After running the feature called “The Daily Devil’s Dictionary” for the past four years, Fair Observer is expanding its coverage of the culture of media and public discourse. The Devil’s Dictionary moves to a weekly format and will be accompanied by a developing reflection on the language of the news.
Fact-checking Is Not Enough. Sense-checking Is Equally Important.
One of the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to highlight the awkward gap between what our institutions and media express in official language and people’s sense of reality. From our school days behind a desk to sitting down in front of the evening news after a hard day’s work, we have been conditioned to trust a class of people we call professionals who know things we don’t know. These professionals feed us not just what they present as facts, but also the message and especially the meaning that results from interpreting those facts. Once their job is done, the media in particular count on us to share the information we have received with family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances we happen to converse with. And all of us most of the time obey. That is what keeps our private conversations going.
In recent times, certain anomalies and blatant contradictions in the news cycles have upset this pattern of behavior that formerly structured civilized life. We have experienced a series of major crises that end up dominating the news cycle, including financial meltdowns, climate change, pandemics, to say nothing of the damage resulting from mass surveillance and meaningless wars. The not always convincing reporting on these events has seriously disrupted the ability of information professionals in both the media and education to maintain the stable cultural order that once seemed so sure to so many people.
Coming to Terms With the Game Being Played on the Russia-Ukraine Border
This has led to a well-documented serious loss of confidence in the authority of democratic governments and their institutions on a global scale. Yahoo Finance recently cited Edelman’s Trust Barometer for 2022 that describes a global trend. “Among the key findings of the report was the overall lower trust in world leaders and institutions around the world, with 67% of respondents saying they worry that journalists and reporters were ‘purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.’ The figures were 66% and 63% for government and business leaders, respectively.”
With few exceptions, the populations of nations across the globe have deemed the performance of their government leaders seeking to manage the now two-year-old pandemic unsatisfactory, if not worse. A much longer trend reveals that confidence in the media has never been more shaky. Many governments and media pundits have attempted to blame social media for this visible decline in trust. But that seems like a ruse or at best a distraction, encouraged by the very authorities in whom the public has been losing trust. Though the owners and promoters of social media platforms, motivated by profit, narcissism and especially rapidly expanding power, are by no means to be trusted, most ordinary people understand that social media itself is little more than an extended space of personal conversation. For that reason, some in the political world see it as a threat to the established order.
Commercial media and political authorities have increasingly touted the idea that fact-checking will solve the problem of restoring trust in information providers. But that is naive. We have already seen that making decisions about what is true and false is a perilous undertaking, not only because the boundaries between the two is often fuzzy, but also because powerful interests will inevitably step in to impose their preferred distinctions.
Things become even more complex when we realize that truth is not simply a set of verifiable facts, but an understanding that can be built up of the complex relationships and patterns those facts combine to create. We try to make sense of the world, but the act of making sense should require its own quality control. Expecting those who “manage” the information to provide that control is as dangerous as it is naive.
Is There an Answer? Can Sense-checking Exist?
Fair Observer’s “Language and the News” launched at the beginning of this year will focus on the curious ways in which public personalities — those who have knowledge to impart — literally play with the range of meaning language permits. On the face of it, playing sounds entertaining. And indeed, the purveyors of news understand that. It is why so many people now count on the news for entertainment. It is also why so much of the news is indistinguishable from entertainment. It is a game, but it’s a game in which there are clearly winners and losers. One of those losers is not so much the facts themselves, which do of course get distorted, but our perception and understanding of the reality we live in.
Only by looking at the variety of resonances produced by language does the true complexity of reality come into view. But something else, slightly more sinister also comes into view. It is the relentless effort engaged by those who are empowered to use language for our information and entertainment to reduce complexity to a simple idea that serves some practical or ideological end that they are attached to. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky once described the processes in detail in their book, “Manufacturing Consent.”
At the end of the month of January 2022, Fair Observer launches its feature, “Language and the News.” It includes a “Weekly Devil’s Dictionary” but will also be composed of short vignettes that pick up salient examples from the current news cycle to highlight how they produce or obscure meaning. In the coming weeks, we will open the channel of communication for our readers to provide their own sense-checking. Think of it as a communication game. But it is the kind of game in which there should be no losers, since — at least theoretically — everyone in a democratic society profits from clarity.
Here are the first two examples to inaugurate the new feature.
Example 1: Mitch McConnell’s America
Newsweek reported Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s objections to the voting rights bill the Democrats proposed. With impeccable self-revelatory logic, he derided the need for reform or the fact that the current system in many places was built to reduce access to the polls for black Americans. “Well, the concern is misplaced,” he said. “Because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”
Sigmund Freud maintained that verbal slips reveal deeper levels of psychical truth. What would he say about this?
Coming from the senator from Kentucky, one of the Confederate states during the Civil War, he would see a true continuity with the spirit and culture of the Old South. It is likely that at the nation’s founding, blacks who were in their vast majority slaves were not considered Americans. Even though each slave counted, for the needs of representation, as three-fifths of a “real” American, they could not vote. They were property. McConnell may feel that because the black community consistently votes at more than 90% for Democrats, they are the property of Democrats rather than “Americans.”
Example 2: Joe Biden’s Extended Property
In his extended press conference last week, US President Joe Biden offered his updated interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine. “We used to talk about, when I was a kid in college, about “America’s backyard,” the president reminded the press. “It’s not America’s backyard. Everything south of the Mexican border is America’s front yard.”
Everyone in the United States knows that your front yard is not only identified as your property, but more significantly it represents the image of yourself you wish to convey to the outside world. The traditional reference to a backyard contained the idea that it was a stretch of land that was far less significant, required less upkeep, if any at all, and could even merge with the countryside. Calling Latin America America’s backyard was disrespectful but suggested the possibility of benign negligence.
Biden most certainly believed his metaphor would convey a notion of respect and even solidarity with the people who inhabit the land in front of his house. But that is the crux of the problem. People who live in your front yard are squatters, not neighbors. The very idea that there may be people in a space the owner controls and designs to convey the family’s image is shocking. At least it should appear shocking to anyone who lives anywhere between El Paso and Tierra del Fuego.
To avoid misunderstanding, though with no real intention to correct the terrifying image he created, Biden added: “And we’re equal people. We don’t dictate what happens in any other part of that — of this continent or the South American continent. We have to work very hard on it.”
And so, between Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, we learned that blacks are not quite the same thing as Americans and that Latinos and Latinas are at best thought of as tolerated squatters. The land of the free continues, at least unconsciously, to make distinctions between those who are authentically free and those who may, according to their ethnic or cultural identity, simply aspire to be free.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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