Beguiling wisebites

The poor sell drugs so they can buy Nikes and the rich sell Nikes so they
can buy drugs.
from £9.99 by Frédéric Beigbeder (Picador, 2002)

It is widely lamented in serious circles that we live in the age of the "soundbite".
Nuanced arguments have been replaced with rapid-fire rhetoric for a generation
with no attention spans. The short, sharp, memorable phrase is king.

"Soundbite" is however a term of abuse rather than a description
of a single phenomenon. If you approve of what is said pithily and memorably,
all of a sudden it is not a soundbite after all, but an aphorism or a "pearl
of wisdom". Quotations lifted from literature, film or theatre are often
dignified in this way. In order to emphasise their shared features with soundbites,
let us call them "wisebites".

What is ironic is that the very people who often scorn the soundbite for its
shallowness often fall for the wisebite which is equally vacuous if not more
so. Take, for instance, the quotation above from Frédéric Beigbeder’s
novel. One reviewer of the book selected it especially as an example of the
writer’s brilliant ability to hit the nail on the head. But the wisebite falls
apart at the slightest examination. It just isn’t true.

Of course some poor people sell drugs in order to afford more consumer goods
and some people working for multinationals are drug takers. But that’s not really
what the wisebite implies. Rather, the wisebite suggests that there is a kind
of vicious circle of consumption: that the rich create a need or desire for
the poor to acquire consumer goods so that they themselves can fund their drug
habits, which are in turn supplied by the poor. Capitalism is thus a kind of
self-perpetuating mechanism for keeping the poor poor and the rich stoned. This
may be true in an extremely crude satire on advanced capitalism written by a
naive member of the Socialist Workers Party youth wing, but does anybody really
believe it accurately describes the true, complex relations between drug users
and suppliers, multinationals and the poor?

Is it even true that the poor generally sell drugs? Drug dealers are often
from poor backgrounds but they themselves are often very wealthy indeed. Many
of their drugs are in fact sold to the poor and it is their addictions which
keep them poor. But then the idea that the ex-poor are exploiting the still-poor
doesn’t appeal to the intellectual classes as much as the idea that the poor
are victims of greedy corporations.

Strip away the nonsense from the wisebite, then, and you are left with the
truism that the poor do aspire to acquire material goods and that this desire
is partly fuelled by the producers of these goods. Furthermore, some rich people
take drugs. That really does not leave much of the original sentiment intact.

Compare this with a bona fide soundbite. British premier Tony Blair is fond
of saying "No rights without responsibilities". Put like that, the
soundbite is too simplistic. Newborn infants, for instance, have rights without
responsibilities. But take away the obvious exceptions and at least there is
a serious point being made by the soundbite. If we are to have rights in a society
then certainly people have responsibilities to uphold them or not to infringe
them. The general existence of rights does entail concomitant responsibilities.

In this battle of the bites, it is thus the derided soundbite which emerges
the stronger and the celebrated wisebite turns out to be hollow. It seems we
are as ready to be beguiled by the false but wise-sounding "aphorisms"
of the writer, poet or intellectual as we are to dismiss the soundbites of the
politician. Their relative merits rarely come into play.

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