I'm a poet, artist, teacher, thinker, with a brain going mad with all the stuff out there that needs an outpouring of musings and sharings of profundity, jocundity, of gravity, banality and all things human-ish. Thank you for continuing to read after this: You've passed a test I didn't even intend to pass.
We all need to loosen up a bit, inside. These are not normal times, and they won’t be for a while. A pandemic with different mutations still emerging, mounting deaths and sickness, economic damage, access to testing and vaccines being not as easy as hoped, the continued stress and loss due to the various types of lockdowns, and even if you should be doing ok, the mere stress of the world in pain around you and the resulting social and political problems – all of this is surely enough to drive anyone slightly into depression or insanity.
We have to all make allowances for both the people around us and for ourselves these days. We are not automatons. Human beings – like all other animals – need a specific habitat, and ours is social, as Aristotle noticed already. As social animals, we are hurting right now, and we do not know when there will be a return to normality, or at least a modified normality.
Don’t put more stress on you and others than already in place, and adjust your expectations. I certainly have to, but we can all also count our blessings. This pandemic has taken a gruesome toll already, and it is not over, and it will not be the last. Lowering our expectations for ourselves, and being happy with what we have right now, and just taking care of us and others around us – all of this can be enough. Maybe not just for now. There’s certainly a lesson in the now for the future as well.
Whose life is it that you are living? Who do you care about, who cares about you, and how can you maintain these relations even in complicated times? How can we be human, fully human, in inhumane times?
Of course, we all want to believe that what we are thinking and doing is the right thing. Nobody wants to be wrong, nobody wants to be the bad guy. Nobody is truly at peace with themselves if they are at war with the world.
But we cannot all be right on everything. We all live different lives, in different circumstances. This, our very being – as Marx has famously recognized – influences if not determines our consciousness. How we live, what resources we have, how we are able to create a future for ourselves, all of this influences what positions we will be able to take politically.
That does not mean that we cannot aspire for something higher, even if it does not align with our situation in life. Hope has always been a motivator for people, and our consciousness can also influence our being, our life circumstances, as Hegel has famously stated.
We are influenced both by both our circumstances – which may limit our perspective – but also by our hopes and aspirations – which may allow us to move out of limiting circumstances. Recognizing both positions allows us to recognize in others their specific needs, but also to see the potential for all of us reaching for a higher goal.
As long as we maintain our righteousness, we will never be open to understand our own limitations and those of others. We will also not be able to hope for a greater mutual vision, which will limit us in pursuing the steps to get us all to work together.
In a society, you will always have different opinions. Demonizing the respective “other side” is the first step in the wrong direction. We need to recognize that our differences make us stronger: A car has both an accelerator and a brake, for a good reason. As we may seek to progress towards a better future, we also need to conserve that which we will continue to need in order to survive.
While this all may sound simplistic, it is the basic principle of deliberative democracy, as promoted also by philosophers like Habermas. We will need to work together in true dialog, recognizing each other as just as fully human as ourselves, in all our complexities, all our limitations, all our potentials, all our sorrow, pain, hope and desires.
Of course, that is a path that seems more difficult than just to win a majority and ram through decision that you know the other side will not like. As a consequence of such behavior, the next election can easily turn over all your alleged achievements. Moving fast and breaking things will only do one thing: break things. There is no value in that in the long term, because everybody will then want to disrupt everything. As Max Weber has already noted, “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” If you get everyone on board, you will get there slowly, but steadily.
The alternative would be a politics of exception, following Carl Schmitt: But acting in a constant sense of emergency and panic only enables the dictators and demagogues. Of course, everything is always urgent and necessary, everyone is suffering, and everyone’s special interest are special to them. In many cases, this is true. Some emergencies are indeed emergencies. But contrary to Schmitt’s suggestions, it is especially in emergencies that an all-encompassing and dialogical approach towards problem-solving is needed. Schmitt’s thinking belongs on the garbage heap of political philosophy because it does not work, and not just because he was a member of the Nazi party.
Totalitarians all think alike, no matter the pedigree. By following them, all you do is end up in a totalitarian situation. Democratically minded people all think differently. You will be frustrated easily, but you will share your frustration with others, and this shared frustration will eventually lead to breakthroughs that will be accepted by almost everyone, creating a constructive path to positive change that will benefit us all and not just a slim and ever-changing majority.
The path towards ending social division is not to overpower the other side, but to have everyone understand that even in our never-ending disagreements, we all know that in the end, we are all on the same side after all: As Nietzsche said, we are human, all too human.
Words are easy. They are not formulas. You should just be able to read them and understand them instantly. Or so it goes.
We seemingly are living in a time where all the things talked about in the humanities and the social sciences in the recent decades are finally coming to have their day in the public consciousness. Words like “race”, “gender”, (not “class”, that is not of interest ever, really), “narrative,” “history,” “construction,” “capitalism,” “discourse,” “inequality,” “equity” etc. are thrown around with ease that you would think the entire world had just taken advanced theory graduate classes.
But of course, this is not the case. What has happened is that some of these terms – completely taken out of their “habitat”, their historical and philosophical context, have been unleashed as memes into the wild, devoid of their caveats, conditions, footnotes and complications – devoid of all things that make up the equivalent of a mathematical formula.
The perception that the “talking” and “writing” sciences should just be understandable “as is” appears to have made the rounds, and any complexity is denied as it would be deemed to just make this new pseudo-discourse boring, take all the fun out of it, and the possibility to monetize the outcry.
If you have been wondering, should you have been reading anything on this blog so far, what it is that I am actually doing, then you are not alone. It took me, myself and I an entirety of 23 years to comprehend what I have been on about on my blog and in my research. My real interest in this format seems to be the Public Understanding of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
I am trying not to be too pedantic, to have a bit of fun, to not be too dogmatic, to never be mean, and to always be open to new ideas.
Speaking of idea, isn’t that a difficult term? Ah, but I just promised to not be too pedantic, so there’s that for now…
If a term like Social Justice has to have any meaning, it needs to solve problems in society.
The biggest social problems typically have one thing in common: They create division.
Overcoming division and enhancing participation in a shared society is thus key to solving such problems.
The first component of Social Justice is thus a focus on society itself, on commonality, on unity, on harmony. Anything that enhances social peace is better than that which creates social strife.
Now to the second component, justice. Justice means a repairing of those aspects of society that are not contributing to social peace, to equal participation, to overcoming division. Problems past, present and future need to be addressed, honestly and openly, and remedies found for repairing the damage caused, and opportunities sought to increase social awareness of social injustice, in order to promote – jointly, collaboratively – social justice.
Social Justice is nothing but social peace, and peace means happiness, productivity, equity of access, equality of worth, shared humanity, acknowledgment of human dignity, even a recognition of the dignity of all life.
Social Justice draws from certain traumatic moments in human history, and aims to learn from them, create justice for the future out of the pain from the past. Social Justice sets itself as a reaction to the Holocaust and other genocides, slavery, mistreatment of others as a group due to culturally constructed differences such as race, class, gender, age, ability, species, and in the future surely the distinction between natural/artificial life forms. All these divisions exist because of culturally constructed differences that are creating differential understandings of others as human or infrahuman (to use Paul Gilroy’s term).
Thus if we truly want to work to enact social justice, some guidelines might help:
We are all living beings with the same rights every human being has. We may be in different standing in society, in different professions, following different beliefs and ideologies, may be richer or poorer, but at the core, we are all the same. We all share in the human community and the human condition.
We also share in community with our planet and the natural world; we are part of them, and our actions or inactions directly affect the natural world, and consequently again ourselves. We are all on the same planet, we share the same home, and everybody has a right to be here.
We shall never forget that the categories of difference that discrimination is based upon are culturally and socially constructed. Reifying and validating these categories of difference will only further division instead of creating justice.
We are all equal in worth and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Every single life matters, and a mistreatment of one is a mistreatment of all. Some of us are more vulnerable than others and may need to be given special consideration and support. Those who are strong have a duty to protect those who are weaker, and not exploit them.
In a Social Justice framework, there can be no thinking of other human beings as enemies. We are all fellow living beings, no matter our differences.
Without honesty, no community can survive. We need to be striving for truth always, wherever it may lead us, irrespective of ideology.
If you favor Social Justice, you cannot hate other human beings. Hatred means dividing yourself from others, preventing a connection and understanding rather than building them.
Free speech is absolute. Everybody should have a right to speak, just as everybody should also have a duty to listen and be respectful of each other. We only learn, we only progress, if we learn together and from each other, and if we progress together. Once people feel that their voices are being suppressed, they may vent their frustration in a space where much less learning will be possible, and further division is created.
We need to recognize that we are all imperfect beings. We all have the right to say or do things and regret them later and be forgiven for them. Social Justice is social healing, first and for all.
There shall not ever again be masters and slaves – no group shall set itself apart from the others. We need to overcome traditional hierarchy, not recreate it.
There needs to be humility about the things we can achieve. We may have high aspirations, but a recognition of our fallibility protects against undue despair and depression. We do not live only to work, we work to live.
There needs to be grace towards those that fail to live up to standards that may be seen as higher. We all travel through time throughout our lives, and the world keeps changing around us. Assume it will happen to you yourself eventually, and draw humility from that thought.
Certainly there could be more points, but for now, I’ll leave it here.
Maybe it’s because of Covid and working from home, but I am spending more time thinking about animals than I used to. When I moved to the US from Germany, I felt like I entered an alien planet. Almost everything was different, down to fauna and flora. Sure, Germany has oak trees too, but Oregon White Oaks (Quercus garryana) is not the same as the German Oak (Quercus robur), and Douglas Firs and Sequoias are simply in a class of their own compared to the little stick-size fir trees in Europe are allowed to grow into.
The birds struck me as most different, even though I was able to recognize some similarities. American Robins are clearly related to European Blackbirds, maniacally rummaging around in the leaves but rewarding the evening listener in spring with fantastic melodic cadenzas. Chickadees (black-capped and chestnut-backed) can compete with Great and Blue Tits, but sound different. Two species of Nuthatches (red- and white-breasted), of which the smaller red-breasted is fearless. Jays are loud always, and it seems the Steller’s Jays know they are prettier than the Scrub Jays. There seems to be a hierarchy.
The real character actors though are the grey squirrels, deer and raccoons. I think I am able to communicate with the deer very well, and they are smart. Much smarter than I (stupid human) would ever have thought. They seem to understand hand gestures, and can read my intentions. When I accidentally walk where they are headed too, I retreat and signal clearly that I am making way – and I see them respond by waiting rather than jumping away. I see different personalities, and if I occasionally throw an apple to them in the heat of summer (as thirst quenchers), they thank me, clearly.
Grey Squirrels are always a hoot, and I am trying to understand their nervous ticks, hand tremors, tail twitches, and sounds of annoyance. I have learned to mimic their sounds, and am able to get their attention – but I am clearly saying things wrongly, for I am getting looks of disapproval. The occasional raccoon will be happy if there is cat food left outdoors, and will make eye contact with me to make sure I will let them eat.
I have started to rethink matters a bit. These are people, but in different bodies. Am I anthropomorphizing animals? Well, I think most of the time, we are anthropomorphizing humans far too much. Instead, it would help to remind ourselves that everything around us is just as modern, just as advanced from their own genetic perspective as us lowly humans. Sure, a squirrel’s body can look funny, but I am not that sure my own is such a prize either. The squirrel is surely more athletic. And as to cats – I have yet been able to communicate with every cat. They know who they can talk to or not. We have an understanding.
This is not about politics, vegetarianism, or anything like that (I am currently not a vegetarian – I tried it, but it did not work out for me, and I would consider myself more of a flexitarian). This is just about our human tendency to diminish life other than our own, and the prevalent arrogant assumption that we are not like animals, and they are not like us.
When I can look into the eyes of one of those animal people around the house, I see eyes looking at me with an intelligence and with feelings that are very much relatable, as soon as you allow for the possibility. This is not my yard. I am sharing it with others, and have to make sure they are doing well. I cannot save the world, but I can make sure, as much as I can. to at least approach my fellow beings with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Surely, such a perspective is made much easier by a welcome under-abundance of mosquitos and ticks around this area here. And as to voles and the occasional rat, I am counting on the neighborhood cats and raccoons to develop strategies to help me out with the problems caused by those.
Nothing really can be helped by seeing us outside of nature – maybe that can be a learning lesson here for all of us in the pandemic. We need nature around us, and we need to develop community with it and its non-human peoples.
In the darkest hour, the savior will appear. He alone will bring us out from the darkness into the light, from despair into hope, from misery into triumph. He knows what to say, what to do, we can trust him explicitly. If we follow his lead, redemption, salvation, and the future await. If only we had a leader with charisma, with greatness, with vision, we would all be better off.
Or so it goes.
We have seen this narrative rise up historically time and again, in fiction and reality. Plato’s Philosopher Kings, King Arthur, the return of Barbarossa, and plenty of real-life politicians. The desire for a leader, for a leader’s charisma, for some almost magical solution to all problems is a romantic desire that is certainly understandable, certainly, apparently, human, and can motivate people easily.
But it never works, and there are basically two reasons. First, such a savior does not exist. He (or rarely she) is a fiction, a dream-construct, a projection of our hopes for some great parental figure that knows what to do, that absolves us of our fallibility and our duty and will do the hard work for us.
There have well been great leaders in history, some of them even good, but all of them flawed. Augustus, maybe not just the first but the best Roman Emperor, built his empire with the blood of his enemies. When we indulge in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, we need to overlook his actual policies, and the person groomed as his successor, Commodus. When we look at the enlightened artfulness of Frederick the Great, we need to also consider his wars. Napoleon brought freedom and law to countless serfs and subjects, but he also brought war and suffering. And it all goes downhill from there when we look at the great hopes brought towards Hitler, Stalin, Mao and all the other sociopaths of the 20th century.
But these extreme examples are not helpful, because even the small saviors, the discount saviors and snake-oil-selling politicians who will never be dictators but just fumble around in incompetence and empty promises, selling out those believing in them, even those are dangerous – mainly because they are leaders of desperate people who they will lead astray and eventually betray and leave behind even more dejected, more hurt, more rejected as deplorables, and more cynical.
Second, all such saviors – the little ones and the big ones – will be found out eventually, hopefully not after they have had bodies piled up in their wars of resentment and revolution. Their days will come eventually because humans will not tolerate their incompetence and abuses for too long. Saviors have a history of becoming scapegoats.
This holds true also for the true, good-hearted, and needed community leaders that have been put up on impossible pedestals. The list of assassinated champions for justice is long, be they Socrates, Spartacus (yes, a flawed person, but still inspirational), Cicero, Jesus, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat, and on and on and on – killed by those who rejected the positive change they were striving towards.
We need no saviors, and those with a savior complex should remember to vae victis – to remember the vanquished leaders, bad and good.
Relying on leadership is a shortcut, a lazy and potentially dangerous mistake. We should never assume a single human being should have such power over our hearts and minds. Have no heroes. Want no saviors. Just recognize that for change to happen, regular people need to step up. We need no cynics, we need committed democratic citizens willing to do the work, to educate, to inform, to serve in local, state and federal politics, and to commit themselves to truth, just and the – sorry – American way, but not as Superman, but as ordinary people united to make the world a better place. The cause should transcend the individual, and the only thing we need saving from is the complex of needing a savior.
When criticized by others, some governments frequently claim that any disapproval from the outside world would be an unwelcome intrusion into “internal matters” that should be rejected out of hand. Furiously, foreign ministers, heads of state, state media and sometimes even religious leaders reject any attempt to condemn any attacks on human rights or territorial rights of others.
Such a reaction needs to be rejected out of hand. Everybody gets to criticize everybody else. Nothing and nobody should be sacrosanct. We live in a society, in community of others, whether we are in different countries or not. That is the point of human rights: they are valid everywhere, and their violation anywhere is the violation of everyone.
The excuse of “internal matters” is the childish attempt to seem unassailable and beyond criticism. It is bullying behavior that means to silence any critics. But that should not stop us. As much as we ourselves should always be open and welcoming of criticism, we should expect this of others as well. There is no bubble. You do not get to do what you want to your allegedly “own” people in your allegedly “own” country because this is one humanity, one planet, one universe (yes, let’s think that far ahead).
Borders are an artifact of history that may well be necessary for the administration of different regions. But borders should not limit the reach of human rights, and should definitely not limit the reach of criticism about their violation.
Plato already talked about the difference between logos and mythos. Put very simply, the first, λόγος, stands for truth, reason, and science, whereas the second, μῦθος, stands for story, narrative, and mythology. Both can describe approaches to learning and truth, but they differ critically in how they function and of use they can be to society.
Mythological thinking is focused on beginnings, on genealogies, on staying within a system. In order to understand a story, you need to follow it from the beginning. If you enter it later, you will need to backtrack and figure out what happened before. Mythologies lay building block upon building block, and the building itself always aims for completion. Stories, as Aristotle reminded us, have a beginning that is not arbitrary, and an ending that conclusively ends the story and that brings to a close what was started in the beginning. The final goal, the telos (τέλος), beings to fruition what was laid out in the beginning. If we pay attention throughout the narrative, we may figure out the final goal, the endgame, the purpose of events. Everything has a deeper meaning, nothing happens by accident, signs and portents are everywhere to be found, and the truth can be revealed by those with special knowledge and insight that know how to interpret the flow of events.
In a way, mythological thinking appears to be core to human nature. We are natural storytellers. All human cultures have stories explaining their origins, their culture, their unique identity. Narrativity is what drives societies through their respective cultures. Narratives give us our sense of self, our sense of hierarchies, of destiny, of past and future, of meaning – for better or worse. They are deeply connected to language, and individual words have deep meanings steeped in history, power relations and ways of thinking.
Individual thinkers, philosophers and artists, have an enormous influence on mythologies.
Mythologies can tolerate variance. Any attempt at systematizing mythological narratives will need to make exceptions for multiple versions. Some core tenets of such a narrative may remain constant, but surrounding factors will change, irrespective of the mode of narration. Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies may each center around a specific pantheon, but some details may vary from narrator to narrator, from time period to time period. Gods will have many names, or many bynames signifying different origins or interpretations. Stories about the gods will vary depending on the author, the specific culture, time period, etc. Mythologies can evolve over time, and emphasize different core elements even transcending specific mythological or religious narratives. The myth of the “Great Goddess”, for instance, sees its main deity in different religious contexts, whether it talks about Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Demeter, or Mary, for instance. The demigod Hero who saves the world after undergoing a variety of self-sacrificing trials can be called Prometheus, Hercules, Odysseus, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But behind this variation stands a clear anthropological truth. Religion cannot be disproven because it is not about facts but about deeply held anthropological / psychological / theological / mythological meaning. What we think about reality is deeply influenced by our narratives.
Scientific thinking is different. Beginnings matter in different ways than in narratives. Science does not care about narratives. It does not care what Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Archimedes, Richard Dawkins or even Neil DeGrasse Tyson my think. While there is Norse mythology according to Icelandic or German traditions, to Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, Wagner or Tolkien, science is the same everywhere. It matters not one iota whether Einstein discovered Special and General Relativity, somebody else would have eventually – or not. Science describes reality, and reality does not care about narratives. You may need narrative power to explain science (and none do it better than the likes of Dawkins and Tyson), but again, science does not care. It is true regardless.
Whether we know how the universe truly began may or may not inform important technologies derived from our scientific knowledge about the beginning, but knowledge about its beginning is immaterial to our contemporary reality. The so-called laws of science are mere descriptions of reality. Planck did not disprove Einstein, who did not disprove Newton (as it is frequently said). Quantum physics describes a different lens on the same reality as Einsteinian relativity or Newtonian mechanics. Relativity is an important consideration when discussing very fast objects, but for our day-to-day lives, Newton does just fine. No matter how fast humans move on Earth, we will never even approach the speed of light, and time dilation does not matter to us. And unless we look at very small particles, we need not contend with quantum physics. Whether space has 3 dimensions or 4 or more does not change our day-to-day lives.
If Darwin made a mistake, that does not unravel the theory of evolution. Einstein underestimated the importance of quantum physics, but that does not take away from quantum physics. Newton did not think about objects traveling close to the speed of light affecting their passage of time, but that does not disprove his theory of gravity. Why? Because science is based on observable reality, on repeatable experiments and observations, on falsifiability, and on a community of free-thinking scholars all eager to compete with each other in the discovery of scientific principles underlying reality.
In mythological thinking, beginnings matter and individual thinkers can make a big difference. In scientific thinking, the latest and newest findings matter, and individual scientists – as accomplished and justifiably famous as they may be – do not matter with respect to their discoveries.
We see this difference being played out right now in the times of Coronavirus. Those believing that it is all a big conspiracy will point out that early in 2020, some scientists said masks do not make a difference, and the conspiracists will assume that this was somehow an original truth and what scientists say now (that masks matter) is a lie. But science only analyzes the data. We learned that the virus spreads in ways that indeed make mask wearing necessary to protect yourself and others. (We also were able to make more masks in the meantime and do not have to ration them for hospital workers as we had to in early 2020).
In science, the majority opinion matters because it is based on the competitive attempts of all scientists to discover reality. In science, of a specific hypothesis or even theory is disproven, science benefits even more – and scientists will applaud this, bruised egos aside. There cannot be “renegade scientists” – because all scientists are, in a sense, renegades already. “Scientific consensus” means that the burden of evidence supporting a hypothesis or theory is so great that the likelihood of it being wrong is low; but should there be evidence overturning a specific way of thinking, it will be welcome, and will be invited with great interest as it serves the larger interest, the search for truth.
In the end, the great seeker of compromise, Stephen J. Gould, spoke of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Science and religion (or mythology) seek different answers, both, ideally, speaking to our human quest for meaning. But when it comes to confronting a real-world problem, whether it is a pandemic or climate change, I prefer to listen to the majority of scientists over singular renegade voices focusing on narratives and conspiracy mythologies.
Mythos may be good for the soul, but logos ensures our survival.
I have a “bio-birthday” and a “web” birthday: on January 8, 1998, I built myself an awkward looking home at GeoCities’. This was the place to be, when GeoCities was not yet destroyed by yahoos who did not understand it. There were “neighborhoods”, I chose the sci-fi neighborhood (“Area 51”), and “Station”. Back then, it was clear that the internet was built for two things: Star Trek and pornography. I was definitely not doing the latter, thus Star Trek it would be. You can see early design versions of my site at my Layout History pages.
You had to learn how to do HTML, CSS, make graphics, logos, etc. You had to create your own content, thus you had to write, take pictures (analog!), scan them, reduce their filesize, create thumbnails, etc. Then, in a mad dash, a noisy modem session would be needed to upload the whole shebang to the respective FTP server. To find likeminded people, you joined a webring.
Web sites were wild areas for experimentation, and everyone who made one had to learn autodidactically, and had fun doing it. This was your own space, and it would be as good as your skills (and sense for layout and content) would be. You built your own identity. Your web site was an achievement, and once you felt it was good enough to accompany for longer, and once you found money to pay for it, it was time to get real. You dealt with InterNIC directly for your domain name, and would eventually get real server space.
The point is, you needed to learn, you developed skills, you learned about the nitty-gritty of the web. These were transferrable skills. You got to play, create something for yourself, and interact with like-minded people – who would actually get to e-mail you.
You still can do all these things, and some of them work better now. But there are monsters out there sucking all the creative energy out of the room in order to display shadows of it in their own space. MySpace provided a portal that still allowed for some wackiness to survive let people personalize the interface a bit more, but it was also the first step into a corporate world. Eventually, Facebook and all the rest have created a world where their own portal basically was supposed to encompass the internet. Now we also have apps that are graveyards for photos, short videos, shameless self-promotion, all to create ad revenue.
Your own web site works for you; but to Facebook (and services like it, wrongly called “social” media), you are the drone stuck in the matrix giving it life. You are completely dependent on social media platforms and their designs, their rules, their monetization. No skills need to be required, nothing needs to be learned that’s transferrable, other than how to use a stupid (in the sense of limited purpose) app on a phone. You cannot easily control your content, how it displays, how it will be read, and you engage with others in a monetizable manner where each of our “likes” feeds an algorithm to give you more of the same.
This is the end of creativity, or rather, it is the seduction of easiness that allows for the end of creativity. You can still get your own web site. Or even a blog (not the same, but better than social media). But most won’t, because we humans are all creatures of convenience nowadays, and why make the effort when minimal mock-effort is enough?
Why give up a personal space on the web that is really yours to shape for the simulacrum or rather poor parody of such a possibility on so-called social media?
I. Introduction, because this is a Longer Text and it Needs Headings
There appears to be a sense among many people that there is a problem with “the media.” Trust in media seems low, and there is a societal division with regards to which media is seen as reliable, which as misleading or fake. These divisions appear along most frequently along partisan lines. If it wasn’t such a serious problem, it would be quite humorous to see how different media (and their supporters) criticize their competitors as being unreliable, yet they themselves believe steadfastly in their own reliability (and so do their supporters).
Indeed, we seem to have moved away from a consumer attitude towards media, and instead to a supporter attitude. The media you consume defines you more than ever before, it seems.
As to the criticism, specifically news media engender a suite of response archetypes:
I trust everything media sources supporting view A are saying, and distrust everything from view B. I read to reinforce the views I already have, whether consciously or not. A media outlet that has proven trustworthy in the past will be given the benefit of the doubt; but if a media outlet (and their corporate or ideological sponsors) are suspect for a variety of reasons, I steer away from it.
I am generally skeptical of everything I read, see and hear. I try to verify everything I read, even of news sources that I am more skeptical about.
I do not believe anything from establishment media – whatever their alleged ideological background – and am relying instead on alternative forms of information.
These are, of course, stereotypes. Nobody falls into any category neatly, and may change their views over time, depending on life circumstances, mood, or social circles. In general, position 1 may be the most common. Position 2 is probably aspirational, and position 3 the biggest source of social division right now. Even if you’re in opposing ideological camps, if you are still in position 1, you inhabit the same universe as everyone else. Media is essentially self-referential, and hardly an hour may come by in which those holding view A will not somehow reflect about and position themselves towards view B, and vice versa. Opposites do not just attract, they require each other like opposing parties in a game – and just like in a game, you hope both are playing fair, but you suspect they won’t always (except your team is always right…).
But let us contextualize this critique a bit more. What do we mean by “media”?
II. A Brief Excursion into Media Critique
A medium is that through which information is channeled, through which the world becomes represented through us. We have no direct means of accessing the world; even our sensory organs mediate existence to us, and our brain interprets it. In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes our reality as seeing merely shadows of reality represented on the wall of a cave, but as never being able to see reality itself directly (Republic 7.514a). Through education, specifically philosophy, he hopes we can unshackle ourselves from that scenario and see the real world, and see the ideas and the divine on our own without needing to rely on representations of them – viz. without the need for media.
Plato gives a second example (Phaedrus 274e-275b) when discussing the consequences of writing, and comes to a depressing conclusion:
“You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
Furthermore, once the speaker is replaced by an author that is no longer available for conversation, texts replace conversation. This eliminates the human element from the equation, and creates distance, and opens up the possibility of a distortion from truth, from nuance, from interpretation and dialogic engagement. Culture – as transmitted through media – cedes to be a community-centered activity; it becomes an industry.
Theodor Adorno (yes, we are making a more than 2200-year jump) pointed out the dangers of such a culture industry, informed by his experiences with the Nazi propaganda machine, but worried about the possible rise of a machinery of entertainment, disinformation and commodification of truth in the West.
Both Marshal McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) and Neil Postman (“Amusing ourselves to death”) pointed to the properties inherent in technology itself to shape the any message mediated through it. We cannot ignore that the purpose of television is always entertainment. As Postman notes, in our obsession to be afraid of the Orwellian scenario of constant state supervision, we have given in to Huxley’s scenario of voluntary abdication of truth in pursuit of entertainment.
Gloomily, Michel Foucault, echoing Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, kept reminding us that any form of speech, any discourse, is imbued with a form of power. There is no neutral information, no neutral discourse, no escape. All we can do is become aware of the power of discourse, and to keep this power dimension in mind always.
Finally though, there can be a source of constructive optimism also if we follow Jürgen Habermas’ relentless exhortation to create a new and functioning public sphere, after the old one (the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the Renaissance and Enlightenment era salons of thinkers and dreamers, the old style newspaper landscape) is hopelessly lost. But if we aim for deliberative democracy, aim for the recognition of humanity of each other, and create an ideal space for discourse, we may just find a solution and do not have to abandon all hope in this post-Dantean infernal chaos.
What are we supposed to learn from this?
There is no neutral medium, and no media product – whether news, web sites, television, film, books, etc. – should be consumed uncritically. While some media products may manipulate to a high degree, there is no media that is not in some way manipulative or biased, whether through active commission of lies, or through omission of unwelcome truths.
III. Today’s Culture Industry: News Media and Corporate Ownership
While the critique of media pertains to non-news items also, most criticism is reserved for news media, but this is a short-sighted approach. If we follow the money, we will see that old-style media critique is still relevant.
By considering corporate ownerships and relations, we may gain some insight into possible influences on news reporting that may compromise the neutrality of some, if not all news outlets. That does not mean that all news and commentary originating from them may be tainted or unreliable, but it may point us as the audience towards being a bit more skeptical overall about what is reported and how, and what is left out. Money talks, and if corporations and governments are involved, there might be a specific bias. Ties to non-democratic countries that fight against complete freedom of the press (like China, Russia and Qatar) certainly will limit perspectives. Also, in cases where a company owns several news sources, you may find yourself in the same universe of similar news re-confirming themselves. Big media conglomerates also demonstrate that there are clear corporate ties between news, entertainment, and technology companies.
Current corporate ties for major news sources are as follows (see also: Wikipedia, TitleMax):
CNN: AT&T, Warner, HBO, Turner Broadcasting (upcoming theme parks in Zhuhai and Beijing, China, non-democratic)
FOX NEWS: NewsCorp – which means New York Post, Wall Street Journal, The Times (UK), The Sun (UK); the non-news division of FOX belongs to Disney now
MSNBC + NBC News: Comcast, Hulu, Universal, Telemundo (upcoming theme park in Beijing, China, non-democratic)
ABC News: Disney (operates theme park in Hong Kong, China, non-democratic)
CBS News: National Amusements, Viacom, Paramount, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon (upcoming theme park in Chongqing, China, non-democratic)
PBS News: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, donor- and subscriber model, solidly trying to be neutral
LinkedIn: operates a censored Chinese branch
Washington Post: Amazon
Russia Today: controlled by Russian government (non-democratic)
Global Times: controlled by Chinese government (non-democratic)
Deutsche Welle: controlled by German government
France24: controlled by French government
BBC: independent from UK government
Al Jazeera: controlled by Qatari government (non-democratic)
Breitbart, Parler: Mercer Family Foundation
Guardian, Boston Globe, New York Times, The Hill, Politico: currently independent
This list is certainly incomplete, and is just supposed to illustrate the complexity of the problem.
We certainly know that ideology of the news channel or paper certainly plays a role (what I described as “side A” and “side B” above).
I am split on what the consequence of that is. Do viewers already gravitate to a specific view, and then consume news conforming their bias? Or is their own bias created by a one-sided diet of news? I suspect this is a chicken-and-egg problem.
One more consistently raised but very valid criticism is the increased blending of news and commentary. You could add also the undue influence that any editorial stance – even if it may be contained to a commentary section – may exert over the entire enterprise.
Is news supposed to help people make up their own mind, or is it telling them what to think? Can it even make them do that – at which point would they risk them switching the channel, or buying a different paper?
V. The Decline of News Journalism
The real story here, of course, is the decline, if not outright destruction of real journalism. I am talking about newspapers – not because I am old-fashioned, but because that’s where most of real journalism actually still happens.
Television news is first entertainment, then commentary, then news – of course that is a polemical opinion, but especially in the American context it rings true. (In the German context, it depends on the channel – the society-supported subscriber-based channels ARD and ZDF do have functioning news rooms, and are focusing on news. Private channels like SAT1, RTL and PRO7 are more entertainment. Similar probably in the UK with regards to the BBC vs. independent television news).
I may have watched to much Superman and have been influenced by its Daily Planet, but aren’t newspaper newsrooms still more important than we all think? Where does your news come from? Who is typically cited on TV? News agencies (Reuters, DPA, etc.) and Newspapers, I presume.
More and more big newspapers are streamlined, news rooms made smaller, commentary enslaved by Twitter and Facebook, content syndicated, and small newspapers are disappearing or managed in bulk. This destroys the very fabric of our society. Who reports any more on local corruption and malfeasance? Certainly it is still happening, despite there not being any stories in the local newspaper – if you still have one.
If Media are still to be the fourth estate, they need to still exist in all parts of the country, and report on anything possible, and monitor and critique every single aspect of society, culture and politics.
VI. Balanced Skepticism
Returning to the sentiment with which I began: Are we in a position now where we seriously cannot trust the media at all anymore? No. But we all need to do our work, conceptually, and financially by supporting the news sources we do consume and trust.
Can we trust the media? As long as the media still mainly trusts us to make up our own mind, I would say yes, and would welcome the diversity of voices that can be heard on all sides of any debate.
In the end, there is only one truth. There are facts and non-facts. Something is either true or false. Beyond those distinctions though, there are grey areas of opinion, commentary, selection bias, spin, framing, etc. We need to be aware of the limitations of each news source, and we need to do our work as citizens to look beyond just one source of news. This is the only scientific and democratic attitude that can prevent us from being lodged in too deep our own filter bubbles.
Thus, if a news item only occurs within a specific news ecosystem and is ignored or not reported everywhere else, this should raise concern. If there is a definitive slant in opinion and commentary all the time, and it may affect what is reported in the assumedly neutral news as well. That does not mean there has to be bias, but we should assume there can be. An overall skeptical attitude is always a good thing.
That being said, we can indeed be skeptical of everything, but we also must put this in perspective, and our skepticism should be balanced. Reality is murky, and just as we cannot trust everything automatically, we also cannot distrust everything automatically. We need to follow the saying that “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,” as suggested by Carl Sagan. I have come to believe that it pays to listen to Carl Sagan most of the time.