Monday, January 25, 2016

The Death of Thoughtfulness in Politics and Journalism

Whatever happened to thoughtfulness?  No, the reference is not “thoughtful” as in considerate toward others (although that it is an issue and a topic for a different essay), but thoughtful in the sense of thinking through issues, being mindful of subtle distinctions, considering opposing viewpoints, making truthful statements that are faithful to the facts, and eschewing dogmatic one-sided arguments?  Such thoughtfulness seems all but to have disappeared in politics, journalism, and among those making political arguments, especially in the social media.
Politics 2016 seems to be the year where all pretense of being thoughtful and truthful have been dropped.  Truth tests after the Republican debates, for example, find that Trump and Cruz consistently fail or rate as “liar, liar, pants on fire” when it comes to statements about immigration or their own records or positions.  We see other candidates in both parties outside of the debates distorting the records of both themselves and other candidates, and of course the SuperPacs and political ads they run simply lie.  The Courts have said there is a First Amendment right to lies, letting the political marketplace and voters decide truth. This marketplace of ideas has failed and with so many so skeptical about what candidates    Say is untrue none are believed.
But even if it is not outright lies it is making bold simplistic statements or policy proposals that just are not possible because either the empirical evidence suggests they will not work or they are not based on theories grounded in reality.  Yes there is a distinction between visions and hopes about the world one wants versus policy statements, but too often what one sees are one-sided statements that fail to consider objections or points from opposing view points.  Political rhetoric  is simply dogma and marketing hype, not serious policy discourse.
The death of thoughtfulness is evident too in the commercial media.  Tune into any talk show on Sunday morning–even ones with those speakers from different perspectives–and there is no thoughtfulness. Each speaker drools out a predictable point of view that is dogmatic and unreflective.  It bears no witness to opposing views, no subtlety.  The journalists on these shows are no better.  In fact, part of the problem with so much of commercial journalism is that it has given up on the idea of finding the truth–just report opposite partisan positions and call that news gathering.
The world is not black and white but it  is lived in shades of gray.  Solutions to America’s or world problems are not as simple as just send in the marines, cut taxes, or carpet bomb.  There are no silver bullets to fix the economy, bring about world peace, or eliminate poverty.  We live in a complex world with complex problems and understanding both and possible solutions require thoughtfulness about recognizing the limits of any one idea or policy proposal.
Yet simple-minded dogmatism is what sells.  Recently I attended a conference  of student college journals.  One of the speakers was a representative from a major media news service.  When one of the students asked how they could get more media attention for their journal the response from the news service was simple: Take a point of view and press it no matter what, even if extreme.  The advice was that to be successful you had to have a simple  clear perspective and argue it to the extreme.  It was not about being thoughtful or making clear careful distinctions–just take a position and advocate it, facts be damned.
Social media is perfect in terms of lacking thoughtfulness.  Partisans should advocate for their candidate, but seriously, not everything Sanders does is bad or what Clinton does is good or vice versa.  The same can be said about the Republicans.  None of these candidates are perfect or have the answers to everything.  Moreover, not every rumor need be reported and not everything a candidate does–or fails to do–is a cause for faux outrage. Social media is terrific for doing this, and for passing along half truths and claims that most people know or should know are just not accurate.  What social media has done is undermine its own credibility–when it is no longer possible for people to sort out the true from the false everything is doubted and nothing is believed.  This is what happened to mainstream commercial journalism and thereby destroyed its believe-ability.   The same is happening to the social media, thereby rendering its utility as a campaign or information gathering tool nil.
Finally, my political science profession is no better when it comes to a lot of analysis.  Rewards go to those who have singular methods and theories to look at the world, again rejecting the idea that how we study something is dictated by what we are studying.  Yes good theories should be simple, but they should also be accurate.
Thoughtfulness is out of fashion.  Thoughtfulness is not saying one needs to be a political  moderate or wishy-washy.  There are loony tune leftists and wingnut conservatives, but there are also those on all sides of the political spectrum who can be thoughtful and recognize the limits of their arguments or and reflect on what they and others are saying.  Unfortunately, thoughtfulness seems  unfashionable and certainly it does not seem to sell anymore.

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