Many sweeping generalizations stalk our land today, making no distinctions between diverse people and institutions, but lumping them into one steaming mass.
Of course, we all generalize to some degree; it makes life simpler. I don’t have to examine every cow to be confident that cows give milk. As debate taught me in college, such is the nature of inductive argument.
The type I am writing about here is of the sort that saves us from having to think about who or what is staring us in the eyes. The sort that leans much too heavily on the ready-made template in the mind, which neatly inserts itself between ourselves and the world out there. The template that takes whatever streams through and massages it until it conforms to what we already “know,” however far from reality that may be.
Tells us that guy over there is a politician, and all politicians are crooked, that this guy here is a reporter, and all reporters are lying bums, etc.
But at this moment in our national life, it is critical we put our old grey matter into the ring once again and actually engage with what we hear and read and are told, and not lazily front it with our preconceived notions.
That we ask ourselves, how do I know this is right? Where’d I get this? Is this a reliable source? And, critically, could I be wrong?
These are questions we don’t ask ourselves as much as we should these days. We prefer to meet the uncomfortable information flowing in with old, shopworn ideas and twist and turn and bend until the resulting pretzel meets the desired shape.
You can see it happening in real time. A terrible event occurs, perhaps a school shooting, and people scramble to lay the blame at the feet of the other guys. The possibility that the blamers themselves may have something to do with it in some way is not possible. The event itself immediately becomes almost forgotten in the din of political bickering.
I wish that this world conformed to all my preexisting ideas and leanings. But I don’t live in a fairy world. I am only one person on this planet, and events unfold in other places in their own ways. And how rude of those events not to consult me before they unfolded.
I know of too many clever people who have assembled false narratives — people who may wish to draw us into their orbit and make lots of money off of us by presenting a version of an event tailored to meet the political leanings of their demographic, instead of simply telling us what actually happened.
How does that serve anybody?
Yes, we all know that the press is held in lower esteem these days than fresh coyote pat. No denying, much of the criticism of the press today is justified. How often do we hear “the media” delivered with a sneer?
But turning away from an issue as crucial as climate change to jam a firehose of misinformation down one’s gullet is no answer. We can all see where “alternative facts” are leading us.
The reaction to the recent attack on House Leader Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband, Paul Pelosi, is a case in point. Shortly after the story broke, I watched in dismay as a swarm of Pelosi haters rushed to begin the twisting process. In a flash, it was about “a gay tryst” gone bad. Those damned Democrats had ginned it up to garner sympathy before the mid-term elections, blah blah blah.
You have to believe in the tooth fairy to insist that the police, prosecutors and judges in this case are all in on a giant conspiracy to help Democrats. And that Mr. Pelosi, an 82-year-old man, consented to have his skull cracked. I mean, who does that?
Yes, it is good to be skeptical of what we hear and read and see. But to scream, “it’s all a pack of media lies” at a story because you just don’t like it is as dumb as it gets. It is lazy. It is the knee-jerk reaction at its knee-jerkiest.
The battle between information and disinformation is causing enormous harm to our nation. Streams of disinformation on all sorts of mass media and social media outlets have amplified social divisions and polarization owing to political wars of attrition.
“The truth taught me to hate it, but I could not,” said Kamel Mrowa, the courageous founder of Lebanon’s Al-Hayat and publisher and editor of The Star, before his assassination in his office in May 1966. The man who shot him considered Mrowa’s sharp criticism of the Arab nationalist movement — then led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser — a threat.
Truth is not always comfortable. Truth is not the property of any one faction. But I cannot automatically dirk a story in the ribs and call it “fake news” because it came from x news outlet, and doesn’t comport with my world view.
And neither should any thinking person.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.