In order to preserve and protect a long-living, thriving democracy, citizens need to do some basic philosophical thinking. It’s simpler than you might imagine, but not so simple that people do it well, or often. But it is an essential part of a continued effort to improve our democratic civilization, which can, if we allow it to happen, regress and possibly devolve into something disabling, beyond healing.
Philosophers often start by defining terms. So, let me start by defining philosophy. The best, most concise definition I ever read was this: Philosophy is the critical evaluation of the facts of experience. When you strip away all the fancy talk and fancy philosophers, it’s pretty much that simple. But how many people actually practice such basic philosophy, which is necessary to keep our long but always-endangered democratic experiment going? How many actually evaluate, critically, the facts of their experience? As November 8 taught us, not enough.
And that is, first, where journalism comes in. Despite an ever increasing distrust of the media complex, and despite an ever increasing turn to other forms of information gathering and sharing, it still remains the job of journalists to help people, often busy people with little time for in-depth analysis, to evaluate what is going on in the world. Journalists can and should counter all the fake and propagandistic news out there not just with genuine fact-heavy news, but with genuine fact-heavy news that contains within it some basic interpretations of those facts. It is necessary to interpret elements of the news because people otherwise might misinterpret them out of ignorance or, more likely, confirmation bias. If journalists don’t do this basic analysis, albeit do it very carefully, they are simply stenographers who wasted all their time in college getting an education and are not serving the public good.
As we all know, Trump believes in ridiculous conspiracies. He counted conspiracy nutjob Alex Jones as a friend of his campaign and now counts him as a friend of his presidency to come. Jones, a radio man who runs a fake-news website called Infowars, thinks those six-year-old kids killed at Sandy Hook were just part of a grand hoax. He thinks the moon landings were faked. He thinks 9/11 was an “inside job.” You get the idea. He’s nuts. But Trump contacted him after the election to thank his twisted listeners “for standing up for this Republic.” We’ve never had a president intellectually dull enough to both believe an extremist like Alex Jones is reasonable and believe it is okay to let us all know he thinks an extremist like Alex Jones is reasonable. It’s a different world now, and the rules for covering Trump, and the strange movement he has inspired, have to change.
A good start appears to be what the Associated Press—which didn’t exactly shine during the election season—is doing. John Daniszewski, Vice President of Standards for the AP, seems to have at least learned something. In a recent article addressed to his journalists (“Writing about the ‘alt-right’”), he wrote:
“Alt-right” (quotation marks, hyphen and lower case) may be used in quotes or modified as in the “self-described” or “so-called alt-right” in stories discussing what the movement says about itself.
Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.
He tells reporters writing stories involving the “alt-right” that they should define the term either as,
“an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism,” or, more simply, “a white nationalist movement.”
Daniszewski ends his message to his reporters this way:
Finally, when writing on extreme groups, be precise and provide evidence to support the characterization.
We should not limit ourselves to letting such groups define themselves, and instead should report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.
This is refreshing and it appears to be catching on. Perhaps it represents the beginning of a necessary adjustment on the part of the press, in response to some of the extremists Trump has emboldened, not to mention one he has promoted to be his chief strategist in the White’s House. But that’s not all the adjustment needed. Trump, in addition to being a sucker for conspiracies and a rewarder of those who will praise him, also has a problem
telling the truth. He has no respect for it. He will say anything that he thinks serves his interests at the time, even if it is clearly, provably a lie. And journalists must change their reporting and writing approach in order to confront this weird reality, which is unlike anything they have ever covered or we have ever seen.
A recent example of what that change should look like is in how some, but not all, outlets came to characterize, in the headlines of their stories, Trump’s ridiculous claim (promoted by, who else, Alex Jones on Infowars) that millions of illegal votes kept him from winning the popular vote. Needless to say—but say it we all should as often as it takes—the claim is false. A few headline writers got it right the first time, but some, like Politico, initially just framed it, “Trump claims millions voted illegally.” Later, after much outrage online and in social media, the word “falsely” appeared in front of “claims.” The initial non-interpretative headline represents Before Trump journalism. The last interpretative headline represents After Trump journalism. This is 2016 A.T. and journalists need to appropriately adjust to the new calendar, especially headline writers and those who post story alerts on social media. Many Americans only skim the headlines of some major stories and those headlines should convey as much truth as possible.
But it’s not enough for journalists to change. We, as ordinary citizens, have to change too. We can’t assume that all or most of our family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, or the people we run into online or elsewhere, are navigating through these times in boats of rationality. Some of them don’t have such a boat, or haven’t bothered to move their boat from the dock. Some have a leaky boat. We have to figure out who is who and figure out how to talk to them, how to reason with them, how to counter the misinformation some of them hold in their heads—or promote on their Facebook page—as truth. That all might sound arrogant and condescending, but it is absolutely necessary in these times.
During personal encounters that involve the mention of politics or policy, or on Facebook and Twitter and other platforms where such is discussed, we have to now become tireless purveyors of facts and good analysis, as well as shoot down every piece of propaganda or string of falsehoods we see. We have to become soldiers. We can’t just expect journalists to do all the work. Many of them will simply not do it or will fall short—and we have to let them know when they fail—and the good ones who will do it right can’t make a difference if their good work is not amplified by us. We must become good journalism’s megaphone.
We, as citizens protecting and attempting to advance our civilization, have to get in the fight ourselves and do our part. And for most of us, doing our part these days means cleaning up messes that are often first made on the Internet. We can talk to people. We can respond to blogs or begin our own. We can comment on stories on news sites. We can post and counter-post on social media. Like it or not, that’s where a lot of folks get their information about the world, and we have to be there to make sure they are getting good information, first—and this is essential—by getting good information ourselves, and then passing it on.
This aggressive posture will not often bear fruit. Most people, we have to understand from the start, will not change their minds in response to the facts or to basic, common-sense analysis. They seek out and listen only to bias-confirming sources and opinion. But we have to keep going, have to keep at it. Some will be open to change, especially as time goes by and Trump’s potential decisions become real ones. The landscape will look different when he is actually responsible for governing, and some people will then be willing to listen, willing to reevaluate, especially as he disappoints them by not getting done what he promised or doing exactly the opposite of what he promised. That is why we have to keep up with and address what Trump is actually doing, as opposed to only calling out how scary a person he is as he is doing it.
And we must also understand that this aggressive posture in cyberspace and elsewhere will cause us all some problems, lose us some “friends.” But picking any side in a fight loses you something. And not choosing to fight may cause us to lose a firm and rational grip on the best thing human beings have ever created: democratic civilization and democratic civilization. We will, if Trump doesn’t get us all killed, hand our children and grandchildren something when this is all over, and I at least want to say I fought like hell to hand them something they will be proud of.