Wrong is Wrong, and Hypocrisy Doesn’t Change That

Recounting the events of today:

An American comedian posted to social media a picture that included a likeness of the President in an extremely vulgar, grotesque, and at least plausibly threatening context.

There was widespread outrage and condemnation of the image. Virtually no one of consequence defended the comedian or her content.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop people from political tribe A from demanding where all the outrage from political tribe B was. A common refrain by tribe A said, “If political tribe B’s president were treated like this, the media would all have a meltdown!”

This true but ultimately meaningless point provoked the ire of political tribe B, who responded that actually, tribe B’s president was depicted in an outrageous, offensive, and violent context. More to the point, where was tribe A’s outrage during all that? If tribe A cares so much about offensive depictions of the President of the United States, why didn’t they mind it when it happened to tribe B’s president?

While tribe A had the opportunity to unequivocally condemn any offensive treatment of tribe B’s president, they unfortunately opted to make it a point of order. “Where did your president ever get depicted like that,” demanded tribe A.

Tribe B responded by producing evidence of the charge. A fair rebuttal, but then tribe B sadly decided to interpret the evidence: “See? You didn’t say ANYTHING when this was going on. Fair is fair. If it’s OK for it to happen to our guy, it’s fair for it to happen to yours!”

If there’s anything in the above that makes you feel good about where American politics are in 2017, bless you, because I can’t find anything. Identity politics, tribal loyalties, and bad faith are completely dominating not only public discourse, but how we even respond to things that are clearly wrong. When presented with an objectively objectionable thing, Americans don’t even have time to articulate the moral principle behind its objectionableness. They don’t ask “what.” They ask “who.”

Who made this? Which group created it? Who is endorsing it? Who is talking about it like it’s a good thing? It’s like the world’s worst game of Clue. The point of Clue isn’t that murdering someone with a lead pipe is bad. The point of Clue is that somebody did it, and we need to know who it was. That’s where the American politics of outrage are at the moment. Nothing is good or bad in the abstract anymore. The only question that matters is, “Is this from our team, or from the bad guys?”

Wrong is wrong, and hypocrisy from the other tribe doesn’t change it. If you think the biased news media isn’t as worked up about this comedian’s garbage as they should be, fine. But that doesn’t prove that that other garbage that was made about the guy you didn’t vote for is now magically better. If being a moral person means anything at all, it means telling the truth, no matter how many people whose politics you despise will gain satisfaction from it. It is absolutely insane that what should be a clear cut case of the degenerating quality of our public square is somehow turned into a contest of, “Who was outraged first.”

If you’re wondering why politics is in the mess it’s in right now, look no further.

Gotta Trust Somebody

My intention with my last post was to make a very small, but very important point. Discernment is not cynicism, and cynicism is not discernment. What passes for critical thinking is often nothing more than a defense mechanism, wired specifically to keep presuppositions from coming into contact with pushback, disappointment, or worst of all, contrary reality. And there aren’t many better examples of this defense mechanism than the obsession that many of my fellow conservatives have with media bias.

Note carefully that I said “obsession.” Bias in media is real (as I said previously, and have talked about at length before, and will probably write about again). To pretend that most of the powerful journalism and entertainment businesses in this country are not steered by progressives is simply to ignore what couldn’t be plainer. But the idea I tried to get at in my last blog was that, while media bias is real, it is real in the same way and to the same extent that personal bias is also real. So then the issue is not whether we should ride every biased editor and reporter out of town on a rail, but whether we can muster the intellectual effort it requires to discern truth over and against ideology, both out there and amongst ourselves.

The problem for all of us is simple: You gotta trust somebody. No human being can function as their own all self-sufficient filter, accumulate all the necessary information on every possible topic, and be able to process all facts and nuances quickly and perfectly in order to render utterly reliable knowledge hour by hour, day by day. English has a word for that; it’s called omniscience, and if Christianity teaches anything, it teaches that there is only One omniscient person, and we aren’t Him. Every single person, conservative and liberal, progressive and traditional, religious and irreligious, rich and poor, rural and urban, cosmopolitan and localist–everybody has rely on something or somebody else to know what they need to know. To make suspicion and distrust toward established, respected, and accountable sources of information your default orientation is to either put yourself at the mercy of other sources of information–which are probably just as biased and ideological as the sources you eschew, but biased in a direction you’re more OK with–or, even worse, it’s to make intuition and assumption your primary means of knowledge.

Now, usually at this point a fellow conservative will interject with something like this: “You just don’t understand how agenda-driven the media is. Your idealism is admirable, but you just don’t get that those papers and those anchors are giving you only what they think can push you toward their assumptions.” I’ll concede that I probably have insufficient grasp of the ideological power plays at work in American media. Point given. But what if I responded: So what? Let’s assume you’re right that every CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, etc etc, news feature is commissioned, written, edited, and disseminated by progressives who sincerely hope I will inch further to the left after reading their coverage. So what? Do their eschatological hopes for people like me actually determine whether the information they present is valid or not?

Here’s where it gets interesting. If the answer to that last question is, “Yes,” then it seems to me that conservatives have adopted a kind of philosophical identity politics. Liberals make liberal news, because they’re liberals. I don’t know for sure, but I could have sworn conservatives were suspicious of worldviews that reduced individuals to the sum total of their sociological groupings. For me, it seems incoherent to insist on a politics that sees and values individuals within classes and systems, rather than the classes and systems merely by themselves, and then turn around and insist that the “left-wing media” means I don’t have to know anything about that NYT reporter or that CNN anchor before I dismiss them as ideologues. Something doesn’t add up.

You’ve gotta trust somebody. Free market economics are far from perfect, but one thing to admire about the way America works is that even biased, slanted, ideological news outlets have to compete against each other for public trust, have to keep each other accountable, and have to abide by certain norms and incentives. To dismiss an entire arm of intellectual credentialism is to lose a lot of faith in the free market, really quickly. You’ve gotta trust somebody, and it can’t just be you.

Cynicism vs Discernment

Cynicism: “I don’t believe these news reports because they critique or reflect poorly on those in my political tribe.”

Discernment: “Of course, I have my convictions and my loyalties, but everyone, including me, is capable of doing wrong.”

Cynicism: “The problem is clearly that these media outlets have an agenda against my tribe. You can’t trust them.”

Discernment: “Bias is real, but everyone has it, including me. The question is not whose saying what, but what’s true.”

Cynicism: “Why should I believe people like The New York Times or the Washington Post when they clearly are trafficking in ideology? Their goal is political, not objective.”

Discernment: “Major media institutions are not immune to agendas or slanted reporting. But they are established, respected outlets for many reasons, and the vast majority of those reasons are not agenda-specific.”

Cynicism: “What we need is to create a counter-industry of conservative journalism that fair-minded people can consult as an alternative to mainstream liberal media.”

Discernment: “What we need is accuracy and truthfulness. Who is running which outlet is not nearly as important as this. Accountability doesn’t always mean more options.”

Cynicism: “Unless we consolidate around new media, we will lose political and cultural battles.”

Discernment: “Journalism actually doesn’t have much influence on culture. It just feels like it does to people who spend a lot of time in a very specific slice of life.”