This week looks at why we’re so good at resisting facts that don’t fit our worldview and what that says about how we understand the media’s role in society.
Name-Place-Animal-Thing is The Wire’s culture newsletter. If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing here.
What’s the point of arguing if we’re hardwired to agree with each other?
I went to bed anxious last night, though not because I have something deeply worrying weighing on me. It’s just that watching TV debate shows always seems to raise my blood pressure. Watching people scream at each other makes me feel like I’ve just been in a horrible argument, a feeling I usually like to avoid. On a different level, it’s the realisation that men with diametrically opposite political views to mine employ the same language I do. We all like to claim that we deal in “facts”, and are happy to throw around phrases like “intellectual takedown” as if those words carry any meaning when each person is questioning the veracity of the facts employed by the other.
An exhausting amount has been written about the ‘post-truth’ world we live in, like this is a new phenomenon that’s swept into our lives, but several studies suggest that resisting facts that don’t fit our worldview is just how we humans are built. If you remember a teenaged you arguing with a parent about something, you already know this is true. Parents don’t deal in facts, they deal in what they know to be true.
In a piece for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert looked at three books that aimed to explain the “limitations of reason”. Something that the scientific community seems to agree on is that reason is an evolutionary trait that developed to helps us cope with the “hypersocial niche” we humans created for ourselves. Kolbert explained:
“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”
Referring to our cave-dwellings ancestors, Kolbert added, “There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.” So maybe the anxiety-inducing news anchor is just more evolved than I am.
It’s definitely not an optimistic take-away for the world we live in. And unfortunately, the only solution to conquering this evolutionary treason is to question the ‘facts’ we assert so boldly in conversation with others. Instead of saying, “I believe this” it’s better to say “I believe some aspects of this” and then explain the nuances behind your opinions. It also helps to think about and articulate, in “as much detail as possible”, the implications of the policy measures we believe in – because usually we haven’t done the cognitive work that ought to serve as the foundation of our opinions.
NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar’s challenge/invitation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to come on his show fits right into what could be a successful way of challenging the reason the government subscribes to, which is precisely why it’s unlikely to happen.
Himmat in the time of censorship
If it’s difficult to change other people’s minds at least we can take solace in the fact that ours pose an equal challenge.
In this piece for Scroll, Kalpana Sharma recalls the resilience of the editorial team of Himmat, a weekly English magazine, when they were faced with arbitrary press censorship during the Emergency.
Sharma’s anecdotes of brushes with authority during the Emergency recall the confident imposition of assertions like the violation of “a guideline” but no follow-up explanation of which rule the Himmat staff had broken. At one point, the magazine was accused of printing “prejudicial material” and the example cited was Himmat’s inclusion of a quote from Gandhi: “The restoration of free speech, free association and free press is almost the whole of Swaraj”. I’m not going to ruin it by spelling out the irony.
This pieces tries to take stock of where Indian journalism currently stands, what the field has learnt in the post-Emergency years by pointing out the restrictions of the past as well as the dangers of the corporate-media alliance that currently shapes journalism. Sharma calls today’s journalists to task – modern media makes it much harder for the state to successfully censor everything (which is why adopting grand gestures of intimidation is now a valid strategy – much more economical and efficient if the state can just scare smaller players into toeing the line).
In addition to expanding the scope of journalism and telling important stories from otherwise silenced sectors of the Indian population, Himmat and its contemporaries were doing something else that isn’t explicitly acknowledged by Sharma although it implicitly informs the entire piece. If we’re wired to use reason to achieve societal consensus, then I imagine it becomes much easier to resist ‘alternative facts’ when you have access to a community that shares your worldview. Just because the state says everything’s good doesn’t mean it actually is, but getting people to believe that is a whole other struggle. And that’s exactly what journalists were tasked with during the Emergency – maintaining an alternate consensus that employed facts and articulated arguments that held the power to sway our reason (and I mean that in a good way).
Like what you’ve read so far? Please consider subscribing here if you’d like to receive regular updates from this column.
What’s the best way to question the media?
If the media’s role is to hold society and the state to account, then it’s the public’s job to hold the media accountable. That’s essentially the thought that gave rise to the public editor position – one accountable voice to keep a news organisation apprised of valid public criticism that it needed to address. But then came blogging, Facebook and Twitter and things changed – suddenly there was a lot more criticism to address because it was a lot easier to access. And unfortunately, it was also a lot quicker to produce (which made it easy to skimp on research and detail).
The New York Times recently announced it’s doing away with its public editor position and while Liz Spayd – now to be the post’s last occupant – was a controversial and often ineffective public editor, Slate’s Will Oremus argues for the position’s continuing relevance and lays out why it needs to expand beyond just emails to the editor to include social media feedback as well. There are dangers to this though (the spectre of flawed reason and unqualified assertions is here to stay), but here’s what Oremus says:
“…when everyone on Twitter is a Times watchdog, then no one is. There will still be a firehose of complaints directed at the paper, but there will be no one to harness it, no one whose job and right it is to stand in front of the paper’s leaders and say, ‘This. This is a valid criticism, and you can ignore the rest if you wish, but this one you need to answer to.’”
Oremus quotes Margaret Sullivan (Spayd’s predecessor) to drive home the importance of a sounding board for news organisations.
“The most important aspect of the public editor’s role (at The Times or other media companies that employ ombudsmen) is the ability to get top editors to address a controversial issue—to seriously consider, and publicly answer, questions and complaints. The public editor can then challenge those answers with further questioning or by registering disagreement. He or she can also give voice to — or amplify — valid criticism from readers. …”
The decision to focus on all of Twitter’s criticism without the filter of a public editor just makes it seem like the Times decided to do away with the one person who could successfully question the paper’s reasoning.
Perhaps the most important thing that comes out of these pieces is that there is no fixed version of the ‘truth’ (although ‘post-truth’ implies that it did exist but doesn’t anymore) and consequently, if there was an objective measure with which to judge a news organisation, then that too has ceased to exist. Everyone has their own reason and the right to create a consensus around it. For better or worse, that’s exactly what we’re entitled to in a democracy.
Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at [email protected]
If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing to Name-Place-Animal-Thing.