June 19, 2007

Intellectual Balkanization

What you put into your brain determines what your brain puts out. So it’s important to have a well-balanced intellectual diet, but a lot of people consume nothing but mental junk food.

Now, I know that people have the right to go to churches and read the newspapers and watch the kinds of television programs they like and send their children to religious schools if they like. I understand all of that and I think it’s an important part of our society that individuals be given that kind of choice and liberty. The freedom of speech also implies the freedom to listen, or not, as one chooses. But it’s decidedly off-putting to see people deliberately isolating their exposure to the outside world to only that which is comfortable, familiar, and agreeable.

This happens on both sides of the political spectrum – on the left, there are a substantial number of progressives who distrust CNN for its “pro-corporate” and “conservative” bias, for instance. But it seems to happen more noticeably on the right, with social conservatives and in particular with religious conservatives. “I only watch Fox News, because it’s the only place I get an unbiased picture of the world” is something I’ve heard more than once. The people who say this sort of thing say it with a tinge of pride and superiority, as if they were condescending to telling poor confused moderates the truth and they almost expect gratitude for it.

A popular left-leaning blog called the The Reality-Based Community has the wonderful slogan “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. That is a sentiment I absolutely agree with, even when I question what the primary author of that blog has to say about current events.

Particularly as cultural conservatives point out, it’s important that people share a common culture, have some common facts and topics to discuss. They usually mean things like everyone should speak English or be part of some variant of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, but they don’t usually seem to mean that we should all read the same newspapers.

And we shouldn’t read all the same newspapers, but we should all be getting the same information. Either the war in Iraq is going well (Fox News has been reporting that we’ve had the insurgents on the run for three years now and are enjoying the quiet support of a grateful Iraqi nation) or it is not (I read on CNN last night that there were 1,000 acts of terrorism a day in Iraq) or maybe it’s both, or maybe it’s neither. If you only watch Fox News, you’d be wondering what all the consternation about the war is about; if you only watch CNN, you’d be wondering why we’re still staying there when everything we do just makes things worse. Reality lies somewhere in between the two extremes and it is often a challenge to figure out which end of the spectrum it is closer to. But just because it’s a challenge does not mean that it should not be done. And limiting your brain’s diet to only the facts that you find pleasing creates a dangerous world view, because the world is not always pleasant.

Today, seeing this article about a socially conservative alternative to wikipedia indicates to me that there are at least two levels of intellectual laziness going on with that kind of mental tribalism – first, the reliance on open-source and malleable “references” in place of actually learning and retaining knowledge oneself, and second, the need to limit one’s exposure to knowledge to that which has been screened for conformity to a predetermined world view. Whether on the left or on the right, this is really letting other people do your thinking for you. Abdicating one’s own duty to engage in critical thought is something that ought to be shameful.

This ties in to my ideas about the Republicans rebooting themselves. Some of the movers and shakers in the party are people who seem to isolate themselves from information that they dislike. Dick Cheney, for instance, has very specific instructions for when he travels, including that his hotel room is to have the TV turned on and tuned to Fox News. Many of the leaders of the cultural conservative movement, your James Dobsons and your Gary Bauers, have never seen or read the books and movies that they criticize and urge other people not to see them despite not having any firsthand knowledge of what they’re about. I would like to see this sort of thing minimized – your criticism of a book should lack credibility unless you’ve actually read it yourself.

So some of these leaders in the party are perfectly happy to control the intellectual diet of the rank and file membership. These are people who want to promote the idea of social conformity, standardizing the culture of America into their vision of an ideal society. That society is very much an idyllic, Midwestern/Southern vision of a society of small towns, with individuals’ daily lives focused on their nuclear families, churches, and places of employment. The vision is social and sexual, more than anything else; and institutions of both the government and religion are used to promote orthodoxy in the outward behavior of individuals. The inward attitude of these people is not of particular importance. There is some charm and attraction to this vision of the world; it offers safety and certainty and little opportunity for gross misbehavior. But there is a high standard of uniformity, and to maintain that uniformity, ideas, knowledge, and information must be tightly controlled. The elites of society are charged with the duty of deciding what ideas are worthy of circulation – for them, censorship is a tool that can be used for good or evil, and they wish to use it for good. These are the leaders of the social conservative movement who see themselves as stepping into the role of the guardians of this kind of benevolent masters of society’s information.

Putting such people in charge of the party is all well and good for the kinds of people who are willing to let these leaders decide for them what goes into their brains. But for those of us who are a little bit more heterodox in our thinking, this kind of Balkanization of the mind is equivalent to wearing a straightjacket of information. Again, I don’t intend to imply that this sort of thing is limited to Republicans or conservatives, because it very much is not. But I do mean to state that people should do what they can to see the world for what it really is, and this is a bigger challenge than it might appear at first glance.


zzi said...

"Dick Cheney . . . turned on and tuned to Fox News."

I wonder what Obama has on at the local Hilton, and I'm sure all the candidates drink their water out of glass bottles, no plastic please. Have you ever visited "Santa Monica" or been on a movie set lately? Liberals in SoCal are the most close minded people I ever came across.

Thanks. I forgot the book/doc title "Guns Germs and Steel" I kept thinking wheat.
"Guns Wheat and Steel"

Transplanted Lawyer said...

Agreed; I twice mentioned in the main post that this sort of thing is objectionable when liberals do it, too.