Monthly Archives: April 2020

Relativism and the Disinformation Epidemic

Trump’s unhinged and deceitful presidency continues. Just when you think you’ve heard it all he suggests that citizens inject themselves with the chlorine-based chemical as a possible cure for the coronavirus.

There is surely a degradation of truth and a decline in reasoning and decision-making quality. And I don’t accept the argument that those who make such statements are elitist and should be ignored because they are just trying to tell others what to think. The attack on others as elitist is an emotional way to gain ground in an argument without having to do the hard work of evidence-based reasoning. Satire, humor, and innuendo have replaced some journalism – not all. The vacuous cliché “perception is reality” has taken on hallucinogenic qualities in the Trump administration. At one time a candidate could skillfully influence an audience into perceiving him or her in a certain way; that is, they could present themselves as concerned about the welfare of citizens, or a good family man, hard-working, etc. But now the so-called created realities are rank lies that ultimately do harm to good political order. The Willie Horton ad was an early creation perception from the right. A perception that was clearly racist and a lying misrepresentation of a group of people based on a crude violent stereotype. [Do you want to see the Willie Horton ad? Go here] The Swift boat ad that turned John Kerry into a coward rather than the hero was a direct attack on the American military’s credibility and diminished the honorable behavior of a veteran. [Go here to see Swift boat ads and read about the controversy] We are a long way now from slight rhetorical flourishes that enhance the candidate’s credibility or something equally as innocuous.

Trump spent years defining himself to meet his momentary interests. He was at once a hotel magnate, then had a clothing line, is the head of a university, purveyor of steaks and bottled water, playboy, TV reality star, and civic leader. All of these images had to be embedded in his name so his only strategy was to create phony events designed to gain attention and associate his name with the perceptions. He is clearly a modern PT Barnum. What seems true and possible to believe has replaced truth in the traditional sense of the term which implies some connection between reality and comprehension of that reality. [I would encourage the reader to seek out Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image, which treats these issues clearly and incisively]

The challenge now is not to just correct wrong information, which implies a truth to some other type of information, but to control disinformation which is purposefully false and misleading with the intent to deceive. One strategy used by the right and FOX News is to make outrageous statements (e.g. the Clintons killed Vince Foster) and state them quickly and briefly on the various talk shows and then drop the issue. But the media echo chamber picks up the story from Fox and repeats it on smaller more localized media thereby keeping it alive and repeating it often enough for portions of the audience to believe it or at least cast doubt on the accused.

More than ever before, there are plenty of warnings about the fragility of American democracy. And many of these warnings are exaggerated or overheated. But as Levitsky and Ziblatt maintained in their book “How Democracies Die” the most dangerous trends are a polarized and uninformed public that has the very institutions of democracy used against the public. The drift toward authoritarianism is inevitable when reasoning and analytical skills are in decline and the quality of information required to make sound decisions is compromised. Interestingly, Trump’s trivial, inconsequential, uninformed, and non-substantive messages will hobble American democracy.

But it will be entertaining.




Intellectual Tolerance

The desire to be civil, in its most robust form, is a desire to be moral, to treat others humanely, with respect, toleration and consideration. But if one wants to be moral, one must also know that in order to be good, sometimes one cannot be nice. This dilemma holds for making democratic based arguments as well.

The imperative to treat others civilly is never total because sometimes a moral good is won in rudeness. To display disrespect or enmity, to mock or shun, to insult or shame – these can be moral gestures. For even as we need to respect humanity, valuing human beings can sometimes require disrespecting some of them, precisely the ones who deny or damage our shared humanity. To show such people respect and consideration might let them have their way a bit, let them continue in their destructive ways.

I believe that righteous incivility is sometimes better than civility and that it can indicate a pattern of reasoning we morally need. Civility typically requires conformity to social conventions that symbolically signal prosocial values; we follow customs of courtesy to display respect, consideration and toleration for each other.

Democracies demand engagement, especially intellectual and argumentative engagement. Argument and disagreement are the “stuff” of democracy and the playing field in which battles take place. It’s just shy of impossible to live in and value democracy as just described without offending someone. It is perilously easy to make an argumentative point – one that is presented honestly and clearly and without undue passion – and still appear intolerant, uncivil, or just plain mean.

Stanley Fish has written eloquently about the consequences of students who are blind to anything but offenses when they are exposed to arguments alien to their own perspectives. Some students are so concerned with micro-aggressions and “safe spaces” (that would be spaces where there is no vigorous discussion or intellectual challenges) that they demand simple differences of opinion to be sufficient reason for sanctioning the speech of the other. The students claim that they have a right not to be exposed to unpleasant opinions, or perspectives that make them uncomfortable.

Well, democracy is advanced citizenship. You need experience, training, and practice. And a cultural recognition of these qualities is less clear and intense as it used to be. Subject matter in high schools and colleges used to include more rhetoric and argumentation along with clear demonstrations of the value of debate. Such instruction fostered mental strength and resilience.

There will never be simple categories composed of definitions beyond reproach when it comes to defining hate speech, acceptable free speech, or the limits of tolerance and instability. And controversies, boundaries, and responsibilities will always be a little fuzzy when it comes to expectations about their definitions. But none of this makes for a slippery post truth world that has no meaning. On the contrary, sharper sense of meaning will emerge as a result of engaged and tolerant interaction. The solution, then, is equivalent to the problem; what is called for is more speech and passionate engagement.

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