Why It Isn’t The Media Or Politicians, But The Failure To Reason.
I received a book as a gift from my grandparents years ago that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time.
This book contained copies of 157 newspaper front pages from major cities during the Civil War. It’s a fascinating look at the way people acquired knowledge of the turbulent and divisive times they were living, but it also reveals how the methods of delivering and interpreting fact-based narratives have evolved over a century and a half, whether that be for better or worse.
We often attribute the volatility and appeal to emotion as side effects of the internet age and in some ways that is the case, but cursory glances through these age old headlines show that all throughout history, we were just as susceptible to thought direction by whichever groups direct the flow of information.
In light of this, it has become the mantra of some political spheres that the mainstream news media has inappropriate influence on the way people are allowed to interpret the facts in any given situation. The level at which this feeling has permeated political conversation has been even more evident in recent months with the controversies surrounding President Trump’s election campaign team, stirred by a 24 hour news cycle that has adopted seemingly troubling methods of tapping into our intuitive passions with what should be construed as facts, but because of the blatantly partisan nature of the coverage, massive segments of the population on both sides of the aisle choose to discount and ignore every headline that graces their newsfeed as complete deception based purely on the letters that describe the station.
Leading the charge in this attempt to buck the mainstream narrative is a president who has declared what he determines to be sources of fake news as “the enemy of the people.” It’s not an entirely unjustifiable idea, considering the historic record of the malleability of our frustrations; but it can be a dangerous line of thinking because at this point it’s simply Trump who is defining the plot instead of the media he rejects, and Government controlled narratives have and should be seen as a side effect of authoritarianism.
Coming from the most powerful man in the country, who is under heavy investigation, it stands to reason that he has a lot to lose from a critical press who are responsible for keeping the public informed on the actions of its elected officials. What Trump and many of his supporters fail to realize is that news bias is as old as the country itself and those who birthed this nation were very aware of not only how we can be effected by the narrative, but also of the subjectivity of perspective and the freedom, power and necessity of the people to make decisions independent of words on a printed page.
They put in place protections for this freedom by inhibiting our politician’s ability to define what press deserves the right to speak, but what this means is we have a spectrum of sources from which we can derive our information so as independently thinking individuals, we have a duty to apply reason to our determinations of the integrity of not just our politicians, but our press as well.
The Public Figure’s Responsibility
There’s a notion in political discussion that since the people must place trust in those of higher power, the powerful should have obligations to use their power for the benefit of those below and in order to preserve balance, it is in our best interest and the interest of human equality to be observant of those in charge, because if there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s that power in its natural state corrupts. With that in mind, it follows that a great deal of power would land in the hands of those who are in charge of maintaining that observation. As members of a democratic system, we have a responsibility to keep our elected officials in check, so our journalists who report on them are indispensable, but what keeps the journalists in check?
In order to signal their integrity, members of our political system and our news media are expected to adopt guidelines and principles such as honesty, independence and fairness but the issue with guidelines is that we are only compelled to uphold them by moral virtue, to broadcast our honor as public figures. Without legislation to enforce a specific objective truth, our politicians and reporters are free to say what is necessary to receive constituency; but there’s a host of much bigger issues that come when you rely solely on others to attempt to define what “truth” is, and not the least of these is the extremely limited perspective inherent with being independent conscious creatures. Our cognitive faculties consist entirely of what we know of our own experience and what we feel in our intuitions, and the latter is much more easily manipulable.
In this modern world, we see ourselves as cerebrally advanced over our predecessors but either by nature or for the sake of simplicity, we are just as motivated by instant gratification, if not more so, so it becomes much more engaging to appeal to emotion over reason in an attempt to “win over” potentially skeptical audience members through entreating the most primal of human reactions. By choosing to give in to feelings more than facts, we’ve returned to an apparently concerning, but not unprecedented era in discourse:
In 2016, “post-truth” was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year.It defines the word as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
While this phenomenon seems to accurately describe the current theme of the media on political discussion from all sides, it isn’t something entirely new. When the printing press was invented and literacy became widespread, it was suddenly easy to print pamphlets and distribute them in an attempt to affect the opinions of your friends and neighbors. It’s a process that was an enormous benefit to American patriots fighting for their independence in the 18th Century, as it gave them the ability to garner support for their cause without the authoritative hand of the British king influencing what was being read.
These pamphlets and newspapers often took a highly emotional stance in an attempt to appeal to centrist colonials who saw no great rational pleasure in trying to fight the most powerful empire in the world at the time. Benjamin Franklin did his most beneficial work when combining his literacy and charisma with the ability to mass produce his writings in order to inspire the crowds to take extremely risky actions for the cause of freedom. At the age of 23, he started The Pennsylvania Gazette, and years later used it to bring to light and criticize the injustice of British rule. It would be beyond inconceivable to say that the feelings of the editor and the facts of the time were entirely separated because the intuitive desire to be independent is an emotion to be felt, but its based in the objective fact that freedom is preferable to oppression.
Ben Shapiro is a controversial conservative talk show host and editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, who passionately pursues and engages the idea that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” and while this may be true in a sense, what he seemingly fails to acknowledge is just how much his own feelings influence his interpretation of facts. Shapiro is very open with his religious beliefs, reflective of his heritage which also heavily affects his political leanings, and has led him to take virally stalwart stances on matters of foreign policy, abortion, tax distribution and transgender issues. His method of debating is hard and fast, presenting the facts of his cases but buried in an avalanche of contradicting tweets and Nazi comparisons.
I have no doubt that Shapiro is honest and principled in his beliefs, and I enjoy watching him debate but as much as he clearly hates to admit it, his presentation of facts is representative of an amalgamation of his feelings drawing on factors like his birthplace, parental influence and religion. Much like everyone else on Earth, Shapiro’s reasoning fails at the same limitations as the rest of us.
Slaves Of Our Passions
“It has been observed, that nothing is ever present to the mind but its perceptions; and that all the actions of seeing, hearing, judging, loving, hating, and thinking, fall under this denomination. The mind can never exert itself in any action, which we may not comprehend under the term of perception; and consequently that term is no less applicable to those judgments, by which we distinguish moral good and evil, than to every other operation of the mind. To approve of one character, to condemn another, are only so many different perceptions.”
This is how the 18th Century Scottish Philosopher David Hume begins the third segment on the subject of morals in his “Treatise Of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.” This book has been considered by many to be one of the greatest works of Western Philosophy and in that opening statement he perfectly describes one of human nature’s inhibitions when pursuing objective truth through reason.
In this portion of the book, Hume minted the notion that “reason is the slave of the passions,” describing our ability to reason as intuitively bounded by our feelings and already quite limited perceptions, that our intuitive emotions and experiential perceptions define what we uphold as good or evil and our moral reason-judgments can only operate within that spectrum.
This truth becomes evident as our world becomes more or less connected. Social media and the echo chambers it creates, consistently show the susceptibility of our limited perceptions to influence our understanding of important facts.
This weakness in our cognitive capabilities was one of the earliest examples of modern experimental psychology when in 1876, German Philosopher, Physicist and Psychologist Gustav Fechner conducted the first known research on what is known as “The Mere Exposure Effect,” later called “The Familiarity Principle.”
This phenomenon is described as our overwhelming tendency to adopt familiarity from simple, repeated exposure to certain people, things or ideas. While initial hypotheses were rejected, it inspired future psychologists to pursue research into this effect. 20th century Polish-American social Psychologist Robert Zajonc popularized the idea when in the 1960’s, he conducted four experiments, some using nonsense that resembled real words or Chinese characters shown on a scale of 0 to 25 times to certain test subjects whose feelings and reactions were recorded as becoming more approving over the course of the tests, 11 out of 12 times.
What this seems to indicate is a level of irrationality based on our awareness of certain influences. Mere exposure doesn’t increase the factuality of any claims whatsoever but it does increase our likeliness to agree. To see practical examples of this effect, one doesn’t have to go far. While each of us are already limited in our ability to perceive, the echo chambers of social media and mainstream news are entirely made up of people who are only exposed to an even more limited perception of the facts based on ideas with which they already agree. Another finding of Zajonc’s studies was that initial exposure to novel propositions elicited feelings of fear and rejection that was consistent across all organisms. It’s no secret that we instinctually fear what we don’t know; however, what makes humans unique among all other known organisms is that we aren’t necessarily beholden to our intuitions, but how can we recognize when they are starting to deceive us?
Knowing that any method with which we have to receive facts is constrained by our feelings and perceptions, as well as the perceptions of those we respect, how then can we know what is true or false? Some post-modernist philosophers have adopted the strange idea of truth relativism, that there can be no absolute truths because each conscious person represents a separate but equally unique and acceptable perception of the world. While this may be true in some instances, the most basic common sense can reveal why this is an unhelpful prospect, particularly in the complicated world of politics.
When it comes down to it, the journalists and politicians and truly each one of us is either consciously lying or striving for truth. There is no room for “alternative facts,” only our interpretations of what is demonstrably true or false. When a tree falls in the woods, it does in fact make a sound, whether it’s the sound we like or not and we have to make decisions not solely based on how we feel intuitively, but our ability to reason which must consider both our feelings as well as our experiences.
With the climate of American politics as it stands today, those intuitive emotions run very high and it’s natural to get swept up in the fervor of defending our own side. But the only thing this appears to accomplish is divide and separate the people by party, and reinforce narratives that aren’t based on fact or reason, but whatever appeals to the lowest common denominators.
Combined with the apparently unobjectionable idea that victims are the only true winners, journalists across the board, from CNN to FOX News can develop spins to any number of relevant details that serve to give their viewers exactly what they expect: proof that the other side is out to get them. Liberal media cries that the Republicans in politics are abusing power to silence them, while conservative media pretends that they aren’t really part of the media, and that the liberal news groups are trying to silence them while both remain very loud and proud, with equal portions of the country eating from their trough, spiking their viewer ratings and thereby generating ad revenue.
Prominent Republican and Democrat political figures play a similar game on a regular basis, as it only helps solidify their support base and secures reelections as voters see someone savvy in regards to the enemy and loyal to the cause, rather than conniving and regressive.
I don’t think this style of political manipulation is unavoidable, but that does not mean we are doomed to fall prey to it. Aristotle had an appropriate quote for this dilemma:
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
We cannot allow these politicians to determine what we accept as truth for us and try to enforce some sort of standard by law, but neither can we submit to being drug around by the heartstrings by a new reporter every 7 minutes. We also cannot submit to the notion that everyone is always right in their own way and there is only subjectivity. True skepticism must be our code.
We have to apply critical thinking to claims from all sources, especially those we draw from consistently, knowing we are psychologically inclined to see them as right by default. We have to have the humility to admit that we are constrained by limited perceptions, meaning it is guaranteed that we don’t have the whole picture so all of us will absolutely be wrong or mistaken in one instance or another, but we can seek to increase the bounds of our understanding by trying to see things from the equally limited perspectives of those who have seen and felt things differently.
We have to use these freedoms we have to question everything, especially the politicians and journalists in positions of power who have by definition, the ability to try and control how we see our very own neighbors and family. We have to recognize that while our reason may be the slave of the passions, we can do our best to make our passions include truth, justice and equal representation under the media and the law.
In the end, the only true enemy of the people is willful ignorance.