Media fragmentation and a culture of distrust

Not a unique set of ideas, but Alastair Roberts brings some important trends together in his post on the prevalence of distrust and falsehood as a social crisis in American culture and, more specifically, in American evangelicalism:

Some of the factors that have given rise to our current situation are related to the current form of our media. The unrelenting and over-dramatized urgency of the media cycle, especially as that has been accelerated on social media, heightens our anxiety and reactivity. It foregrounds political threats and changes and makes it difficult to keep a cool head. When our lives are dominated by exposure to and reaction to ‘news’ we can easily lose our grip upon those more stable and enduring realities that keep us grounded and level-headed. Both sides of the current American election have been engaging in extreme catastrophization and sensationalism for some time. This has made various sides increasingly less credible to those who do not share their prior political convictions and has made us all more fearful of and antagonistic towards each other. It has also created an appetite for radical, unmeasured, and partisan action.

The Internet has occasioned a dramatic diversification and expansion of our sources of information, while decreasing the power of traditional gatekeepers. We are surrounded by a bewildering excess of information of dubious quality, but the social processes by which we would formerly have dealt with such information, distilling meaning from it, have been weakened. Information is no longer largely pre-digested, pre-selected, and tested for us by the work of responsible gatekeepers, who help us to make sense of it. We are now deluged in senseless information and faced with armies of competing gatekeepers, producing a sense of disorientation and anxiety.

Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.

Our news online is increasingly disaggregated. A traditional newspaper is a unified and edited body of news, but online we read from a multitude of competing sources, largely sourced by friendship groups. As our news no longer comes as a package, exists within a click-driven economy, and is largely sourced for purposes of social bonding, sensationalism, catastrophization, ideological reinforcement, outrage, and the like are incentivized. In a world of so much easily accessible information, news is a buyer’s market and pandering to the consumer by telling them what they want to hear becomes a greater temptation. Coupled with the growth of non-mainstream media sources that are often much less scrupulous about accuracy, the result is a much less truthful society. Even formerly respectable broadsheets are now not above publishing tabloid-style articles and hot takes and clickbait akin to popular websites.

The traditional mainstream media also seems to be increasingly partisan and left-leaning, serving as the organ of privileged opinion. Even the comedians that one would traditionally expect to criticize those in power seem to spare the progressive left their ridicule.

Exploring modern thinkers and ideas

European Intellectual History from Rousseau to NietzscheEuropean Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche by Frank M. Turner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice, clear overview of major European thinkers and intellectual trends during this time, in less than 300 pages. It’s a reproduction of Turner’s lectures from his Yale course, put together after his death. One of the best features is how well the lectures show the connections and influences between different thinkers, ideas, and Western society from about 1750-1900. So, for example, the lecture on Richard Wagner illustrates how many of these trends came together in the composer’s life.

The lecture “Race and Anti-Semitism” included a wise reminder. Turner notes that racial thought had connections with many of the leading intellectual trends of the 1800s, such as “opposition to the unbridled advance of capitalism,” imperialism, nationalism, and “the new sciences of anthropology, philology, evolution, eugenics, and public health. Racial thinking rose to the crest of this apparently and so-called progressionist wave. The forms of mass murder and mass degradation in Europe and within the various colonial empires brought about by such thinking — murder and degradation carried out for allegedly high principle and with sincere, educated conviction — should encourage all of us to show more scepticism toward embracing any set of ideas simply because they are called new, advanced, scientific, or progressive” (191).

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Leon Wieseltier on the Holocaust and evil

In 1996, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted “an evening of dialogue to examine the issues raised by Daniel Goldhagen’s deliberately provocative book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, in which the author seeks to challenge the canons of Holocaust scholarship and to directly confront its acknowledged masters.” This introduction and some of the lectures can be found here.

I found Leon Wieseltier’s reflections to be arresting. Below are the first two paragraphs and the final paragraph of Wieseltier’s talk:

I am not a professional historian of the Holocaust. From my distance, I am not sure that it is humanly possible any longer to master the subject; or humanely possible. Certainly, I cannot master it, and I am not referring only to its details. I admire those who study it with equanimity, whose historical attitude has not been broken by this historical turpitude; detachment in the face of such a subject is a genuine accomplishment of human inwardness. But for me the Holocaust is fire and ice. The more I live with the events of 1939-1945, the less I understand them. I need an explanation, and all I find are explanations. I have concluded that the search for an explanation is futile. There are only explanations, and alone or together they do not retire the mystery.

I do not use the word “mystery” lightly; it is, generally, a cheap word, a spiritualization of lazy minds. In one sense, of course, what happened between 1939 and 1945 is clear: a people called the Jews was almost destroyed by a people called the Germans, with the assistance of other peoples whose names are known to you all. And so, as we like to say, we have clarity. But when we have clarity, what is it, really, that we have? I would suggest that the clarity that we possess about the Holocaust only exposes the limits of clarity, its contentlessness. It is possible to have perfect clarity on a perfect mystery….

Goldhagen has written a dark book; but I wonder whether reality is not even darker than he thinks. From the Holocaust I take away a terrifying lesson about the resourcefulness of evil. Evil advances thoughtfully and thoughtlessly; meaningfully and meaninglessly; alone and in company; by design and by circumstance; sober and drunk; with compunction and without. It kindles to national boundaries, but it will not be confined by national characters. It is found and it is taught. It is monocausal and multicausal. It will not be pinned down long, in theory or in practice. It will not be exhausted by any of its expressions. It is itself evidence of that aspect of human life from which it has most to fear, which is the aspect of universalism.

Robert Nisbet’s critique of John Stuart Mill

In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet argues that the modern state and modern political and economic thought have consistently assaulted smaller-scale social groups and institutions — the family, religious groups, local communities, labor associations — that can mediate between the state and the individual, often in the name of freeing the individual from the limits imposed by these groups. Yet these assaults have resulted in the increasing power of the modern state, which itself tries to fulfill the sense of belonging that these smaller associations provided.

Nisbet also writes that while modern liberal thought treats individuals as autonomous, modern liberals did not realize that much of what they took for granted about individual motivation and behavior was taught by the groups that people belonged to, rather simply existing in the individual. Here is his commentary on John Stuart Mill:

By almost all of the English liberals of the nineteenth century, freedom was conceived not merely in terms of immunities from the powers political government but, more significantly, in terms of the necessity of man’s release from custom, tradition, and from local groups of every kind. Freedom was held to lie in emancipation from association, not within association.

Thus in what is perhaps the noblest of individualistic testaments of freedom in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, there is the clear implication that membership in any kind of association or community represents an unfortunate limitation upon the creative powers of the individual. It is not Mill’s definition of individuality that is at fault. This is matchless. The fault lies rather in his psychological and sociological conception of the conditions necessary to the development of individuality.

Mill is generous in his praise of localism, association, and the “smaller patriotisms” when he is discussing administrative problems of centralization. But in matters pertaining to the nature of man and motivations he is too much the child of his father. For him as for the elder Mill, individuality is something derived from innate qualities alone and nourished solely by processes of separation and release. (page 211 in the 2010 ISI edition)