Friday, March 12, 2010

Only Hearing Those Who Sing Our Song

With the sharp polarization tangible in public discourse, we see this subject surface in various contexts. John Magee of our circle addressed the subject the other day (“Wisdom overheard in the YMCA locker room”) here. The issue in a nutshell: People avoid written or broadcast messages critical of their own views. This subject rapidly turns complex—and here is why: Two important elements of information, always fused, rush at us from the media and need to be teased apart—but time is precious.

A message will typically contain facts (“dark clouds are overtaking the sky”) and interpretation (“a thunderstorm is in the making”). The journalistic ideal is that facts should be presented objectively, thus without slant or interpretation. Opinion should be separated from the factual presentation and clearly labeled as such: editorializing. The difficulties arise right here. Why? Because a genuinely factual presentation is extraordinarily costly. Reality is almost infinitely complex, and therefore selection of what to report—and by selection, therefore, to emphasize—is always involved: what aspects of an event to highlight—which of many different camera-shots to include—how long to dwell, say, on the suffering of victims and how long on the energetic or haphazard actions of those charged with the rescue. And those who do the selection may do so, consciously or unconsciously, in light of their own values. Is “objectivity” really achievable? Here I’m reminded of the Supreme Court justice who, speaking of pornography, said that we know it when we see it. But that’s a way of saying that objectivity, paradoxically, is subjective.

We still keep hearing McLuhan’s phrase, “the medium is the message.” The problem goes back a ways. The victors write the history. We have at least two histories of America. One is written by the European invaders, another by the conquered and marginalized native tribes. The history of America written by a buffalo would be the story of a holocaust. An update of this slogan might be, “the framing is the message” or “the framer is the message.” He who holds a certain set of values will select the facts to suit his purposes. Therefore the facts themselves will be in question.

This, of course, suggests that one must read all sorts of stories—left, right, erudite, popular, high, low, foreign, and domestic—even to gather sufficient number of facts for personal synthesis. This is John’s point, in a way. Every side will impose its selection, and it is therefore necessary to read others’ takes. I emphasize, again, that this approach is needed even understand what happened. Never mind the interpretation.

Is this a modern phenomenon? An aspect of decadence? I would say No. It has always been this way. The big difference between the 1950s, for example, and the 2010s is that in the earlier period the fragmentation of society had not as yet advanced very far and therefore the slant in most publications and broadcasts was the same. But it was still a slant. Already aware of cultural biases by having been an immigrant, I felt braced by learning in my late teens that other cultures also had interesting and novel takes on reality. There is a view of history as seen from China, too—in which the West still appears as an uncouth barbarism—however well armed. It is a view that, as a Chinaman, I no doubt would have found persuasive.

Brigitte and I enjoy sessions of reading out loud to each other from various publications. These realities came into focus as she read an eye-opening article by Philip Jenkins from The American Conservative yesterday (April 2010 issue). It is titled “Third World War” and deals with the clash of Islam and Christianity in Africa. The article is very well worth reading—and is not what might spontaneously spring to mind. It is enlightening and surprising in large part because every kind of western slant on Africa’s development resolutely filters out a whole dimension of cultural evolution on that continent as irrelevant—if even noticed—by the infrequent flyer to Nigeria or Somalia. The article is available online here.

So much simply on getting all of the facts. Now I come to interpretation. The more experience we have—emphasis on experience—the less likely we are to ask others to interpret what we see. As a child, learning how to fish, I listened with great eagerness to elders on how to read the water, bobber, shore, the tension of the line, the bend of the rod. At my age others’ opinions fall into the category of reading for amusement. I treat opinion as another species of fact to absorb and store away. But the many who only read stuff that confirms their existing biases—why, folks like that are way, way below the salt, as far as I’m concerned. Too bad they also have the vote. But, as we often hear it said, there is no justice in this vale of tears…


  1. Objectivity becomes ever less possible as we age. Facts or "what we see" are interpreted by our values. These are developed as we live our lives and harden along with our arteries. "Can't teach an old dog..." is a very apt observation not just for canines. But my question then arises, "How do values establish within us?" And this unavoidably also includes the dilemma I often experience: Nature v. Nurture! Can we remain open enough -- a tabula rasa of sorts -- with a capacity to absorb facts pure and without our own slant of perceiving? It's a puzzlement! And "walking on another's shoes" may hep, but can it really?

  2. Excellent post. One thought that occurs to me: the modern media as embodied by Fox News and MSNBC have nothing on the yellow journalism of the 1890s, or, for that matter on a long history of American opinion journalism.

    What has changed in my mind is the ability of people to entirely cushion themselves in a single point of view. Some part of me expects people to take advantage of the new Information Age to seek out new and different viewpoints. Some more cynical part of me isn't surprised when the additional viewpoints they seek are simply repetitions of their preconceived notions.

    And, of course, for those who simply refuse to engage in fact-based thought, disputing an overwhelming body of evidence becomes its own sport, as has been the case with evolution and global warming, among others.

  3. I like your analogy to "sport," here, John. Exactly, exactly! It has very little to do with thought and everything to do with tribalism of the sort that makes me an honorary but raging fan of Manchester United!

  4. A good article, although it may mislead by its brevity and, hence, inability to go into complexity. One of the interesting results of Christianity in Africa has been the split within the Anglican Church, the conservatives being led mostly by African clerics.

    I think this will be a very interesting story. Is the Anglican split totally based on doctrine...or is there a bit of power politics and a subtle shift from Canterbury to Lagos? And the same holds true for all the other denominations, and Islam as well.

    I sense a period of intense ferment that will bring forth prodigies that we cannot even guess at yet. If the faiths can hold off killing each other, it will be the best of times.

  5. Montag: Share your sense that something's going on. One of my fuzzy premonitions is that the 20th and 21st will be the centuries during which the last undeveloped continent will succumb to civilization. Africans are now undergoing what Northern Europeans underwent during the days of the Roman empire. Prodigies indeed!

  6. Most interesting post and interesting comments too. I've yet to read the article on Islam and Christianity in Africa but look forward to doing so.

    Brigitte, your question is a very good one. As I was reading the post I was thinking... Ah, but when one reads about how things are developing in, say, Haiti after the Earth quake, ones own life experience helps to make order of the often chaotic "news" coming at us. We have a sense of how things actually work and therefore can translate hectic or overly emotional news coverage into and idea of what must be going on.

    Now I see that this thought was, perhaps, exactly what you were talking about, Brigitte, that as we age we can't help but have the accumulated knowledge of our lives so far play a sort of filtering function.

    Deep topic, really.

  7. In answer to Monique's last paragraph: yes, the accumulated knowledge and experiences of one's lifetime can function as a filter, but also as, perhaps, an additional "ingredient or tool of mind" for interpreting what our senses present us. Thus these older folks’ "tool boxes of mind" often contain more than those of younger people, if for no other reason than that we may have been faced with more events that needed to be "assembled or fixed" to be understood by us.

  8. And thus, healthy societies know to honor and respect their elders!