Sunday, October 22, 2006
"Truthiness" and the Disappearance of Critical Thinking in America
Stephen Colbert announces that "The WØRD" of the night is "truthiness," during the premiere episode of The Colbert Report. Truthiness is a satirical term coined by Stephen Colbert in reference to the quality by which a person claims to know something intuitively, instinctively, or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts (similar to the meaning of "bellyfeel", a Newspeak term from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four). Colbert created this definition of the word during the first episode (October 17, 2005) of his satirical television program The Colbert Report, as the subject of a segment called "The WØRD". By using the term as part of his satirical routine, Colbert sought to critique the tendency to rely upon "truthiness" and its use as an appeal to emotion and tool of rhetoric in contemporary socio-political discourse. He particularly applied it to President Bush's modus operandi in nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and in deciding to invade Iraq.
I was watching the Oprah show the other day. Normally, it is lots of mindless fluff entertainment for me, but that day she had a show called "Truth in America". This fascinated me from its crazy title (you know - trying to find truth in America - it just sounded ridiculous) to its guests which were journalists talking about truth in America - again with the ridiculous. But, I listened and found it very enlightening. The major theme was about critical thinking and how that has been missing in the media and in our current culture. I couldn't have agreed more. With our current administration, critical thinking in the media and by the general public has been lacking and even discouraged as unpatriotic.
Are we getting the truth about major events such as September 11, the War in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina? According to the Poynter Institute's Dr. Roy Peter Clark, "The truth is being distorted from all corners, and Americans don't see it, or if they do, too many don't seem to care."The most powerful antidote to these distortions, Dr. Clark says, is critical literacy. Here are fifteen things Dr. Clark says you can do to recognize manipulation in government, media, business and advertising:
1. Support school programs that help young people analyze and criticize media messages. Students should learn the values of the First Amendment, and, through their reading, writing, and speaking, practice those values. Freedom of expression means nothing if you lack the means to express yourself.
2. Don't just consume the message of advertisers, especially political advertisers. Talk to your children and to other adults about the hidden messages they contain.
3. Find three political bloggers who represent the right, the left, and the middle. Consult them to help you sort through political issues and media messages.
4. Join with others in your community to analyze how you are being served or disserved by your local news media. As famed editor Gene Roberts said about one newspaper: "You can throw it up in the air and read it before it hits the ground." What does your community need in the form of coverage that it is not getting? Who owns the news companies in your community? Are they in the news business to serve the public or to maximize their profits?
5. Look for role models of candor and accountability, people in public life who have proven to be reliable over time. Look for folks within a movement or political party who have the courage to speak, on occasion, against the interests of their own party.
6. Recognize the power of framing as a communication device. People may be telling you the truth, but only a part of the truth. They may be framing events to focus on some themes, but not others. In the immigration debate, for example, the "safety of our borders" is a frame, but so is "America opens its arms to immigrants," and so is "there are jobs in America that Americans will not do."
7. Learn to recognize the manipulation of language and images. Read George Orwell's famous essay, "Politics and the English Language," which argues that language abuse leads to political abuse, and vice versa. Be skeptical of any speaker or writer who calls into question a critic's loyalty to the country.
8. Learn the differences between forms of political persuasion that appeal to your reason as opposed to those that appeal to your fears or passions. Beware of slogans. They are a substitute for critical thinking.
9. A key value of journalism is to make important things (like health care) interesting for the public. Beware of attempts to make interesting things, such as lurid crimes, seem important -- when they are not.
10. Pay attention to people who are willing to change their minds -- as long as they are not addicted to doing so.
11. Prefer people who want to have a vigorous conversation to those who want to shout at each other.
12. Be not seduced into thinking that every hot-button issue requires to you be on one side or the other. There may be a middle ground. Don't be afraid to be puzzled or uncertain about an issue. It's OK to be working to make up your mind.
13. Get off the couch. Join a club. Volunteer. Sing in the choir. One way not to be fooled by political or media manipulation is to learn from direct experience, from reality and not reality TV.
14. In an age of celebrity culture, pay more attention to people for what they do than for who they are.
15. Be a skeptic, but not a cynic. A skeptic doubts knowledge. A cynic doubts moral goodness. The cynic says, "All politicians are liars," or "All journalists have a hidden bias." The skeptic says, "That doesn't sound right to me. Show me the evidence."