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Posts Tagged ‘civil discourse

“The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do”*…

André Forget with an appreciation of an all-too-timely classic…

One hundred years ago, a young American journalist named Walter Lippmann published a book called Public Opinion. Though it is one of the most important books of the twentieth century and still acknowledged as a foundational text in the study of social psychology, media, and propaganda, its centenary has passed, for the most part, unacknowledged. This is ironic, because its central question—put simply, “How can a truly self-governing society function under the conditions of ‘mass culture’?”—has rarely been more relevant. Our current debates about disinformation and the pernicious effects of social media could be rather more productive if the participants would bother to read Lippmann—not because Lippmann provides any workable solutions, but because his analysis of the extent of the problem is so clear-eyed.

Lippmann’s book stands as the first attempt to comprehensively explain how individual psychology, political and social movements, and the mass media both create and unravel shared experiences of reality. The argument he lays out is fairly straightforward: Most of what we think we know about the world has been filtered down to us through external sources, and this information creates a sort of mental map, a collection of simplified representations of the world that help us navigate it more effectively. Inevitably, the accuracy and detail of our maps is directly related to our individual needs and interests—my mental map, for example, contains a great deal of information about Canadian literature, and almost none about how my computer works—but even the things we think we know are mostly just agglomerations of facts we’ve taken on trust from people and institutions relaying them at second- or third-hand. My confidence in saying that reality as I understand it corresponds to the real environment around me is a barometer of my faith in the sources of my information.

The mental maps we carry in our heads determine how we will act in the world, though they will not determine the outcomes of our actions. If I believe that Alaska has white sand beaches, I might book a holiday in Anchorage, but I will probably be disappointed after I arrive. While personal experience can help us correct misconceptions, not everyone can have personal experience of everything that affects their life, so the more abstracted from our personal experience a problem becomes, the more we will need to rely on the guidance and expertise of others. But these guides and experts are also finite individuals who must rely, in turn, on guidance and expertise from other sources, and the information they provide is shaded by their own prejudices and interests, as well as the inevitable distortions and elisions involved in any process of simplification and transmission…

If Lippmann is basically right—and it seems difficult, then as now, to argue that he isn’t—then the implications for democracy are troubling. When we invoke the rule of “the people,” we are invoking an abstraction, because the public body is in fact made up of an endless array of sets and classes and interests, cultivated and then pandered to by opinion-mongers and press barons who inflame the worst impulses of their audiences in order to create a steady market for their content. This is the opposite of the sort of feverish conspiracy about how the press works that cranks of all kinds have stipulated. If there is a larger purpose at work, it is generally of the most venal sort, often directed by nothing more than the need to present an opinion opposite to that of one’s competitor. If you squint, something like consensus may emerge during one moment of crisis or another, but it is usually illusory, and always fleeting.

Arguments about the relationship between freedom and information are present in the founding of modern democracy. A decade before the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain, the rebel John Adams had argued that “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” But the president John Adams sang a different tune when “general knowledge” became a threat to his administration. Seen from a certain angle, the Sedition Act of 1798 is the U.S. government’s first attempt to combat disinformation. The relationship between a truly free press and functional democratic government has been strained from the beginning, and if the tension between the two seemed particularly fraught in Lippmann’s age, it wasn’t for the first or the last time…

Walter Lippmann’s seminal work identified a fundamental problem for modern democratic society that remains as pressing—and intractable—as ever: “Public Opinion at 100,” from @ayforget in @BulwarkOnline. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

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As we contemplate civil discourse, we might recall that it was on this date in 1897 that The (New York) Sun ran an editorial entitled “Is There a Santa Claus?”  Written by Francis Pharcellus Church in response to a letter from 8 year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, it is now remembered best by one of its lines: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

200px-Yes,Virginia,ThereIsASantaClausClipping

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“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see”*…

Fake news, like conjuring, plays on our weaknesses — but, as Tim Harford explains, with a little attention, we can fight back…

Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation? The two obvious explanations are both disheartening. The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills. The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.

There is truth in both these explanations. But is there a third account of how we think about the claims we see in the news and on social media — an account that, ironically, has received far too little attention? That account centres on attention itself: it suggests that we fail to distinguish truth from lies not because we can’t and not because we won’t, but because — as with Robbins’s waistcoat — we are simply not giving the matter our focus.

What makes the problem worse is our intuitive overconfidence that we will notice what matters, even if we don’t focus closely. If so, the most insidious and underrated problem in our information ecosystem is that we do not give the right kind of attention to the right things at the right time. We are not paying enough attention to what holds our attention.

The art of stage magic allows us to approach this idea from an unusual angle: Gustav Kuhn’s recent book, Experiencing the Impossible, discusses the psychology of magic tricks.

“All magic can be explained through misdirection alone,” writes Kuhn, a psychologist who runs the Magic Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London. Such a strong claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the control and manipulation of attention are central to stage magic. They are also central to understanding misinformation. The Venn diagram of misinformation, misdirection and magic has overlaps with which to conjure.

[There follows a fascinating unpacking of the relevance of misdirection to to misinformation…]

We retweet misinformation because we don’t think for long enough to see that it is misinformation. We obsess over bold lies, not realising that their entire purpose is to obsess us. We see one thing and assume it is another, even though we are only deceiving ourselves. We will argue in favour of policies that we opposed seconds ago, as long as we can be distracted long enough to flip our political identities in a mirror.

And behind all this is the grand meta-error: we have no intuitive sense that our minds work like this. We fondly imagine ourselves to be sharper, more attentive and more consistent than we truly are. Our own brains conspire in the illusion, filling the vast blind spots with plausible images.

But if you decide to think carefully about the headlines, or the data visualisations that adorn news websites, or the eye-catching statistics that circulate on social media, you may be surprised: statistics aren’t actually stage magic. Many of them are telling us important truths about the world, and those that are lies are usually lies that we can spot without too much trouble.

Pay attention; get some context; ask questions; stop and think. Misinformation doesn’t thrive because we can’t spot the tricks. It thrives because, all too often, we don’t try. We don’t try, because we are confident that we already did…

Simple, but profoundly important, wisdom: “What magic teaches us about misinformation,” from @TimHarford. eminently worth reading in full. (Originally appeared in the Financial Times Magazine, from whence the illustration above.)

Related: the Barnum (or Forer) Effect

Apollo Robbins, world-famous pickpocket and illusionist

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As we dissect disinformation, we might spare a thought for Oscar Hammerstein; he died on this date in 1919.  As a newly-arrived immigrant to the U.S., Hammerstein worked in a cigar factory, where he discovered ways to automate the rolling process.  He patented his innovation and made a fortune– which he promptly reinvested in his true passions, music and the arts.  Possessed of a sharp sense of design and an equally good acoustical sense, he built and ran theaters and concert halls, becoming one of Americas first great impressarios…  a fact worth honoring, as history tends to overlook “Oscar the First” in favor of his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, the gifted librettist/lyricist and partner of Richard Rodgers.

Hammerstein (on left, with cigar) and conductor Cleofonte Campagnini

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”*…

The number of American university students selecting history as their chosen four year degree has been on the decline since the 1970s…

Tanner Greer (@Scholars_Stage) considers four possible reasons– and what they portend: “The Fall of History as a Major–and as a Part of the Humanities.”

(Image at top: source)

* George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905

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As we ponder the practicality of the past, we might we might celebrate a major contribution to the study of history; it was on this date in 1799 (or close; scholars agree that it was “mid-July” but disagree on the precise day) that a French soldier in Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign discovered a black basalt slab inscribed with ancient writing near the town of Rosetta, about 35 miles north of Alexandria.

The stone contained fragments of passages written in three different scripts inscribed by priests of Ptolemy V in the second century B.C.– Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Egyptian demotic.  The Greek passage proclaimed that the three scripts were all of identical meaning– so allowed French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion to decipher the hieroglyphics… and opened the language of ancient Egypt, a written language that had been “dead” for nearly two millennia.

Rosetta Stone (the most-visited exhibit that the British Museum)

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“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”*…

Through reading, champion debater Bo Sen learned that disagreement can be a source of good, not ill, even in our polarized age.

Nowadays, disagreement is out of fashion. It is seen as the root of our personal and political troubles. Debate, in making a sport out of argument, seems at once a trivial pursuit and a serious impediment to the kinds of conversation we want to cultivate. But in my first book, Good Arguments, I propose that the opposite is true. Students may train to win every disagreement, but they soon learn that this is impossible. Even the best lose most of the competitions they attend. What one can do is disagree better—be more convincing and tenacious, and argue in a manner that keeps others willing to come back for another round. In the end, the prize for all that training and effort is a good conversation…

He shares several recommendations, e.g…

Thinking in an Emergency, by Elaine Scarry

Scarry, one of my English professors at Harvard, is the rare scholar who can change how you move through the world. She has made a career of bringing language to the ineffable ends of human experience: pain and beauty. In Thinking in an Emergency, she places deliberation at the core of a democratic response to emergencies including natural disasters and nuclear war. Scarry argues that debate, both real-time and prospective, need not hinder action and can instead secure the resolve and coordination needed for rapid response. She warns against leaders who invoke catastrophes to demand that their populations stop thinking. In this era of calamities, natural and man-made, Scarry’s wisdom is essential: “Whatever happens, keep talking.”

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Malcolm X learned to debate as a 20-something in what was then called Norfolk Prison Colony, a state prison founded on reformist ideals that fielded debate teams against local colleges such as Boston University. In his memoir, X describes the experience of finding one’s voice and communing with an audience as a revelation: “I will tell you that, right there, in the prison, debating, speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of knowledge through reading had been … once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating.” For most people, debate is a pastime of school and university years. This memoir shows that one can make a career and a life from its lessons in fierce, courageous, and resolute disagreement.

When Should Law Forgive?, by Martha Minow

One question I struggle with in Good Arguments is when we should stop debating. Minow, a former dean of Harvard Law School, provides here a model of humane consideration on the limits of the adversarial ethic. Hers is an argument for accommodating forgiveness—the “letting go of justified grievances”—in the legal system. She builds the book as one would a spacious house, each area of the law—juvenile justice, debt, amnesties and pardons—a separate chapter in which readers are invited to stay and reflect awhile. Martha Nussbaum is illuminating on related topics in her critique of anger in Anger and Forgiveness, which elicited rebuttal from Myisha Cherry in The Case for Rage, an argument for the emotion’s usefulness in conditions of resistance. The need to balance dispute and conciliation, accountability and grace, cannot be transcended, only better managed.

Seven more recommendations at “The Books That Taught a Debate Champion How to Argue,” from @helloboseo in @TheAtlantic.

* Desmond Tutu

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As we put the civil back into civil discourse, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that the Roman Catholic Church announced, via a notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the abolition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“index of prohibited books”), which was originally instituted in 1557. The communique stated that, while the Index maintained its moral force, in that it taught Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of those writings that could endanger faith and morality, it no longer had the force of ecclesiastical positive law with the associated penalties. So… read on.

Title page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Venice 1564)

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“I rather think that archives exist to keep things safe – but not secret”*…

Brewster Kahle, founder and head of The Internet Archive couldn’t agree more, and for the last 25 years he’s put his energy, his money– his life– to work trying to make that happen…

In 1996, Kahle founded the Internet Archive, which stands alongside Wikipedia as one of the great not-for-profit knowledge-enhancing creations of modern digital technology. You may know it best for the Wayback Machine, its now quarter-century-old tool for deriving some sort of permanent record from the inherently transient medium of the web. (It’s collected 668 billion web pages so far.) But its ambitions extend far beyond that, creating a free-to-all library of 38 million books and documents, 14 million audio recordings, 7 million videos, and more…

That work has not been without controversy, but it’s an enormous public service — not least to journalists, who rely on it for reporting every day. (Not to mention the Wayback Machine is often the only place to find the first two decades of web-based journalism, most of which has been wiped away from its original URLs.)…

Joshua Benton (@jbenton) of @NiemanLab debriefs Brewster on the occasion of the Archive’s silver anniversary: “After 25 years, Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive are still working to democratize knowledge.”

Amidst wonderfully illuminating reminiscences, Brewster goes right to the heart of the issue…

Corporations continue to control access to materials that are in the library, which is controlling preservation, and it’s killing us….

[The Archive and the movement of which it’s a part are] a radical experiment in radical sharing. I think the winner, the hero of the last 25 years, is the everyman. They’ve been the heroes. The institutions are the ones who haven’t adjusted. Large corporations have found this technology as a mechanism of becoming global monopolies. It’s been a boom time for monopolists.

Kevin Young

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As we love librarians, we might send carefully-curated birthday greetings to Frederick Baldwin Adams Jr.; he was born on this date in 1910.  A bibliophile who was more a curator than an archivist, he was the the director of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City from 1948–1969.  His predecessor, Belle da Costa Greene, was responsible for organizing the results of Morgan’s rapacious collecting; Adams was responsible for broadening– and modernizing– that collection, adding works by Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Willa Cather, Robert Frost,  E. A. Robinson, among many others, along with manuscripts and visual arts, and for enhancing the institution’s role as a research facility.

Adams was also an important collector in his own right.  He amassed two of the largest holdings of works by Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, as well as one of the leading collections of writing by Karl Marx and left-wing Americana.

Adams

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