Every article on the Fair Observer website, even those by members of the editorial team, is followed by the familiar disclaimer: “The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.”
This appears not only for reasons of legal protection but also to remind readers that while our editorial team insists that articles representing a variety of viewpoints and opinions base their argumentation on fact, the logic of their argumentation may be partial, partisan and even wrong. Our practice is to categorically refuse articles that cite assertions with no basis in fact.
On the other hand, we consider any author’s interpretation of the significance of facts, even if the argument they develop may be erroneous and biased. Most authors write to promote what they think is the best understanding of the issue. But their understanding is not necessarily the truth or the only one that can claim to be close to the truth. Their intention may hide a significant, unmentioned fact: that it reflects a commercial, partisan or personal interest.
All those caveats apply to all journalism. The reader must judge the sincerity and pertinence of what any author claims. Precisely to underline that point, we have been publishing the Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary. It enables us to highlight the ways language may be used to orient and eventually distort perception.
Attentive readers should notice that we append the same disclaimer to items of the Fair Observer’s Devil’s Dictionary that we do to any other article. The same criteria of accuracy and sincerity apply to articles, like The Devil’s Dictionary, that critique the news. And the same real possibility of distortion exists in those articles, as in this one you are now reading. Caveat lector! Let the reader beware!
Deconstructing an article that deconstructs an article
This past week several articles merit a closer look at their information value and eventual biais. Let’s start with The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary (FODD) itself. This week, it focuses on a scandal reported initially by a Florida newspaper, The Orlando Sentinel. Judging it to be of international interest, The Guardian picked up and developed this story of blatant corporate intimidation. Both newspapers highlighted an act that appears to be an assault on democracy initiated by the CEO of a monopolistic enterprise. Unlike The Sentinel and The Guardian, our Devil’s Dictionary article focuses on what it purports to be a relationship of systemic corruption and irresponsible behavior permitted by the collaboration of privatized monopolies and private consultancies.
Our article encourages the reader to believe that this is not an isolated case. It uses the logically dodgy trick of assuming that one significant anecdote reveals a general trend. It directly makes the claim that this story “illuminates issues that are at the core of both the social order and of democracy itself.” In contrast, The Guardian reports the factual elements of the story. It goes into great depth citing multiple examples of patently unethical if not criminal activities conducted by the consulting company, but draws no general conclusion about society, the economy or democracy..
Is the Devil’s Dictionary’s judgment of what it claims to be functioning as a system justified? Maybe, but then again maybe not. The article induces the idea that the pressures to perform on any CEO, especially a monopolistic enterprise, are likely to foster a general culture of corruption and ultimately Mafia-like behavior. It is the consequence of a general culture of greed.
That implied conclusion cannot be considered a fact. It is little more than a considered opinion. Another observer may even see it as a deliberate attempt to distort the reader’s perception of an economic system that generally escapes the trap of corruption. In this particular case, the author actually did intend to create that distorted perception. How can I assert that as a fact? I am the author of that piece.
My real expectation, however, is not that readers will adhere to my conclusion. Rather, I hope that they will consider the possible validity of my accusatory conclusion and use the example to test against their own experience. This will enable them to build their own understanding of the world around them. Once again, caveat lector!
The angusihed transgender debate
On the last Saturday of July we published an article by Jennifer Wider on the transgender debate with regard to sports. The author makes the case that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s events “is unfair to those born as women and the fear of even discussing this issue is unhealthy for our society.” Many see that as controversial and even discriminatory.
The article, written by a women’s health doctor, goes into significant detail to make its case. In the course of Wider’s argument she notes a significant fact that everyone should have noticed: that this is a moment in history in which “people are afraid to offer their opinion, where facts don’t seem to matter as much as they should.” She takes the risk of offering her professional opinion.
Even that assertion – that people are afraid to offer their opinion – can be contested. Thanks to social media, we have never seen so much unabashed opinion expressed in the crudest terms. In the context, however, it is true that in today’s “cancel culture,” when dealing with what some call “sensitive” topics, people are afraid to offer what they know will be taken by some to be a “wrong opinion.” Such people consider it wrong and worthy of condemnation because the group they identify with has convinced itself that its particular interpretation of an issue is unassailable truth. Wider makes this explicit when she writes: “The transgender issue is one where people are afraid of expressing themselves lest they be damned like the noted Scottish writer JK Rowling.”
So, is Wider right or wrong? Is what she says true, and should we align with her conclusions? You may agree that many of the facts she cites and observations she makes are true and that they justify her conclusion. Or, alternatively, you may object to the thesis on the grounds that she hasn’t understood the real issue: that the dual principles of equality and freedom of choice are so fundamental that making the distinction between two categories of women should be considered a form of racism.
But there is a third alternative. After reading her article, you may realize that, whatever your current position, Wider has added depth to the debate. That should be true, even if you feel no hurry to align with her conclusion.
At this point, let me be personal again. I agree with Wider’s argument and conclusion. But I also think that the third alternative represents the best strategy for any reader, of this or any article. The principle is always the same: Caveat lector!
A new journalistic genre for 2022: explaining what’s in Putin’s head
Alan Waring’s piece on Vladmir Putin restates ideas that have appeared regularly in Western media since even before the beginning of a war that commenced with the Russian invasion on February 24. The Ukraine war has spawned what might be called a journalistic literary genre that could be summed up in the heading: “I’m going to tell you what Vladimir Putin’s real intentions are.” The ambition of such articles is to exploit two things: the fact that no one can really know what any leader’s true intentions are and, more generally, the public’s ignorance of the details of history.
Articles in this genre, including Waring’s, suggest a particular intention or ambition on the part of the leader that would justify a particular reaction on the other side. In this case, it seeks to justify the aggressive militaristic attitude of the US-led West to confront something that is painted as spectacularly evil.
Waring uses various devices to nudge the reader into believing that everything about Putin is far more sinister than we might ordinarily suppose. For example, he makes a sweeping historical claim to convince the reader that what is happening was predictable. “There is a long history of Russian leaders using rape, murder and looting as weapons of war to terrorize and subdue civilian populations.” The logic is apparent, but faulty: if Russians from the past are guilty, a Russian from the present cannot be innocent.
Waring eventually resorts to a traditional technique of denigration that many commentators now find particularly suspect: drawing an imagined parallel with Hitler. “Putin himself,” Waring delicately points out, “may not see the issue in racial terms, but when evaluated in conjunction with the overtly racist exhortations of one of his ideological gurus, the far-right polemicist Alexandr Dugin, it begins to sounds remarkably like Hitler’s Untermenschen and Lebensraum justifications for invading all lands to the east of Germany and for subjugating or expelling their native populations.” The author uses Dugin to mediate between Hitler and Putin, but the effect is the same: guilt by a chain of associations.
The other salient characteristic of Waring’s article places it in yet another journalistic genre, a pessimistic prediction of the future, intended as a cautionary tale. This often resembles wish-fulfillment. Waring predicts that Russia will in the future be generally classified as a pariah state. Though not stating it specifically, he clearly wishes that most people will hold Russia itself responsible for the evil intentions he attributes to Putin,.
When reasoning jumps from suppositions based on parallels in history to unfounded influences and associations and then to speculation about how people will read history in the future, the reader should understand that, though everything he says may (or equally may not) turn out to be true, we are on shaky journalistic and historical ground. Caveat lector!
Can Bollywood wield soft power?
Vikram Zutschi offered Fair Observer’s readers a review of what has become the biggest grossing movie in history. It’s the latest in the Top Gun series, Maverick, starring Tom Cruise. Zutschi finds it to be a brilliant example of Hollywood’s soft power, even while pointing out how contradictory its triumphant, nationalistc and militaristic message is, in light of the historical reality of a visibly declining empire.
Some Americans contest the idea that their empire is declining. They will typically cite the recent success of the Joe Biden administration for having unified Europe around NATO’s opposition to Russia. For them “the American century” is just getting into gear.
Zutschi avoids that debate. Instead, he highlights the success for the spectator of Hollywood’s celluloid patriotism, admiring its efficacy while regretting the cause it artificially ennobles. The author thinks that, for the sake of Indian patriotism, a similar strategy for Bollywood could be a good idea.
That too is debatable on historical grounds. Indian culture simply doesn’t have the same bloated idea of its inherent virtue and its indispensable role in the world as the US. US domination relies on the fact that its citizens will never stop believing in their nation’s existence as a force for good in the world, even when that force repeatedly results in the spreading of chaos, death and destruction. It is difficult for any other nation to adopt that viewpoint and to inculcate it in everyone’s mind.
Whether you’re a curious reader of the news or a Bollywood producer, Zutschi, like the other authors cited above, has given us something to think about. You may or may not be convinced that his conclusion about Bollywood’s or the Indian government’s interests is worth considering. You may sit back and say to yourself Zutschi’s article is about entertainment, so the caveats may appear to have less meaning. But the outcome after reading the article, whether convinced or not by its conclusion, is the same: a broadening of reference and a wider vision.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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