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Friday, October 15, 2021

Column: Myth of objectivity

The Anarchist

We live in a world full of death, suffering and extreme despotism. There are some hard problems to fix. Some other highly pervasive problems are not so hard. The endurance of hard problems doesn’t need an explanation: We haven’t solved them because they’re hard.

But what is the explanation for the persistence of the easy problems? Well, I think their very existence is proof of a thesis that I frequently supply and that I want to try to further explicate here. People cannot solve problems that should be easily fixed because some powerful institutions do not want those problems fixed. It would reduce their power.

Every institution acts in this way. This is what causes the manipulation of ideologies. The most powerful groups naturally filter information. By coercing information, our actions are controlled and the easy problems remain.

No one is forcing anyone to write anything. The world is comprised of institutions that craft the society to fit whatever upholds their power.

This has two important effects. One — those people who honestly and sincerely hold the beliefs that uphold power will naturally be selected for. Megyn Kelly or Brian Williams, these people really believe the totally bogus stuff that they say. It’s not that the media is full of liars who want to uphold power.

It is full of people who were selected for success because they happened to be properly submissive to the ideology that they were indoctrinated into. Success in news media is the ability to seem critical and feel critical while being really, really not critical. Have you heard of any major muckraking journalists exposing big truths lately? I haven’t.

Second — powerful institutions can exclude or minimize voices that would question the framework in which they address issues. This topic is dealt with thoroughly by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. In her book “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” she argues that through sheer volume, corporate media (the media most crafted by elite institutions) drowns out real dissent.

If there are hundreds of web pages and news sites with heavy advertising bombarding people, then the one skeptical page that they come across will seem weird and false. Furthermore, by repetition and reaffirmation, a sort of confirmation bias can be built into people’s thinking.

That is, people are presented with fact X and fact Y by corporate media. Then later, they get fact Z. All three facts cohere nicely, and it all seems to fit. It all works; it must be true! Since X and Y seem true, then this gives Z credence. Since Z seems true, it gives X and Y credence. It is a circular method of self-affirmation. It is an astoundingly effective form of manipulation. Now imagine this type of confirmation bias, not with three facts, but with thousands.

That is the framework of thought imposed upon us.

The underlying idea that enables this can be reduced. The myth of objectivity is as rampant as it is ludicrous. There is no objective standpoint. What is called “objective” is merely the very center of accepting the framework of the elites’ discourse. That center is non-challenging. “Objective” simply means “non-critical.”

People have assumed that fair assessment of facts means conforming to the prevailing assessments. That is a failure. That is not what objectivity is supposed to mean. In fact, eminent biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed this very idea in the sciences: “Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference.”

The mere fact that news media would choose to report one thing and not another is a statement of preference, a statement of value. Human speech is riddled with implicit value judgments. To think that any report of news could be devoid of preference or ideology is absurd. The myth of objectivity is the most blatant example of Newspeak ideology — anything that doesn’t sound like corporate media is radical and non-objective.

Objectivity is good when it is real objectivity — the fair treatment of data. Ironically, if we treat the data fairly, we will easily come to the conclusion that major media is not really objective, not even close.

Major corporate conglomerates are not going to pay you to undermine worldviews that they benefit from. If you’re a real journalist, then these groups will treat you with hostility. If you are a fake journalist, an intellectual submissive, then you may be in for a highly successful career in journalism.

BRIAN MOEN doesn’t want to offend young journos, but embolden them. He can be reached at bkmoen@ucdavis.edu.

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