Think For Yourself

Over the years, I’ve met some rather opinionated people. Some of them I actually liked. Some I thought were really brilliant and others were sadly out-of-touch. Most let their views be known with candor and humility, though some were arrogant and contentious. But what they all have in common is this: They have an opinion, it’s theirs, and they’re sticking by it.

We do not need opinions to survive as individuals, but I suppose it is helpful to have them. On the other hand, as Pascal Boyer points out in his book Religion Explained (Basic Books, 2001), in addition to oxygen and nutrition, what human beings need in order to survive is “information about the world around them” and “cooperation with other members of the species” (120). Unfortunately, these are two “commodities” that are in rather short supply at the moment. The quantity of information is high enough, but whether it is accurate and useful is something else. And whatever cooperation there may be, it cannot be said to extend much beyond one’s own group and its handlers. So maybe what is really unfortunate is the fact that both information and cooperation have become commodities.

There can be little doubt that the information in our social and political marketplace comes with partisan agenda, and arguably this contributes to the absence of cooperation among us. Dissensus is expected in a democracy, especially in one such as ours where there is what John Rawls has referred to in his book Political Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 1996) as “a diversity of opposing and irreconcilable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines” (3-4). Certainly the issue of toleration enters here because as Rawls observes—along with our nation’s founders—these differences of opinion are themselves the product of two things: the powers of human reason and enduring free institutions. Can a society be just and fair, marked by cooperation in the processes and systems that are put in place in order to maximize the possibility that all citizens can realize their potential, their personal, social, economic, and religious goals? Is justice possible in a society where dissensus exists but controversy and disputations are resolved by reasoned debate and decision-making? To parse the issue as Rawls has: “how is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?”

Based on the status of socioeconomic and political matters at the moment, the answer to Rawls question would have to be that it isn’t possible. The problem is not just the fact of dissensus, reasoned as it may or may not be on any given issue. Rather the problem is also exacerbated, as I noted in a previous blog, by the political cognoscenti and their partisan and ideological discourse. It is fundamentally rule by the few whose vested interests and rhetoric frame the public policy discussions regarding matters that impinge on “liberty and justice for all.” Political discussion is effectively a cacophony of ideological voices seeking to sway the public in one direction or another. Now reasoned arguments are intended to persuade; such debate is a vital form of dissemination of “information” that can foster “cooperation.” But fear mongering and appealing to xenophobia, classism, ethnocentrism, and other forms of social and economic prejudices are not reasoned arguments by any stretch of the imagination.

As the recipients of this discourse of the political elites—the politicians, bureaucrats, think-tankers, policy wonks, and media personalities who know better than the rest of us—most of the public is left to dwell in this “pseudo-environment,” this “medium of fictions,” having been told what to think, or to form an opinion on an issue out of information that is incomplete, misleading, exaggerated, concocted, or just plain false. The political elite adapt their peculiar messages to appeal to social and political instincts, knowing that people value information that conforms to and confirms their existing beliefs and biases. This is the principle of belief congruence, as articulated by Milton Rokeach in his book, Beliefs, Attitudes and Values: A Theory of Organization and Change (Jossey-Bass, 1968). We not only tend to gravitate toward ideas that proximate dispositions we already hold, but “we tend to value people in proportion to the degree to which they exhibit beliefs, subsystems, or systems of belief congruent with our own” (83). Poets refer to this as “birds of a feather flock together,” but by any description it functions as the homogeneity principle or the law of attraction: “Like attracts like.”

The principle of belief congruence, coupled with the relative absence of critical reflection and evaluation of political messaging and information, leaves us with a body politic the majority of whom are cognitively and attitudinally predisposed to accept certain beliefs and attitudes while rejecting others. And as the political elite have elevated the tone and content of partisan messaging, we ought not to be surprised that significant numbers of those in the political middle, the moderates or centrists, have in recent years gravitated to one of the two ideological extremes, leaving us with what Alan Abramowitz in a recent book has called “the disappearing center.” Writing in the Hedgehog Review, William Galston notes that there is clearly less polarization among less-informed and less-engaged citizens, but that the polarization that does exist among the well-informed and political elite may actually discourage less well-informed voters from participating altogether in the process. It would be tragic indeed if the behavior of our political leaders in our open political system was a primary culprit in reducing levels of participation in our democracy.

It would seem that responsibility for this state of affairs in partisan politics extends also to the instruments of mass communication; after all, the media is no less a part of the messaging structure and the network of cognoscenti than any other sector of the political elite. What is remarkable about the communications media at this point is that it too has functionally abandoned core principles on which this nation was founded. While there is much trumpeting of the freedom of the press, especially by the media itself, what many consumers of media messaging fail to recognize is that the media is no less captivated and constrained by ideology and no less an instrument of partisan influence on opinion formation. The media as institution contributes to the construction and maintenance of the “pseudo-environment” and the “medium of fictions”; they too are fabricating a variety of worlds and worldviews that legitimate them.

What is especially tragic about the way in which the media has been co-opted is that in the early days of our country, the media struggled to remain free of state control; the freedom of the press had to do with the right of newspapers and publishers to disseminate ideas and opinions unhindered by government repression or censorship. But as John B. Thompson has noted in his book Ideology and Modern Culture (Stanford University Press, 1990), the evolution and expansion of newspaper and publishing industries, the concentration and commercialization of media industries, and the development of new media technologies have produced a form of media monopolization: “an unprecedented degree of concentration—both of resources and of power—in the private domain” (252).

In effect, the media of mass communication now serve not the public interest but the commercial interests of private and corporate enterprises, and “the corporate concentration of resources in the media industries is not just a threat to the individual qua consumer: it is also a threat to the individual qua citizen” (262). All of the major media outlets are owned and operated as for-profit businesses by large corporations: Walt Disney (ABC, ESPN and others); General Electric/Comcast (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo and others); TimeWarner (HBO, Cinemax, TBS, TNT, CNN and others); News Corp. (Fox, Fox News, 20th Century Fox and others); CBS (CBS Showtime, the Movie Channel and others); and Viacom (MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET and others). (Noticeably absent from this list is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit entity established by an act of Congress in 1968 to promote the development of public media across the country. Its continued funding is at risk as a result of partisan political interests, but CPB ought also to be included as a media institution playing a “communications” role in our society.)

As the now retired Columbia sociologist Herbert J. Gans noted in his book, Deciding What’s News (Northwestern University Press, 1979), “When reporters can explicitly attribute information to a source, they do not have to worry about reliability (and validity), the assumption being that once a story is ‘sourced,’ their responsibility is fulfilled, and the audiences must decide whether the source is credible” (130). This is now our information problem writ large: passing on what a spin-master or putative expert thinks now counts as “news,” when in fact, as pointed out to Gans by a magazine writer, “we don’t deal in facts but in attributed opinions.”

If we consider the extraordinary influence on opinion that the instruments of mass communication exercise, it is somewhat disheartening to learn that so many citizens and residents get their news from these commercial enterprises, disheartening but not surprising. According to survey research done by Pew Research Center and published in September 2010, 58% of respondents indicated that they had watched the news on television the previous day, and 34% said they listened to news on the radio on the previous day. Both of these numbers are largely unchanged over recent years. What has changed over the last few years is the percentage of persons getting their news online rather than on TV, radio or newspaper. From 2004, this number has risen ten percentage points to 34%, slightly higher than the number who read a hardcopy newspaper (31%). Since 1994, the amount of time spent watching and/or listening to the news or reading a newspaper had declined. Among those adults who are under age 30, slightly more than one in four (27%) get no news at all on any given day. Little wonder, then, that the American public—both voting and non-voting—are so largely misinformed and manipulated by those who believe themselves to know better.

The challenge that lies before us as citizens in this country, by comparison to the present status of political posturing and partisanship, appears to be both monumental and burdensome, especially for those who are unwilling or unable to take the time to think critically for themselves. The achievement of our Republic came not by taking the shorter, less obstructive routes, but by meeting the obstacles to human liberty and economic freedom with the full resources of personal devotion, disciplined volition, and forceful cognition. In the course of this project minds and hearts—and lives—were changed. For us to advance as a nation, with all our diversity, we too will have to gird ourselves for thinking differently, assessing old views and forming new ones, jettisoning old opinions and buttressing truer belief systems that stand a greater chance of realizing the communitarian vision of the common good, the well-being of all.

This undoubtedly will entail risk and vulnerability, and it certainly will involve being open-minded in ways that we as a nation of citizens and residents have not shown of late. But as now-retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, “open-minded is, you may well have a point of view but you’re open to changing it.”

Should that occur, I think Madison, Jefferson, and Paine would be proud. Hamilton? He might have to change his mind!

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