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Posts Tagged ‘Francis Pharcellus Church

“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.”

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