Splitting hairs or Splitting Reality?

I would encourage any American who sees themselves in the independent middle between the two major U.S. political parties to read Farhad Manjoo’s TRUE ENOUGH: LEARNING TO LIVE IN A POST-FACT SOCIETY.  I had mentioned the book in a blog a few weeks ago:  True-ish, Truthiness, and True Enough

“In this book I’ve explored how modern communications technology has shifted our understanding of the truth.  I argue that new information tools haven’t merely given us faster and easier access to the news, but that they’ve altered our very grasp on reality.  The pulsing medium fosters divergent perceptions about what’s actually happening in the world – that is, it lets each of us hold on to different versions of reality.”  (p224)

Manjoo gives examples from recent political events to show that “reality is splitting” for liberals and conservatives in America.  He examines some common political beliefs of the left and right, offers what evidence he could find from his research about “the truth” of the situation and then comments on how both the left and the right choose to believe what they want to believe and whom they want to believe no matter what the evidence might show.  His claim is that the modern media exacerbates the problem as partisan commentators repeat partial or distorted truths, or harp on one truth while ignoring everything else that is known about a situation.  And in the modern information age where everyone quickly becomes overwhelmed by the amount of information and the number of voices, people more readily turn to listen to those that are espousing views they already agree with.  People aren’t searching for the truth, they are looking for evidence that confirms what they already believe.   Thus on the right many choose to believe that John Kerry was not a war hero, on the left they believe that Bush stole the election from Gore, and a sizeable group of American conspiracy theorists still believe that the American Government or military staged the 9/11 attacks using missiles in order to justify going to war with Iraq.   In each case, when evidence is used to pick apart the beliefs held, “believers” hold to what they believe and don’t trust the evidence offered even when they can’t refute the evidence.   This is the sense in which “reality splits” and people see what they want even while looking at the same evidence.  Manjoo offers some psychological and sociological reasons from research studies  as to how the human mind works  regarding what we choose to believe and why; the bottom line is we really do pay more attention and give more credence to those things which reaffirm our already held beliefs. 

“Selective exposure, selective perception, the cult of fake experts, and the end of objectivity in the news: these are merely pistons in what has become, today, a powerful engine of propaganda, one that drives all the recent examples of our society’s unfettered departure from ‘the reality-based world.’”   (p 227)

Among the sociological findings regarding our selective listening:

  1. “We’d rather listen to the other side’s flimsy attacks on our side than our side’s flimsy attacks on theirs.”  (p 43)   This has an interesting effect in campaigns: our voting decisions seem wiser when the opposition presents weak arguments for its side.    Saturation type advertising can be counterproductive if it isn’t presenting compelling reasons for independent voters to change their minds, but might work to keep the party faithful, loyal.   However, Manjoo points out that liberals and conservatives react differently to campaign advertising according to studies.  Republicans  prefer to hear even flimsy messages that support their ideas  rather than listen to the weak arguments of Democrats, while the Democrats find the flimsy arguments of Republicans to be convincing evidence to vote Democratic. 
  2. “Republicans and conservatives are more ideological in their political posture…” (p 46).    Studies show Republicans prefer selective exposure – they don’t want to know both sides of the argument and prefer to hear only the view they agree with.  I’m guessing this is true because the conservative mind by nature tends to eschew change, so they want to know what is right with their ideas and aren’t looking to change them, whereas “liberals” by nature are more open to (or looking for)  new ideas and so are also less ideological bound and more willing to explore new/different ideas.  (see my blog What Biology Says About Your Politics)
  3. Studies show news anchors and “experts” can sway public opinion 3-4 percentage points on an issue.   Thus the battle to make networks more conservative or liberal can have an effect on elections.    But also, “…’reality’ splits when people selectively expose themselves to different facts, or when they interpret the same evidence in divergent ways.” (p 107)  So choosing to watch only one “biased” network will cause one to have a totally different view of reality than those who watch other networks.
  4. Studies show “each of us thinks that on any given subject our views are essentially objective…  then we think that reasonable people ought to agree with us.  And to the extent that people disagree with us, we conclude that they are not reasonable – they’re biased.”  (p 152)
  5. Studies in education show  “That American society prizes style over substance…” (p 116).   I consider this to be one of the most negative factors in American politics.  We continue to confuse entertainment with substance and so will continue to be attracted to entertaining/stylish/attractive candidates over people with substantive ideas who aren’t as good looking.   (Yesterday’s news: Connecticut GOP chooses former World Wrestling Entertainer Linda McMahon as their senate candidate). 
  6. Studies show that “Society works better  when people trust one another.” (p 222)  Unfortunately now we have “particularized trust” – we trust only those who agree with our point of view and so we are willing to blind ourselves to the negative aspects of the political views we hold.

Manjoo’s descriptive tour of America notes the effects of video news releases (manufactured “pseudo-news”; stories told from a point of view – even sales pitches – but presented as “news”; PR firm created videos intended to influence/deceive but offered as objective information).    Not only has it become easier to create news stories and releases, but the effect of millions of blogs/tweets/txt messages/etc means messages even false or pernicious ones spread the word at the speed of light.   This only furthers peoples’ distrust of information that they don’t like or don’t agree with which further enables people to hold to different realities.   In the end Manjoo sees the current effects of the information/communication age continuing for years to come.

8 thoughts on “Splitting hairs or Splitting Reality?

  1. Christopher Engel

    So, I was just going along fine, enjoying the day, when a box appeared on my computer. It had red meat under it. I have no idea what the stick holding it up and the string attached to said stick may mean. I’m foolish that way……….

    I’m not partisan. I dislike them all with a white hot fury, as they’ve proven themselves to be utter, uh, self-salesmen, but I have to disagree with this, which you quote from someone else:

    Studies show Republicans prefer selective exposure – they don’t want to know both sides of the argument and prefer to hear only the view they agree with. I’m guessing this is true because the conservative mind by nature tends to eschew change, so they want to know what is right with their ideas and aren’t looking to change them, whereas “liberals” by nature are more open to (or looking for) new ideas and so are also less ideological bound and more willing to explore new/different ideas.

    I had a hippy teacher in high school try to sell me that tripe. It just isn’t true. Our conservatives are big government stooges of the corporate world intent on bleeding us through the capitalist system. Our “liberals” are communists intent on bleeding us through the socialist system while holding a gun to our heads.

    What most people label “conservative”, in the real world, is not what “conservative” means in the political world. In the real world, “conservative” means “get off my lawn”. In the political world, “conservative” means “take care of your lawn using my brother in law’s lawn service”. “Liberal”, of course, means “this isn’t your lawn”. The “Liberal” idea is old. Old, disproven, and a mass of dead bodies. They still cling to communalism, so to say they are “looking for new ideas and less ideologically bound” is just silliness. (The co-opting of the word “liberal” to mean “communist” I’ll leave to another day.)

    “Conservatives” love change. I’d be more than happy to see a change to much, much smaller government and a good old fashioned leavin’ alone. We tend to vote Republican because they’re the alligators that promise to eat us last. And in this modern world, that’s pretty revolutionary.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I’m not sure what part you are reacting to – the terminology, the claims of the studies or what.
      A conservative would be one who wants to conserve and stay the course. In American politics today it is hard to guess who that is since all parties claim to be for change and no one seems to be defending what is. Republicans still seem to want “to conserve what is” socially. So it would seem natural that they would prefer to hear a point of view that is socially conservative and would not be that interested in having those values change or even challenged. Social liberals seem more open to new ideas to me and aren’t put off by new things. They seem more willing to try or accept new things (say in art, entertainment, comedy, for examples). I would say that all seems true to me through history – allowing women to vote, accepting interracial marriage, attitudes toward homosexuality. It was the liberal wing of the GOP in Lincoln’s day which advocated the abolition of slavery. Liberals have tended to move in new directions first. Today social conservatives are found more in the GOP and have less interest in having their attitudes changed on issues – that is not a judgment, but an observation which I think would be upheld in sociological study.
      Politically, as I said, America has the interesting situation that neither party much favors defending the status quo and both advocate change, so there is no party currently claiming to be in favor of what is. Both parties constantly advocate change and both claim to be outsiders and anti-establishment. Palin for example is a social conservative but her vice presidential campaign was based in being a maverick, anti-establishment. In American politics today neither party is trying to conserve what is, or defend the establishment. But they are pulling in opposite directions with no one claiming to defend the middle. That to me is one of the peculiarities of American politics: Reagan in identifying the government as the problem, put the Republicans on an anti-establishment course, but perhaps in the opposite direction of the anti-establishment liberals.
      So I do agree with your comment that “conservative” has come to mean different things socially, politically and even economically. I don’t think that changes what Manjoo points out socilogical studies have shown about the way in which conservatives and liberals actually think differently and react differently to issues and information. Conservatives seem more convicted by their beliefs and want their beliefs re-affirmed. Liberals seem more willing to considerother ideas and thus move to different things more quickly and so don’t seem so reliant on having their values confirmed. That seems to be the way humans have behaved for centuries.

  2. Marc Trolinger

    First of all, I am glad you are making a good recovery from your recent surgery Fr. Ted.
    I will keep you in my prayers.

    Regarding this blog, there is much to consider in how we develope our world view. We are all subject to subjectivity rather than true objectivity in how we view the world around us. The capacity to weight the fullness of the information available to us in an objective manner is truly a virtue to be developed.

    For those of us blessed to be Orthodox Christians, the eschatological world view that is at the heart of Holy Apostolic Tradition gives us the capacity to put the information overload into the proper perspective. The deeper we allow ourselves to be influenced by this Holy Apostolic Tradition, the greater will be our capacity to weight the fullness of the information made available to us as we seek to find the truth.

  3. Christopher Engel

    Father Bless!

    Heh. It didn’t take long for the woodwork to disgorge a bored priest… I hope you are feeling better. Fr. Stephen celebrated a wonderful service in your absence, and the icons are well on their way. Hope to see you soon.

    Now, on to arguing… ;-)

    I was not subtle in my attacks on the terminology. If I was, then I did it wrong. I’ve always asserted that I am not a “conservative”, but a classical liberal, and try to take my political cues from Paine, Burke, Gladstone, De Tocqueville, and even Goldwater, et. al. I only vote for Republicans because the “Get Off My Lawn” Party hasn’t really done well the last couple elections.

    It was the liberal wing of the GOP in Lincoln’s day which advocated the abolition of slavery.

    It was the entire GOP. They were the classical liberal party of their era, recognizing the indignity of slavery to blacks in accordance with the principles they held. It was the genesis of the party. Of course, it was no where near that simple, but that’s another discussion.

    As for the “studies”, studies are done by scientists, and have reproducible results. Sociology and Psychology just don’t fall along those lines. These are theories of dubious reviewability. My academic background is in Economics, so I know to tell you to take anything I say with a grain of salt because all I can give is a semi-informed hunch. Social sciences are not sciences, and tend mostly to exist to provide tenure and retirement benefits for people who weren’t all that good at math. I just don’t listen to them anymore.

    Today social conservatives are found more in the GOP and have less interest in having their attitudes changed on issues

    I would ask to which issues you are referring. Broad brushes don’t hold much paint.
    The most interesting exam I ever had was an oral in a grad level Econ course (and I was an undergrad put there against my will by my advisor) where we were asked a silly question about something to do with supply and demand theory. When we gave our silly answer to the silly question, the question came back “Can you be more specific?” That question came back at least a half dozen times after each answer we gave, probing our knowledge of the initial “silly question”, which didn’t turn out to be so silly after all. So, with all respect, I have to ask you to be more specific. The idea that “conservatives” have less interest in having their attitudes changed on issues sounds like a talking point, not a defensible position. But that’s OK, because you apparently don’t believe that position when you say:

    In American politics today neither party is trying to conserve what is, or defend the establishment.

    So I was right; there are no real “conservatives” involved in the political discourse, today. And that’s correct. Change is in the air. We can either go all-in on European style “social democracy”, which is working so swimmingly, or we can call on our traditions as a nation and be self-reliant, self-supporting, and call on our culture to
    “work with your own hands, as we commanded you”. Reality is trending toward the latter. Our nation is bankrupt, both financially and morally. Unless our secular governments get out of the way of the industries of the people they claim to represent, we will be reduced to either serfdom or revolution. Neither is a palatable choice.

    Whether people “hear what they want to hear” is background noise, and events have over taken the relevancy of that background noise. We are in real trouble, and two solutions have been proffered: socialism, which will leave us bankrupt and unfree, or a return to our traditional political values, which will probably leave us bankrupt and free.

    So, no, no one is defending the middle ground, these days.

    1. Fr. Ted

      Chris,
      I wouldn’t say you are being subtle in your arguments, but I am perhaps not attuned to where you are going with your arguments. You are reacting strongly to something I wrote, but which I don’t think was the point of what I wrote, so my uncertainty is more trying to understand your main concern rather than having a parallel discussion.
      You react strongly I guess to the way the words “conservative” and “liberal” are used broadly and perhaps the identification of the GOP with conservatism and of the Democrats with liberalism because the words are misconstrued and because of the connotations which have become attached to those words.
      I am using the words more vaguely and perhaps not consistently. A conservative conserves and generally is defending what is (the establishment; for example, in the 1860’s conservatives defended slavery as something that had existed since the founding of America). In this context, the liberals are those who want change or see other possibilities (the abolitionists who declared slavery an evil – they see change as the good. The GOP was not orginally an abolitionist party as such, though those who held such views, the liberals, did take control of the Party).
      Obviously such definitions of conservative and liberal do not fit all possible situations, but I think it is true that there is something different in the way these kinds of liberals and conservatives look at things in general. In the scenario described, the conservative doesn’t see the need for change and looks for ideas that confrim that what is is good, while the liberal is the one who is seeking new ideas that challenged what is. They may look to the same source for supporting their ideas (the bible for example in the slavery arguments), but the conservatives want only those ideas that support what is and thus “comforts” them in their current thinking.
      The labels liberal and conservative don’t serve so well in other situations, as you mention those who want smaller government today. They are advocating for a change and not for conserving what is even though the label conservative is applied to them. So there the use of the word conservative becomes confused and misused. I would also say, during Pres Reagan’s days, I thought myself fiscally conservative as I did favor a balanced budget, yet most of the “conservatives” I knew at the time (Republicans) argued against the need for a balanced budget. So I cannot say what was the conservative position – a national debt even then didn’t seem to me to be a good thing, but it was hard to find others who agreed with that position.
      About social conservatives today – I would say for example on the issue of gay marriage, the conservative position is we haven’t had that in the past nor has any other civilization, so why do we need to change? The liberal position is the time has come to accept this. The conservatives see no reason to have what is established practice changed and so listen to those who argue to maintain the status quo. In this case the liberals are listening to new voices. Not wanting to have one’s position changed is a valid position, and it is not negative to hold to it. And it does seem to me that there is something different in how people (in this case as in say issues of slavery or abortion) people who hold to the conservative viewpoint think compared to those who are adovcating change in social policy. What Manjoo pointed out is that conservatives on these issues are more ideologically committeed to their positions – they hold to a particular point of view and prefer to hear only arguments in favor of their position, even weak arguments. Those advocating change, by nature are already open to new and different points of view (they can be equally stubborn, blind, whatever you want to call it), and have a different way of relating to the issues – they for example find the weak arguments of the conservatives as reinforcement for their own ideas for change. It really is a different mindset and it appears that cognitive dissonance works differently in these different minds. Perhaps unlike like you, I find this aspect of being human fascinating and not offensive.
      I mean for me it is fascinating that a set of information can be given to people (say for example the national debt) and some conclude that this is really bad and others using the same information conclude we are OK. It fascinates me how the human mind works on these issues.

      1. Christopher Engel

        Fr. Ted:

        Yes I did react strongly but certainly did not mean to out of any anger or disrespect or anything of the like, and if it came across that way then I apologize for any offense caused by my poor communication skills. I know I rambled. Please forgive me.

        Every year, some left wing rag comes out with yet another “study” that “conservatives”, by which they mean people who do not subscribe to the latest and greatest innovation in social engineering, are stupid, possibly deranged, and hateful. They may “cling to their guns and religion”, or be “racists” (another term totally devoid of meaning because of its misuse), or are otherwise unfit for inclusion in the glorious new society being built. It’s a dangerous game and a destructive one.

        Your description of Mr. Manjoo’s work is boiled down in this quote:
        Studies show Republicans prefer selective exposure – they don’t want to know both sides of the argument and prefer to hear only the view they agree with. I’m guessing this is true because the conservative mind by nature tends to eschew change, so they want to know what is right with their ideas and aren’t looking to change them, whereas “liberals” by nature are more open to (or looking for) new ideas and so are also less ideological bound and more willing to explore new/different ideas.

        There is no room in that description for the possibility that one has heard the other side, studied it at length, considered their positions, and rejected them as untenable. So when after a thorough analysis which leads one to a conclusion, and the decision has been made, what point is there in continuing to listen to the same false statements repeated endlessly like the drones on a bagpipe? Certainly, “gay marriage” is a new idea. I reject it based on my understanding of what marriage is and has been throughout history, and reject the idea of twisting the language to the point of incomprehensibility by using the modifier “gay” before “marriage”, a juxtaposition that renders the noun “marriage” meaningless. On this particular issue I’m correctly, I suppose then, called a conservative. To many who support this logical, theological, and etymological abomination, though, I’m stupid, possibly deranged, and hateful.

        That comes through in your description of Manjoo’s work. “Conservative”=illiterate bumpkin. “Liberal”=intellectual salon dweller.

        Manjoo pointed out is that conservatives on these issues are more ideologically committeed to their positions – they hold to a particular point of view and prefer to hear only arguments in favor of their position, even weak arguments.

        Yes, “conservatives”, are more committed. They have the support of history and culture. The issue is not change, it is the type of change being pursued, though. When it is change seeking to essentially remake society in a foreign mold, “conservatives” reject it. I understand that you are looking at this is a more dispassionate observer than I am, and that led me to talk past you, and I apologize. But the fact is that is hard for me, personally, to be dispassionate about the ideological battle into which we are being forced. The socialist factions have pushed and pushed, and the Republicans, which the modern ilk are no such thing, have been no help. There are the stirrings of rebellion, which I support, and one can hardly call rebellion “conservative”. If one looks at the media reaction to the “Tea Parties”, you’ll see the degrading and dismissive attitude. Whether it be the accusations of racism, made up from whole cloth, or the crude innuendos, or just the genuine disdain for the unwashed masses, the socialist, self-appointed elite of our institutions pull out every propaganda trick they can muster to out flank attempts to slow or stop the destruction of the country.

        The ideas in Manjoo’s work strike me as coming from that same vein. No, I’m not particularly interested in hearing someone dismiss my deeply held, intellectually sound, and historically supported assertions as the ramblings of a racist moron. What it appears Manjoo is doing is very cutely trying to use the two labels of “liberal” and “conservative” in their more literal sense in an attempt to appear academic, all the while writing a political hit piece against his political enemies. And they are his enemies. Mr. Manjoo is a young, Cornell educated journalist whose career appears to be concentrated solely in left-leaning media such as Slate and National Public Radio. He excoriates those who do not believe “climate change” is scientifically supported, and it’s not, and in one column I found of his makes unkind remarks about how “anti-environmentalists at Fox News” would have attacked Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, a scientifically unsound bit of drivel that started an uproar leading to the unjustified banning of DDT and the eventual deaths of possibly millions of Sub-Saharan Africans by malaria.

        While I understand that you are trying to examine the ideas expressed here as an intellectual exercise to maybe edify yourself a little, I see the ideas as yet another in a long line of propaganda attacks meant to shore up a particular political position in a time of ideological battle. I realize that these far-flung viewpoints led to, as I said, a “talking past each other”.

        Again please forgive me if I caused any offense, which was certainly unintended if I did, and I’m glad your brain can get a little exercise if your body, for the moment, can not. Hope to see you soon.

        Chris

      2. Fr. Ted

        No offense taken. You have a strong ideological viewpoint to begin with. I read TRUE ENOUGH because of a few comments I saw on the book in an article regarding the effects of the modern media on how we think. I never heard of Manjoo and never looked into his beliefs. I was fascinated by his approach to issues of recent controversy. You dismiss him because of his ideology, I never considered it. For what its worth, his study of the liberal claims that the presidential election was stolen from Gore were that the claims simply aren’t substantiated by the facts, especially in Ohio. In fact I believe he points out that one of the claims of those liberals who hold to such ideas actually can be traced to a story that appeared originally in THE ONION (if you are familiar with that source). I don’t find his claims about how conservatives think to be offensive, because they seem to fit how I imagine the mind has to work. That doesn’t imply that conservatives can’t come to their position through research and conviction. Though I understand your reaction from my own experience when I was in grad school at Fordham University in 1980. The faculty was quite theologically liberal, and my advisor said to me in reaction to things I wrote, “oh, you have to believe that because you are Orthodox.” I told her I didn’t “have” to believe anything but had in fact embraced my viewpoint by choice. I’m sure she never believed me and felt it was ignorance that caused me to think the way I did. It was true however that I did look for those writings which supported my ideas and found of little interest those who were writing from a different point of view. In that I was being conservative, and not so open minded to all possible ideas. I think Manjoo described well what I did – I really didn’t see the need for the new ideas being advocated by the faculty, and so looked to find that which allowed me to be conservative as they saw it. (I had the advantage as well, that I was not Roman Catholic, and so didn’t feel the need to follow their path). As I see it today, this fits the political landscape as well. I think it interesting that both conservatives and liberals find the “weak” arguments of the conservatives as strengthening their own set of beliefs. These are two different mind sets. Ultimately for me the issue is even different because I see the Church as needing to speak to all mindsets as part of its evangelistic effort. This means for me trying to find that way to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples (to be all things to all people as St. Paul says). I have not yet figured out how to do this, nor if it is even possible. Some in the church have abandoned the effort and think it is only worth speaking to those who already agree with us. I’m not convinced that is the way of Christ. I do think evangelism though occurs on the edges of Christian thinking, not in its middle or core, for only on the edges will we encounter the new people to whom we are to bring the Gospel.

  4. Christopher Engel

    You have a strong ideological viewpoint to begin with.

    What a polite way to refer to my spittle-flecked rantings. ;-)

    Ultimately for me the issue is even different because I see the Church as needing to speak to all mindsets as part of its evangelistic effort. This means for me trying to find that way to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples (to be all things to all people as St. Paul says).

    Now that is truly a challenge, and one I had not considered. That will be brain exercise as I fire up the tractor to do some mowing this afternoon, a great time to ponder difficult questions.

    Will see you soon.
    Chris

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.