s reputation scandals. Oftentimes, they attempt to grasp the recent downfall of powerful public figures only in terms of causes and effects of human activity. Clearly, personal motifs and emotions partially explain the nature of many scandals and accusations.

In 2018, it will be even more critical to understand the social and cultural context in which many events take place. The process of character assassination is embedded in symbolic acts of communication that are very sensitive to the fluidity of time and culture. In the context of globalization and accelerated technological innovations, cultural shifts occur more frequently. As a result, this significantly impacts how often societies decide to reevaluate moral codes embedded in their social norms and traditions.

Historical research demonstrates that character attacks in different historical epochs are frequently associated with some distinct moral and cultural standards. For example, in late-medieval Europe, youthful monarchs were among the most vulnerable targets of character attacks because their immaturity was perceived as morally suspect and linked to the whole range of tyrannical vices, including irrationality, sensuality, and gullibility.

This blog post was inspired by 2018 Trends Brief by Sparks&Honey, which provides a detailed overview of current and emerging trends shaping our attitudes and behaviors across cultures. Below is my list of the new cultural and social trends that will be critical for character assassination research in 2018.

Declining Relevance of Political Character

Recent research by Wattenberg indicates that the chances of presidential image makers to emphasize a president’s personal character are now much less than in the era of Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. There are several reasons for that. First, the public sees politicians to be generally unreliable. Therefore, they often choose the unreliable person who shows most support for their personal interests. Thus, commonality of interests is likely to determine electoral and approval ratings in 2018.

Also, public support for political candidates is now less determined by the perceptions of character but rather by partisan identification. For example, in the U.S., political polarization sparks a “culture war” between conservatives and progressives that is particularly known for confrontational dynamics. One effect of this political and cultural polarization demonstrates that U.S. voters choose more to identify with a party agenda and support the candidates of their party regardless of accusations against them. Interestingly, despite the declining relevance of candidates’ personal attributes, there is no direct evidence that the frequency of character assassination events has decreased or become less effective.

Importance of Charisma and Impression Management

The skills of political actors will remain crucial in 2018. While public confidence in major national institutions continues to stay low, charismatic leaders will remain attractive. A report by McCloskey at the CARP-2017 conference shows that political leaders who can establish authenticity against their rivals are perceived as better political candidates. For example, he argues that during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Trump’s strategy was to abandon character altogether and instead focus entirely on being authentic, even if that meant being authentically terrible.

Traditional Roles and Norms Challenged

As 2018 Trends Brief suggests, many traditional norms and perceptions of gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality in binary terms will be further challenged. One of them is the debate concerning “agender” as an acceptable identification and the following adjustment of communication etiquette. Another notable trend concerns changing social norms and communication habits aimed at detoxifying masculinity. These new tendencies will be seen more often in men’s portrayals in movies and advertising.  This may result in more prominent cases of public outrage against “toxic masculinity” and men publicly demonstrating various forms of symbolic power attributed to patriarchal behavior. This may lead to new conflicts and value clashes between Baby Boomers and Generation X and younger generations.

The 2017 Net-Neutrality Bill and Corporate Coercion

Despite the Utopian notion of the Internet as a genuinely democratic space, we learned in 2017 that this environment is highly susceptible to ideological and corporate propaganda. The recent decision by Federal Communications Commission to grant broadband companies, like  AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, the right to decide which websites and content get more visibility may complicate this issue even further. In other words, these companies can now slow down their competitors’ content or block dissenting political opinions.  The consequences will be especially grim for misrepresented online communities and independent media outlets. It makes the American Internet in 2018 more conducive to the spread of corporate spin and frames approved and prompted by corporations.

Truth Police and Algorithm-Approved Moral Compass

The frenzy around “fake news” gave rise to services offering methods and strategies aimed at determining accuracy and reinforcing ethics and appropriate behaviors. Nowadays, this is a standard and appropriate practice for companies formerly accused of spreading falsehood to offer services fighting the spread of misinformation. Tech giants experiment with big data in new ways to sharpen new algorithms deciding what is true or false.

The responsibility of making decisions about professional and personal ethics is increasingly delegated to technology. For example, the PRSA Code of Ethics, widely regarded as the public relations industry standard, is now available on the App Store for downloads to help practitioners navigate ethics principles and applications. New voice assistants, like Alexa and Siri, have become our voices of common sense and used pervasively for personal advice. We expect to see a rise of people turning to the moral judgments imposed by electronic assistants.

 

In sum, the 2018 will bring new trends challenging our traditional values and social norms including the changing role of character and technologically-driven moral compass.  The classical Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle believed that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined by how it relates to the world, whether it accurately describes that world and thus, corresponds with reality.

The problem with delegating the task of finding answers about truth and falsity, objectivity, or personal ethics to technology is a double-edge sword. On one hand, it may help to find an easy and rational solution to complex issues. On the other, it is apparent that the acceptable range of our future decisions and opinions concerning complex reputation issues will be largely determined by the degrees of freedom allowed by technological algorithms.

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