Assault on Reason, revisited

With the approaching elections in the US, the nation’s polarization is getting more and more attention. Similar divides persist in many countries, causing those on both sides to wonder why their opposition seems so entrenched in its opposition. How can they not understand? Why are people so wrong-headed? What causes people to vote against their own interests?  One infamous figure in American politics has given this matter a lot of thought––and for good reason. Let’s not forget that former Vice President Al Gore actually was elected by the popular vote when he ran for the nation’s highest office, only to have his victory overturned by a court decision over a voting controversy that handed his opponent an electoral college plurality. And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for that scenario to repeat itself in 2012. Gore would go on to plead with the American public that the scientific evidence had proven the damaging effects of global warming. Yet no one seemed to be listening. Gore’s frustrations let him to publish a book in 2007 about the growing tendency of the American public to disregard factual evidence in forming opinions.

In the Assault on Reason, Gore asks some fundamental questions. “Why do reason, logic, and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions? How has a persistent preference for falsehoods come to prevail even in the face of massive and well understood evidence to the contrary?” To take a specific example, how could the most powerful nation on earth plunge itself in the massive war with a country like Iraq, which had not attacked the US or threatened its national interests?  Why was America so willing so quickly to reverse its three-century rules against torturing prisoners? Or more widely stated, how could the US allow post 9/11 despair be so cynically manipulated?

To Gore the answer is clear. A media saturated society has lost the ability to reason. Diminished levels of public literacy have let the American public vulnerable to pitches from advertisers and political hucksters. It seems these days people are willing to believe just about anything, if it can be pitched as getting them more of what they want or protecting them from harm of some sort. The so-called “Obamacare” debate is a great case in point. Frame the issue as a set of particular benefits (coverage for kids, pre-existing conditions, etc.) and people seem to love the idea. But call a “tax” or government initiative––and suddenly most voters want to get as far away from it as they can.  Gore argues that a weird kind of “unreason” has begun to take over, largely driven by the ways people now get their information about vital issues.

The Assault on Reason cites recent statistics about how movies, cell phones, IPods, instant messaging, and video games all compete for the public’s attention. Meanwhile, the average American watches between 4 and 5 hours of television every day, despite the large amounts of additional time people spend glued to their computers. Young people can spend even more time, often watching television while using the computers or cell phones.

This wouldn’t be quite so important if television hadn’t become so vital in the way people understand their world. These days educators and media scholars alike argue the television constitutes the prime “teacher” of our age. Through television we learn about our neighborhood, our country, and the rest of the globe. More to the point, either directly or indirectly, audiences are repeatedly bombarded with very specific views about what matters in the world, what kind of things they should want in by, who they should admire and emulate, and what kind of people might pose threats to them. Contrary popular opinion, the “teaching” we received from television and other media is hardly the diverse affair many people assume it to be. Instead we hear this same kind of stories over and over again, see the same kind of people for the most part, and have the same fundamental values stated and reinforced.

But putting all the blame on media really misses the point. Communication technologies are essentially neutral, with no inherent “good” or “bad” attributes. They are the dumb instruments of human actors who put them to use to get things done: to sell products, to entertain people, to persuade voters, or simply to inform. So just as media are neutral, people are not.  We send and receive messages with intentions and expectations, a dynamic complicated even further by the imprecision in communicative exchanges. When I tell you something, how can I know if you really understand what I’ve said or fully meant? When a group of witness an accident, how can their stories about it vary so much? Onc can only blame the language or “form” of the message to the extent that it fail to adequately convey the impressions in one person’s mind to that of another.

We blame media because television, movies, and the internet have become so central in communicating ideas and providing diversion. And the debate around “reading” versus viewing merits serious consideration. But while printing enabled so many great Enlightenment Era ideas to flourish and grow, the ideas themselves did not come from the media. They were the result of changes in thinking brought about by huge shifts in education, politics, economics, and other technologies influencing society. America’s current social and political context can be analyzed in the same way. Speaking educationally, the much ballyhooed “dumbing down” effect of popular culture may partly be a function of media, but the problem also has roots in America’s long tradition of anti-intellectualism dating to revolutionary times. After all, part of the impetus behind the founding of the United States lay in a revolt against privileged classes of monarchs, aristocrats, and educated elites. America has always favor the “common sense” of ordinary people. This partly explains why Obama was mocked early in the 2012 presidential campaign for his “snobbish” presumption that everyone might want a college degree. This anti-intellectualism had other consequences in both the 2010 and 2012 election cycles in the remarkable ability of tea party groups to rewrite history and reinterpret the U.S. Constitution for an uninformed and impressionable electorate. Specifically, notions of individualism and liberty became detached from the balancing values of community and mutual responsibility that constitutional framers had so carefully built into American society.

While media certainly plays a growing role in politics, we cannot blame television and Facebook for the growing divide between liberals and conservatives. The “red state/blue state” dichotomy is as much an issue of geography, rural/urban differences, and rising Christian fundamentalism as it is anything else. Certainly people’s commitments to “God” and “faith” run much deeper than the media, reflecting family traditions, community values, and other social influences. While America has always been a religious nation, the influence of faith as an organizing principle has grown dramatically in recent decades, coinciding with a growing distrust in government, corporations, and secular leaders. People have to believe in something, especially when they fear their nation is in decline. In recent years we have seen large segments of the population clinging to religious faith and familiar ideals of the traditional family in the face of uncertainties and other fronts.

And then there is the economy. Certainly the real-life effects of unemployment, tight family budgets, and worries about future prospects contribute far more to our current “class warfare” than anything else. Media may be the conduit through which people learn about these conditions, but it does not create or sustain them. Competition for scarce resources intensifies in periods of economic desperation. People find themselves with fewer for ways to make things better. Sometimes this means working harder, getting by with less, or finding a second job––if any of these things are possible. But all too often in psychological terms it means the people turn against each other. Against a complex and often ill-defined enemy like a recession, people look for someone to blame. And easy scapegoats tend to be newcomers, those we don’t know, or people whose culture we don’t understand––so-called “others.”  Of course, not everyone has suffered the ravages of this economy. But another strong ideology in United States interferes with popular condemnation of the wealthy because our capitalistic philosophy celebrates “success” as a natural consequence of hard work and ingenuity. After all, didn’t we do away with inherited privilege an aristocratic power centuries ago?

But one more issue augurs against the “blaming media” approach to the world’s apparently troubled democracies. It is the sheer magnitude of the role played by media in our daily lives. There is no going back. There will be no return to a world without pictures, movies, TV, or the Internet. Forms of communication always move forward, reshaping human intelligence an behavior as new media of all and then saturate society–as the print revolution did–we are to be followed by photography moved, moving pictures, electronic media, and now mobile devices. This means is that to understand our world, to really get at “the assault on reason,” we need to look both more broadly than the literacy issue, but also more narrowly at what our new media actually do. In subsequent posts, I will chart the decline in American reading and the concomitant ascendance of visual culture. No one can disagree with the assertion that our information systems are now dominated by images. But we need to dig deeper for the real sources of our fears and divisions as a society.  We need to ask what else is going on in a society that seems to be making people behave less cooperatively. We also need to focus more intently on the communications forms to which attention is migrating. We need to look at broad cultural changes and what an egalitarian media literacy might look like.

––David Trend


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