What to Do When Talking With a Political Opponent is Worse Than Getting Your Teeth Pulled

Too beyond the pale to listen to? Do you have a price?

A recent article in Vox, titled and sub-titled respectively “Motivated ignorance” is ruining our political discourse: Talking with a political opponent is almost as unpleasant as getting a tooth pulled,” explored the results of a new study published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology.

One of the good points the article reports on is the following:

This is a key point that many people miss when discussing the “fake news” or “filter bubble” problem in our online media ecosystems. Avoiding facts inconvenient to our worldview isn’t just some passive, unconscious habit we engage in. We do it because we find these facts to be genuinely unpleasant. And as long as this experience remains unpleasant, and easy to avoid, we’re just going to drift further and further apart.


Largely, the partisans were unfamiliar with [others’] viewpoints. So it’s not the case that people are avoiding learning about the other side because they’re already familiar. What’s going on here is “motivated ignorance,” as Matt Motyl, one of the study co-authors calls it…. “People on the left and right,” the study concludes, “are motivated to avoid hearing from the other side for some of the same reasons: the anticipation of cognitive dissonance and the undermining of a fundamental need for a shared reality with other people.”

This doesn’t surprise me. Though it also doesn’t describe me or a lot of the people whose company I enjoy the most. I find it fascinating, at least in many contexts, to get to talk politics with persons who have different views from my own.

It’s not that I like conflict – I definitely don’t. The fact of the matter though is that most of my political discussions aren’t so heated. I ask a lot of questions, try to learn something, and back off if persons get too irritated. If they ask me about my own views, I am happy to share them – along with reasons I hope will connect with them.

So, should everyone be like me? My gut reaction is to say “No, I think this kind of approach isn’t necessarily for everyone.” I think we all sometimes need persons who are highly informed, who care about us, and also don’t handle us with “kid gloves” when they are certain we are wrong. At the same time, I think those who are in positions of leadership (like parents, for example!) need to have both of these qualities in some measure – and be able to continue to cultivate them.

So, what can make things better? A couple key things come to mind.

First, undoubtedly, deeper reflection on the things that make all of us human beings. We are all, inescapably, moral creatures who feel strongly about what is right and wrong. Simply put, this is our existential situation. This is why, for example, a recent Ph.D. dissertation on Martin Heidegger, for example, argues that his “Being and Time is an ethics in the same way Nicomachean Ethics is an ethics” in spite of his having “nothing positive to say about post-Enlightenment moral theory.”

Second, if you both get angry easily and also want to be able to listen to others different from you, be strategic when it comes to getting started. Don’t jump right to someone with different views from you who is widely seen as being more extreme. Start small, and work your way across the spectrum incrementally (if you get irritated easily, don’t just jump into any podcast on my iTunes list). Eventually, you can explore the larger range of issues, even exploring the fringes and finding out better what makes them tick – and what makes them continue to be human (and I find people at the extremes often tend to agree with one another about things that the “middle” tends to downplay or ignore).

At the same time, even though the title of this article says talking with a political opponent is its topic, it actually reveals that even listening to a political opponent is too painful for many… Hence the article starts:

If you ever thought, “You couldn’t pay me to listen to Sean Hannity / Rachael Maddow / insert any television pundit you violently disagree with here” — you are not alone.

Covering the study, it talks about how participants were encouraged to listen to those they disagreed with:

Two hundred participants were presented with two options. They could either read and answer questions about an opinion they agreed with — the topic was same-sex marriage — or read the opposing viewpoint.

Here’s the catch: If the participants chose to read the opinion they agreed with, they were entered into a raffle pool to earn $7. If they selected to read opposing opinion, they had a chance to win $10.

You’d think everyone would want to win more money, right?


A majority — 63 percent — of the participants chose to stick with what they already knew, forgoing the chance to win $10. Both people with pro same-sex marriage beliefs and those against it avoided the opinion hostile to their worldview at similar rates.

“They don’t know what’s going on the other side, and they don’t want to know,” Jeremy Frimer, the University of Winnipeg psychologist who led the study, says.

Why is this surprising though? Why only three dollars more? And for a chance to win three dollars more? I suspect that people would be much more willing to do this were they offered more money. Maybe the real interesting question here, good for a follow-up study, would be “what’s their price”?

And if that suggestion offends you (it kind of does me to) also note this: if you  care about someone you think is really wrong, you might just try to enter their world — to the degree that you are able — in an effort to pull them out.


Can Pastors, Rabbis, Imams and Their Faithful be Good Librarians?

Can’t be done, hence “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”?

I thought about simply titling this post Can Theological Libraries Accept the Assertion “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”? That said, upon further reflection, I now suggest that the current title is exactly the question posed by the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame in the new Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education.  

Writing in the October 2015 (vol. 8, no. 2) issue of Theological Librarianship, librarian Bill Badke sought to introduce theological librarians to the Framework.

A couple interesting quotes that I would like to highlight. First of all, when looking at the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame in particular, Badke suggested the following approach:

For a biblical studies course, do close readings of key articles, showing how scholars present evidence for their assertions; trace the development of a concept from the scholar who first voiced it through a pattern of supporters and critics, to its current state; consider with students a significant theological debate (for example, the clash between Jacob Neusner and E.P. Sanders),14 and look at the reasons why scholars’ views may differ so markedly.

All well and good, right? Well, not necessarily. One clue comes earlier in the article when Badke argues that the Framework is built on the educational philosophy of constructivism.* Following from this assumption, he asked this very interesting question:

The constructivist foundation can be problematic for those theological schools that base their understanding of truth on biblical revelation, however that revelation is to be understood. Are there multiple possible meanings to virtually anything, or is meaning at least to some degree pre-determined by the textual bases of faith?

At this point, some sirens should be going off here. Is the Framework at all compatible with religions that talk not only about the importance of divine revelation, but the clarity of divine revelation?

If, for example, a student at an orthodox Christian seminary insists that all authority is humanly constructed and contextual, is it not likely he will find himself failing to graduate? I am not as familiar with the Jewish and Islamic faiths, but I imagine a similar question could be asked in their context.

Perhaps you ask “Why can’t we say that this just goes to show that authority is constructed differently in different contexts”?

St. Paul, in Romans 13: “…there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

The answer is because the seminary we are speaking about — insofar as it is an orthodox Christian seminary — expects the pastors it graduates to assert Christianity, as revealed and able to be known in the Scriptures, as the truth. And not just in what we today might call a “subjective” but an “objective” sense. And in spite of the very real doubts that they will experience.**

The Framework, however, expects the very opposite when it comes to such authority. Believers might consider their holy book(s) to ultimately be the word of God, but all authority is humanly constructed and contextual.

Therefore, according to the Framework, the answer to the title of this post is “No” (this would be the implication insofar as this frame remains unchanged).

While many may not agree that some or any of the above-mentioned religions are true, the wider problem that this points us to is that the Framework is indifferent to the matter of truth in general. Certainly as a whole, but most noticeably when it deals with the matter of the authority.



*Librarian-philosopher Lane Wilkinson talks about the many librarians who embrace not the educational philosophy of constructivism, or even the psychological theory of social constructivism, but the philosophical/sociological theory of social constructionism. Differences between these terms is explored in papers like the following:

  • RA Young, A Collin. “Introduction: Constructivism and social constructionism in the career field.” Journal of vocational behavior, 2004.
  • Vall Castelló, Berta. “Bridging constructivism and social constructionism: The journey from narrative to dialogical approaches and towards synchrony.” Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, vol. 26, no. 2, 2016., pp. 129-143.doi:10.1037/int0000025.
  • Efran, J.S, S McNamee, B Warren, and J.D Raskin. “Personal Construct Psychology, Radical Constructivism, and Social Constructionism: a Dialogue.” Journal of Constructivist Psychology. 27.1 (2014): 1-13. Print.

My paper in Reference Services Review assumes that the Framework is talking about the social constructionism that Wilkinson talks about.

**Often, among people of devout religious faith, there is a conviction that they think that their faith is right – in spite of their doubts – and yet they can still get along quite well with others who disagree (so long as they have their space and respect boundaries). They know that they need to disagree in peace because of the kind of thing Francis Beckwith observes: “God cannot be impersonal, personal, transcendent, polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic, able to beget, not able to beget, relevant, and irrelevant all at the same time… Irreconcilable data gives us no knowledge of God whatsoever.”

Note: post has been updated since originally published for the sake of clarification.

The Rejection of My Proposed Session for the Minnesota Library Association Fall Conference

So, I was quite bummed that my proposed session for the Minnesota Library Association’s 2017 Annual Conference (to take place Oct 5-6), “Is Authority Always Constructed and Contextual?: Challenging the New Status Quo,” was rejected.

I was told that

MLA received many radical and worthwhile proposals this year and we were forced to narrow the selections to those that fit best with the session criteria and this year’s theme.

Here is part of what was in the application:

  • Describe how the anticipated speaker(s) is qualified or most appropriate at this session: The presenter has been a practicing librarian for twelve years (technical services, cataloging, reference, instruction, electronic resources), presented three times at the Lib Tech conference, and recently published two papers challenging the Framework in Reference Services Review and the Christian Librarian.
  • Describe the proposed session (250 words or fewer): The session will briefly summarize the content of the author’s two published papers challenging the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame of the Framework, discuss the first challenges to the articles (limited thusfar to listserv discussions), and discuss possible next steps to get this frame changed.
  • Indicate which of the following tracks are the most appropriate for this session: Challenge – Push boundaries, take risks, question conventionality
  • Describe the anticipated target audience for this session: For librarians who are interested in the Framework for Information Literacy and its relevance for library instruction and who also want to explore the meaning and practical implications of the “Authority is Construct and Contextual” frame.

In happier news, my Reference Services Review paper has now been downloaded over 750 times, which is well beyond anything I thought would happen. The paper published in the Christian Librarian, I am told, has been discussed a bit by the Association of Christian Librarians’ Information Literacy Interest Group. I’m curious to know if there will be responses of any kind in library journals.

So, what’s next? I’ve got some ideas about the next steps I should be taking — and I’m always open to ideas — contact me! Keep an eye on this blog for more about the inevitable dissolution of the AiCC frame. : )


Bogus “Fact Checking”? Should you Trust Politifact, Fact Checker, Snopes, etc.?

Hillary said Bernie Sanders had not “had a single negative ad ever run against him.” Fact checker: 1-Mostly true. Politifact: False

One of my favorite blogs recently brought my attention to an interesting editorial in the Oklahoman: Bogus “fact checking” undermines media credibility

The piece, written by the entire editorial board of the newspaper, begins with a “We wish it wasn’t so” fact:

THIS year Gallup found trust in the media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has fallen to the lowest level in polling history. Just 32 percent voice a great deal or fair amount of trust.

Following this, they go on to talk about the new study from Chloe Lim, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University, called “Checking How Fact-checkers Check,” which “evaluates the performance of two major online fact-checkers, Politfact at the Tampa Bay Times and Fact Checker at The Washington Post, by comparing instances in which they analyze the same statements.”

Interestingly, only one in ten statements is covered by both organizations.* And as the Oklahoman sums things up:

…when fact checkers do examine the same statement, Lim says “there is little agreement in their ratings.”….

Of 70 statements evaluated by both organizations, Lim notes, 14 “received two completely opposite ratings from the fact-checkers.”

“While 14 may not seem as big a number, it implies that 1 out of every 5 times, one fact-checker considers a statement true while the other fact-checker flags the same statement as a lie,” Lim writes.

The agreement rate of fact checkers is “much lower than what is acceptable for social scientific coding.”

As Mark Hemingway, writing at The Weekly Standard, noted, “if you know what a garbage fire the issue of accuracy in social science is, that is really saying something.” Yet Lim’s findings will surprise few who have read media fact checks closely.

“if you know what a garbage fire the issue of accuracy in social science is, that is really saying something.” — Mark Hemingway.

And the Oklahoman also speaks about other studies as well, leading to their conclusion:

Two studies, conducted by officials at the University of Minnesota and George Mason University, both determined PolitiFact was far more likely to rate Republican statements false than Democrat statements.

Put simply, media fact checkers routinely contradict one another, issue self-contradictory statements, and do so in ways that favor one political party over another. Based on Gallup polling, it seems those facts haven’t escaped public notice.

What about a site like Snopes? A fact-checking sites like Snopes has, historically, been generally respected because they were able to attain a reputation, across the spectrum, for real fairness and reliability. That said, things like this piece from Molly Ziegler Hemingway (yes, the wife of Mark H., pictured above), a conservative reporter I trust, make me less inclined to trust Snopes.

The fact that the Snopes article changed the day after the Molly Ziegler Hemingway article is a good sign. That said, that Snopes would have written what they did in the first place does not engender trust at all. Nor does the fact that there is no explanation on their page regarding a retraction or why the page was updated, etc.**

Of course, there is this question: Are you going to trust the Oklahoman editorial board? Are you going to trust that they gave an accurate summary of those studies? Are you going to trust the authors of the studies? If you are interested in this question, how much are you inclined to dig here? Are these rocks that you are willing to turn over yourself? Do you feel equipped to do so? Are you really?

Aw, shucks Ronald. Sorry.

We all live by trust of course. We have to make hard choices about when its appropriate not to “trust but verify,” an oxymoronic statement if there ever was one, but rather “be skeptical (yes, distrust!) and verify.”



*from the study, quoted in the article:

“Given the similarity between the criteria adopted by both fact-checkers, one would expect that a large number of statements will be fact-checked by both websites,” Lim writes. “However, among the 1,135 statements fact-checked by Politifact, only 6 percent (70 statements) were also evaluated by Fact Checker. … Of the 240 statements evaluated by Fact Checker, 175 statements were fact-checked by Fact Checker alone.”

**I lifted the text of the last two paragraphs preceding this footnote from my past piece here.

Images: Bernie: https://twitter.com/berniesanders ; Hemingway: issuesetc.org ; Ronald: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Reagan

Must the Rule of Law be the Rule of Love? Truth?

Rooke, Thomas Matthews; Naboth Refuses Ahab His Vineyard

 And Jezebel his wife said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” – I Kings 21:7

Reliable resources are connected to reliable sourcespeople. Generally speaking, our trustworthiness regarding this or that is tied up not only with our education and competence but our character as well.

So, for example, we can’t just be like Ahab, who took Naboth’s vineyard because he wanted it and could get away with it.

Or can we? In a recent paper for a class I am taking, I wrote the following: “One might well argue that violence from the strong – over and against the concept of the ‘rule of law’ (think here of the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard) – is the foundation not just of slavery but of most human political rule on earth.”

Thankfully, this is not the full story about what happens among us in America, and in the Western world more broadly! “A nation ruled by laws, not by men” we say. No one above the law! No one their own judge!

It sounds good to us. Presumably most all of us. Most likely, even a successful Westernized worldling opposed to the idea would feel they must at least give “lip service” to such a notion.

But looking at it more closely, even those who believe in the idea have very different ideas about what it means.

For some, it means that we should simply follow laws that other human beings — particularly those we find ourselves respecting — think are good. Perhaps here, they might even insist that we can’t assume it’s merely a contingent matter* – pointing to something like the presence of a “Golden Rule,” which has resonated with wise persons trans-culturally, trans-historically, and trans-existentially.

On the other hand, there are those of us who say that if we detect the presence of some kind of appreciation for a “Golden Rule” among the “human community of practice,” this certainly points us to the rule of something or someone that transcends us. Why do we even think in these terms of what is right and wrong, either in general, or for each individual? And how can what is personal and social arise from what is impersonal?

What happens though when times get tough? When our politics, society, and culture begin to break down? What happens when it seems – in order to survive – one simply can’t afford to trust all neighbors one could previously, at some level, deal with? What happens when one can’t afford to even trust there exists some real “Golden Rule” – much less that one is morally obligated to follow it?

Do we think seriously about what Dostoevesky said, or do we dismiss him?

“…if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

Atheists balk. “We can be moral without God,” they say. “We can embrace religious values without being religious.” But can they really? Perhaps some can be relatively good to their neighbor without a belief in God, but will those who follow after them? Will these look to outdo their parents and teachers in their rejection of, for example, “Christian behavior” as well – especially under pressure?

Still, don’t we all hold on to hope?: “Well, we all have our limits to what we think is acceptable,” I insist. “All of us think there are some things that are ‘beyond the pale’ and can’t ever be permitted. Things others must not do and we could never do. We are always intolerant of some things, and we even agree on what some of these things are (less so today, but its still there: cheating on someone, murder, etc.) And at least in this sense we can’t not be moral and be in solidarity with others!”


But is this really any consolation? More: is it reasonable in chaotic times? As the appreciation for the sacred, for honor, for history, for authority, for loyalty, for commitment, slowly dies?

Especially when people increasingly feel as if they have nothing to lose?

Yeats: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

Perhaps some things are not to be permitted when it comes to some people, but maybe – just maybe – I may have to permit things I might find distasteful for the sake of my own skin and those I’d like to protect and remain with?

Perhaps justice as entailing fairness — or even just appropriate payback within properly established channels — gives way to, or, if you insist, is just supplemented by the law of the jungle? Kill or be killed?!


Mercy…. Mercy!

(which note, can simply mean compassion or pity, but also has a meaning that assumes the concept of justice — i.e. not requiring of another what real justice truly demands…).

Which brings me to this question: Are we so confident that there is not very real religious capital, for instance, that is necessary in this equation? Should it be “Lord have mercy!”?

Without a true understanding of justice for wrongs done, we cannot live together. And yet, as human beings who know something is not right about us and the world, we also cannot live without compassion and forgiveness. For without mercy — a mercy that does not ignore the need for some real earthly consequences! — the felt need for justice in human relations often turns into hatred, despair… and unconstrained violence to the other who just isn’t “functioning” rightly.

E.F. Schumacher, in his 1977 book Guide for the Perplexed said:

Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice.  Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom.  The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it.  Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay.  Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims.  The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.

As a Christian, I think this: Jesus pulled it off. He loved even His enemies. And He brings disparate peoples together (see Colossians 3)

The price, however, was high. Is high.

Too high for us.



*Many contemporary elites do, of course, believe that this — the matter of ethics — is a completely contingent matter. For example, persons of a more “progressive” mindset, influenced by Hegelian philosophy (whether they know it or not), see the matter of seeking justice very differently from, for example, those influenced by more classical notions of Christianity. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “[progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… [Today,] we are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (1909, p. 195). Of course, the wiser among non-Christians realize, en route to the positive change they seek, that building up morale through what can only be called lies and half-truths will eventually backfire. At the same time, it seems that for the Hegelian mind it is basically only a matter of time and right circumstances that determine whether *we can make something that is evolving/emerging true* – that we can “get away with it,” as Richard Rorty would say. In other words, going back to Chesterton, they alter the ideal, and then follow up by altering the real too. Of course, they can only alter the real so much (perhaps, at least to the extent that it can be done by changing laws and mores), given the presence of things that, in truth, will not alter their being — what they, in fact, are — for them.

It’s True that We Can Know Lies: That’s a Start!

Apophatic philosophy.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks back, Crispin Sartwell, philosophy prof. at Dickinson College, and author of “Entanglements: A System of Philosophy” (State University of New York, 2017), says the following:

The nature of truth may be the hardest philosophical problem. It may even be strictly insoluble, because many theories of truth might be true according to themselves, which doesn’t mean they’re true. The answers philosophers have given through the millennia have been as various and as mutually incompatible as could readily be imagined.

Truth has been held, among other things, to be the correspondence of what we say to reality; to be a matter of the way a set of beliefs hang together; to be what we all agree about or would agree about in the long run; or to be, as William James said, “what works best in leading us” to solutions to our practical problems. Gigantic systems of metaphysics have been built on the foundation of truth — or on its dismissal as a delusory question, as trivial or redundant.

In the next breath though, he goes on to say: “Whatever truth may be, politicians have often been dishonest in various respects, and many or even all regimes engage in propaganda and fabrication of various sorts.”

You mean they have lied? Wouldn’t that also mean they have not been truthful?

I’m glad that Mr. Sartwell, against his own statements about the nature of truth and its knowability, is inconsistent.

As he goes on to admit, we, at times, at least know what truth is not.

And that, positively speaking, is the truth.

Crispin makes some good points in the article. He shows that persons from the current left and right in America demonstrate, even if tacitly, that they agree that:

  • “the coherence of their opponent’s worldview is irrelevant to its truth”
  • “truth cannot be a matter of social consensus”
  • “‘truth’ [cannot] mean merely what works, if by ‘works’ one means persuading people or guiding their behavior or opinions in some desirable direction”

In other words, truth is about more than the soft power of persuasion. That said, his mention of “desirable direction[s]” also reminds us that this issue is inextricably connected with wider issues of ethics as well (where we cannot escape putting forth some kind of real goal, or purpose, for human beings as a whole).*

His conclusion:

It’s a bizarre misapprehension, in short, that truth is disintegrating or in crisis. Fabrications do not undermine truth — they presuppose it. Lies can harm people, but they can’t harm truth itself. They conceptually depend on it. The right conclusion from all this isn’t that truth is disintegrating, but that truth is hard and intrusive, that it does not readily bend to human will or agreement or narrative. The power of the Russian intelligence services or a Sean Spicer press briefing is considerable, but it does not include the ability to bend the fabric of reality.

And we all look forward to learning more about the truth concerning all of that! In short, though the article is behind a pay wall, it is well worth reading (you can probably get it for free through your local library).



*From a past writing:

“As Americans, the teachings of William James have influenced us deeply as a people, and we are pragmatists all, fixated on the useful. This is not without good reason. In addition to James’ influential writings, one can observe that in the ancient world the idea of what was “good” often was closely associated with the idea of functioning well.

And yet – the question of how we might have wisdom to understand what is truly good is always at issue. After all, our goals are often remarkably narrow and short-sighted. We are apt to choose the path of least resistance – at least when it comes to this or that area of our lives. It is very easy to rationalize things as being good for us – or importantly, others – that, in the long run, turn out to be anything but. Many, filled with a sense of righteousness vs. the evils of the world, plunge boldly ahead, blind to their own ambitions, selfishness, and limitations. In short, many of us, in our bones, sense that it is good to think that what is really good is greater than what appears to “work” right now.

And of course, in the classical understanding of “the good,” it goes hand in hand with truth.”


My iTunes Podcast List

Below is what my iTunes “My Podcasts” list currently looks like. Generally speaking, I pay attention to all of these feeds, at least reading through the titles of all of them. Needless to say, I don’t really have time to listen to everything I would like to listen to. And that, no doubt, is a good thing! (I thought about titling this post “When Curiosity and the Desire for Knowledge Becomes a Problem”).

If you want to ask me specific questions about any of them, feel free to do so in the comments.

As I’ve said, I try to listen to views that range across the spectrum in a variety of areas (politics, religion, history, etc). Of course I trust some persons — and some persons’ judgment — more than others. For more on that, check out the first major post of this blog (and the most popular one) which was on my view of the whole “fake news” phenomenon (note that that view hasn’t changed).








All the Conspiracy Theories that are Fit to Print?

“While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance
of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective
and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?” — Bruno Latour

A couple very interesting editorials appeared in the N.Y. Times recently.

One of the columns was authored by a PhD student names Damon Winter, and is titled “Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?”

In the article, he states that Donald Trump,“stirs up confusion about the veracity of settled knowledge and, through sheer assertion, elevates belief to the status of truth.”

Interestingly, he goes on to say the following: “Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.”

What are the ideas of which he speaks? And how have they been re-purposed and “weaponized”? In sum:

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

Later in the article, Winter also quotes from an article by the French philosopher and social theorist Bruno Latour. He quotes Latour, who he says saw all of this coming in his 2004 journal article “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”:

Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.

“Even if we felt comfortable asserting the existence of something like ‘truth,’” Winter says,

there’s no going back to the days when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason. Indeed, critique shows us that it’s doubtful that those days, like Trump’s ‘great’ America, ever existed.

Therefore, he doubles down on his particular kind of critical approach:

…. critical ways of thinking demand that we approach knowledge with attention and humility and recognize that, while facts might be created, not all facts are created equal.

The paper from Latour that Winter notes is a fascinating read, and it is worth looking at it carefully. Maybe I will do that more in a later post, but for now I will simply mention that the article, in part, deals with issues of climate science and the importance of acting on what we know. Speaking of “global warming skepticism,” he notes his own contribution to the matter:

I myself have spent some time in the pas trying to show ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a ‘primary issue.’ But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I?

Regarding these “gullible sorts of critique,” he says that “[t]heir serious as well as their popularized versions have the defect of using society as an already existing cause instead of as a possible consequence. This was the critique that Gabriel Tarde always made against Durkheim” (italics mine).

That definitely sounds worth exploring… (but I digress).

In any case, Latour goes on to connect the global warming skepticism with conspiracy theories – which he also sees as relating to his own work as a critical theorist:

What if explanations resorting automatically to power, society, discourse had outlived their usefulness and deteriorated to the point of now feeding the most gullible sort of critique? Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but it worries me to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland many of the weapons of social critique. Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.

He goes on:

What would be so bad with critique for the people? We have been complaining so much about the gullible masses, swallowing naturalized facts, it would be really unfair to now discredit the same masses for their, what should I call it, gullible criticism? Or could this be a case of radicalism gone mad, as when a revolution swallows its progeny?

Enter the debut N.Y. Times editorial column from Bret Stephens, “Climate of Complete Certainty.” Stephens writes:

As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, “I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.

By now I can almost hear the heads exploding.

And, evidently, many heads did explode. At least, according to David Harsanyi at the right-leaning Federalist:

Within this world, there’s no space left for any conversation that doesn’t begin with “You’re right. What can I do to help?” Thousands of educated people will supposedly unsubscribe from one of Left’s most prestigious institutions — an institution that reliably furthers liberal positions on their news pages every day — because it ran one op-ed challenging the idea that man can predict the future with certitude. (On Sunday, The Times published an op-ed arguing that fans of twentieth century Communists were just well-intentioned, naïf-ish do-gooders. This is fine.)

So, I guess we are  all conspiracy theorists now. Or — alternatively — perhaps we can talk reasonably about these things… maybe even about shared facts in a world that is not mine or yours – but ours.

Harsanyi, for his part, can’t help but frame things by putting them in terms of wins and losses:

As for the piece, there are two ways to look at the kerfuffle: First, that it reflects a growing narrow-mindedness and illiberalism on the Left, not only by self-proclaimed activists but supposed journalists who would rather bury ideas than debate them. Or we can take the brighter outlook, and point out that The New York Times just published a piece that — very gently — challenged liberal orthodoxy. Let’s see who wins.

Or who “win-wins”? How though, will we know that has happened?



Images: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bruno_Latour_conf%C3%A9rence_th%C3%A9%C3%A2trale_anthropoc%C3%A8ne_01947.jpg

Leather Foot Journalist Tim Pool: Few People Want What He’s Selling

Tim Poole appears to be a new breed of independent reporter. There are few people like him, and, unfortunately, it seems that there are few who can be like him.

Here’s an intriguing recent tweet from Tim, who has always thought of himself as a person who identifies more with political liberalism:

And here he is with an absolutely fascinating analysis and breakdown of the modern news industry.

It is well worth a look. Two of the highlights for me were his discussion of churnalism and his appraisal of — and concern about — the increasing political divides that characterize modern journalism. He sees these divides as being perpetuated in response to what people want — highly partisan sources of information. Therefore news organizations that want to be viable (make money) respond in kind.

All this said, evidently You Tube, one of his sources of income, is making it much more difficult for persons like him to do what he does:


Listening to these men talk is a little bit surreal. Is what they are talking about real? They seem quite credible.

They say it’s not really the case that You Tube is targeting persons who are more wiling to give time to political causes on the right – some You Tubers more on the left are getting hit as well. These You Tube reporters hypothesize that the recent changes regarding advertising revenue that are happening on the platform have more to do with the traditional forms of media (not just reporting) going down — and wanting to drag everyone else down with them… (You Tube though, Pool says, is losing advertisers to, for reasons he describes in the video).

As Pool points out, if this new breed of reporters is going to survive, they are going to need to find patrons to help support them, through Patreon or other such means.


The Golden Rule is Not a “Social Construction”

[NOTE: as of April 17, 2017, the content of this post has been supplemented]

…and it relates to what journalists, scholars and librarians all do.

Do we want others, as much as they are able, to give us and our views an accurate — and even sympathetic —  hearing and portrayal? If someone is not “going to bat” for us, do we not want them, at least, to be as “impartial” as they can? To strive to meet standards like these in their professions?*

If yes, then we should aim to do the same for them.

And there is more to this as well — “social constructionism” and these professions ultimately do not mix.

Librarians, like scholars, have always advocated for seeing “the human community of practice” rather expansively (at least when it comes to their international “communities” of choice) and have realized that people want people who will both:

  • try to live honestly; and
  • who, to say the least, will not continually insist that we cannot really begin to know anything about objective reality – particularly when we make careful and disciplined efforts to do so.

I make this very concrete when I talk about a librarian who defies the [ACRL] Framework‘s advice to question “traditional notions of granting authority” in order to effectively do her work (its in section V of my RSR paper, “The Framework Cannot Escape ‘Traditional Notions of Granting Authority,’” which you can read at the end of this blog post).

Again, I continue to argue that there are certainly many particular, individual facts and truths that we are able to discover, even as when it comes to larger questions of Truth (the set of all things which exist), full knowledge and understanding certainly escapes us (and I believe ever will). Why should we assume that because there are many ways of “being in the world” that this is not the case?

So is the “Golden Rule” really as “solid” as I am saying it is? I think so. Some of what follows is from my RSR paper and some of it is material that was cut from the published piece.

As philosopher-librarian Wilkinson notes, in social constructionist philosophy, “all are just different perspectives, and there are no facts independent from the contingent social forces that created them” – an assertion that would apply not only to standards in any discipline, but to any “moral facts” we might think – or hope(!) – exist as well.

For instance, political theorist Nancy Luxon seeks to find ways to “prepare individuals to evaluate persons, claims, and events in the absence of absolute values or certain knowledge” (Crisis of Authority, 2013, p. 43). Alternatively, I argue that we can’t not give serious consideration to just these things – for both, ultimately, seem to be necessary and unavoidable (in any case, we inevitably will judge, in our present, some forms or ways of life as being inferior or even beyond the pale).

After all, when it comes to thinking human beings, who is going to deny that the Golden Rule – first positively stated by Jesus as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – at the very least, “sounds like a good idea”?[i] Even if the Golden Rule is a rather abstract idea, in that it does not address particular practices, concrete applications of the dictum in this or that context are readily imaginable. Is it only my own personal inclinations – perhaps informed by my religious training? – which cause me to resonate with it? Or, rather, is it not the case that recognition of this seemingly enduring earthly reality is more widespread?

Indeed it is. Forms of this rule have an impressive pedigree, appearing, importantly, in concrete testimony both trans-historically and trans-culturally. And this, it seems, is most significant for our discussion here regarding social constructionism and its either implicit or explicit claims about power’s all-encompassing role. For understood rightly[ii], the Golden Rule’s profundity is undeniable. As relational beings, all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constantly make moral judgments about ourselves and others (easier!). Here, the Golden Rule gives us the means whereby we might test the consistency of our judgments vis a vis our own lives, consciously self-legislate our behavior, and even recognize the significant overlap of our judgments with those of others – particularly those committed to living ethical lives. Further, it is conducive to building human understanding, respect, and mutuality – solidarity, trust, and even love (Guseinov, 2014).

Perhaps looking at a concrete application might help us to see the problems with the social constructionists’ approach. When it comes to the matter of justice – which, contrary to notions of power, has traditionally depended on ideas of authority and truth (including “good faith”) – the 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher Spinoza, inspired by Plato, argued that “the beauty of proportionality [in mathematics and nature]” can cause one to “abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else” (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, 2014, pp. 392, 393). Wise persons across a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds have agreed – at least when it comes to those we are closest to (family, tribe, etc.). And one can of course see this as balancing with another observation that John Locke made – certainly in tension with the one above – namely, that human beings realize that taking from others what they have attained by their honest industry without their consent is an injustice – even if one would call it justice (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1959, p. 234).

The “common sense” Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, quoted by Wilkinson in his defense of his “social epistemology” approach, took this even further, as according to Arthur Holmes he noticed that

“…[m]oral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good. Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice. Property rights likewise depend on it” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 1997, p. 117)

These are just some of the things it seems different groups of people do not really “design” or “construct” (unconsciously or consciously), but instead, as if by built-in design, can recognize and receive. In other words, they appear to be ethical principles that are intrinsic to properly-functioning human being.

Not only this, but when put in the context of the Golden Rule as expressed by Jesus (“do unto others…” and not “do not do unto others….”), one can see these insights being connected not so much with one’s desire to assert one’s own rights, but rather – at the very least – being concerned to guard and defend the rights of one’s neighbor. Hence the proper Western concern for its colonialist past, which was evil because of the objective wrongness of unjust exploitation – of wrongly-used power.

And – to meet possible objections from social constructionists [in the library world and beyond] – none of these observations necessarily claims that it is easy to explain or apply this Golden rule in lived contexts, for we come to learn that our ethical choices often involve criteria that are tacit and inarticulable (Holston, 2016). Neither does it mean that we come into contact with this rule – and recognize its goodness – apart from the presence of other persons, i.e. community. This is not a positivistic search for “acontextually authoritative and valid sources” of guidance, as opposed to a “more situated and participatory vision” (Foasberg, 2015). It is not, for example, necessary to the argument I am making here to insist on some abstract or transcendental “historically unmediated insight,” i.e. that “human understanding takes place outside the horizon of a particular, historically situated vantage point,” or to deny that we do not, to some degree, “depend on our prejudices… [understood in a positive sense] to furnish contexts of meaning”. (Holston, 2016).

[Apr. 22 update] It is interesting to consider this video “Where Does Morality Come From | Moral Foundations Theory, Jonathan Haidit” in light of both the content of this post and my previous post Sola Commoditas!: Truth is Fitness Alone


For a Christian meditation on the Golden Rule appropriate for the approaching Good Friday, see this older post at my theology blog here.



Golden Rule montage: http://www.care2.com/news/member/827551733/3895730


**For journalism in particular, see the discussion on “objectivity” in this book, for example ; also see here and here.

[i] Recent years have seen a resurgence of scholarly interest in the Golden Rule. See, e.g., Neil Duxbury’s and Harry Gensler’s impressive work on the topic.

[ii] For example, its application need not preclude considering the effects of actions on those neighbors one is closest to (“…as you would have them do unto your mother, daughter, friend, etc…”!), nor consideration of the indirect effects actions could have, in the short or long term.