On Wednesday last week (February 15th) I had the opportunity to present some of my work in the 44th English Forum at the literature department here at Troy, a panel that we titled “Exploring Othering and Disillusion in Media Narratives.” The panel consisted of myself and three other presenting professors, two of whom were from the literature department and delivered short presentations like I did, and one of whom was from the political science department and performed a sort of freestyle open discussion about the experimental nature of what was called a “democratic citizen.”
Overall the panel was enjoyable and the lecture hall was surprisingly well attended. And at least the first 45 minutes of the panel (the pre-discussion part) can be viewed from Troy’s English Forum series site (via YouTube). As such, I don’t want necessarily to reiterate here specifically everything I delivered in my paper, but rather I would like to introduce my point and then analyze the hilariously (and perhaps appropriately) paradoxical situation that emerged after the forum’s panel was subsequently reported about in the University’s own news media. That is to say that precisely the ideology I criticized in my presentation is the same antiquated lens through which our panel was essentialized in its local representation.
I titled my talking point, “Fact and Alternative Fact: Ideological Modes of Expression,” in which I proposed briefly an analytical model for investigating the use of “fact” and “truth” in contemporaneous media narratives. The Internet, I claimed, which provides increased access to a multitude of narratives, presents us with something of a paradox in that it connects us to unfathomable amounts of information from multiple sources, but this over-saturates our narratives. The result is that we find a reduced incentive to study information with any scrutiny, relying instead on prescribed “knowledge” through authoritative ideological modes to frame (and legitimize) the existence of those narratives. This is evident in the recent emergence of fake news and “alternative facts,” a visible authoritative manipulation of narratives borne from the disillusioned reactions to a multitude of voices competing for attention.
In other words, I proposed that we can see a pervasive cultural ideology at work beneath the surface of the dialectic negotiation of facts in our narratives. This is noticeable in exploring transformative trends in media narratives and public discourse. The core argument that positions alternative facts simply as deviant aberrations of our fundamental reality is a dialectic that obscures how we tend to treat facts as beliefs that are legitimized by “experts”–imagined subjects who are in effect the manifestation of our beliefs. Narratives are often relegated to arguing the validity of a conclusion’s authority, and less to exploring the specifics of the data. In essence, arguments become polarized “right” or “wrong” positions as opposed to the joint, rigorous explorations of a fluid truth.
For example, it is noticeable how news media frequently frames narratives about climate change. The narrative frames complex data as something either to believe or ignore–as if their story just needs to establish its definable truth. Despite numerous convincing studies that suggest human activity is having a direct and measurable impact on the environment, the arguments presented in many media narratives fixate on whether or not the argument itself is real. This polarization perpetuates an ideology that values authority over dynamic evidence and reductionism over process.
Moreover, while the Internet increases our access, it only does so in a homogenous sense based on popularity algorithms, which likewise are based on the interpretive, relativist reality already frequently exchanged in discourse–informed by the historically canonized and authoritative models of facts. Even new scientific findings have to be couched in a rhetoric that perpetuates the authoritative mode of how we should automatically understand those findings as factual beliefs. I suggested (and would continue to argue) that a nuanced and critical approach to interpreting information, one that challenges even our most classic assumptions about authority and expertise, is necessary.
Then, this happened:
Of course the news story has a derivative aesthetic, following the cliché reporting style normalized by mainstream network news. It’s also notable that this story does not let the panel speak for itself; rather it condenses the panel into (mis) representative quotes that essentially tell the audience what the panel was all about (and interviews have a dubious effect of seeming to bolster validity in this style of narrated journalism, but in this case the interviews were clearly the only narratives that provided the scope of the story, which amounts to a glaring misrepresentation). But one of the most telling passages from this story is the newscaster’s reduction:
“Hearing directly from professors who are experts in their respective fields helps keep students from being disillusioned by the media.”
Apart from the simplistic, telephone-game way in which “disillusion” and “expertise” are distorted from their actual function in the panel proper is the structure of the statement itself. That is, the ideology of “Authority grants knowledge, Authority warrants trust.” This is, paradoxically, the very same framework I am saying we should challenge; but it is being used here to essentialize my panel discussion point as being exemplary of an authoritative voice. The reporter stood in a room where I challenged the very notion of expertise and then proceeded to refer to me as an expert. Whether blinded or comforted by ideology, this seems to me like the baffling absence of thought.
I also see a twisted sort of irony embedded in the newscaster’s phrase, “disillusioned by the media.” But at least here I understand why this sentiment exists. The Internet has certainly complicated our narratives. Varnelis refers to our current world as a “network culture.” Researchers and “experts” have prized evidence-based facts for over two centuries, but only since the emergence of network culture has the general public had such broad access to the same information. Without a Grand Narrative to guide them, there are many people trapped in this predominant ideology with no sense of what comprises a healthy skepticism and a rational argument. Coupled with the generally self-indulgent, capital-driven relativist individualism that is the framework of our culture, it makes sense that people communicate stories in a sort of self-righteous, belief-oriented way. And it makes reasonable sense that “fake news” would garner far more attention in network culture, and that subsequently people would become disillusioned with the authority of that medium.
Fake news is, however, nothing new. In some cases it is comprised of parody and it is downright fun (remember The Onion?). In other cases it encompasses the type of news that is “based on a true story” in which statistics are altered to incite a particularly politically charged position. There is also news that is completely a hoax designed to encourage polarization. But in any case, we don’t want to make the mistake of dismissing the recent changes in our media as “predictable” or even as “more of the same old phenomena.” I think doing so perpetuates a dangerous authoritative mode of expression in which people fixate on dialectically polarized truths and falsehoods, and this obscures the deeper problems ideologically that would help address the flow of information overall.
The Internet was supposed to give us a neutral ground where everyone’s voice matters, but it has oversaturated us with information and ultimately fails in its lofty prophecy because it is, at its core, driven by the predominant ideology. In the above news report, this is the reality that encourages the interviewee to reveal her position, stating:
“Instead of just getting a lot of opinions, you get facts, and you get organic facts from a person and not from something that you’re questioning if you can trust them or not, because these are our professors.”
I do think of myself as a trustworthy person, and I certainly work to remain ethically committed to honesty, evidence, and reason in my arguments, but I would find it creepy if people simply took my words as the authoritative model of “knowledge” simply because I said so. Here I think the interviewee was unfortunately misrepresented a bit in not having enough time in the segment (as edited) to develop her thought with any deeper clarity. And that in and of itself is a noticeable trend in a lot of our media narratives.
I think the prevailing ideology renders the active component of an argument inert. Evidence is less important under the authoritative mode, perhaps because authority feels constant while evidence is perpetually scrutinized. The more comfortable ideological mode of expression is to “know” rather than to discover. But isn’t it also paradoxical that “experts,” as we imagine them, can’t really exist for present and future narratives (the narratives of discovery); they are a product of past texts. In a network culture, where do experts fit? The prevailing ideology ignores the reality that anyone can be an expert if they actively explore evidence with an open mind.
There are other, deeper reasons why I think the tendency to capitulate to an authoritative voice seems plausible to many people in our framework of global capital, but I don’t want to unpack those here.
The real point is that in the absence of the true Authority, people readily create and enforce a self-indulgent truth that serves them, at times irrespective of evidence. That’s the tension that we are constantly experiencing wherein powerful people tend to manipulate narratives to legitimize their ideas and actions. Our ideology obscures this process by legitimizing arguments that mystify what takes place beneath the surface. In other words, manipulating language to obscure evidence and mystify facts serves to encourage a dialectic argument that in and of itself perpetuates power and distracts from the interpretation of evidence. This is the realm of ideology. If we become mired in polarized arguments as to the nature of “Alternative Facts” being either “true” or “false,” we’re losing the fundamental opportunity we have to understand what this phenomenon is telling us about ourselves and the way we consume media.
The truer questions we should be asking here are: why is fake news only now penetrating open public discourse? Is it any coincidence that “alternative facts” emerge at the highest level of the mainstream at the same time there is a general cultural distrust of public discourse and its version of “facts” and evidence?
Overall, this is not just about the media; it’s about how and why our entire culture is changing. That “alternative facts” have penetrated the mainstream discourse, I think, represents the culmination of a transformation of imagined truth in our public dialogue. And that’s what we should be paying attention to. That specific process of transformation. We should be thinking deeply and reinvigorating the truly active and competitive aspects of an argument proper. This is an uncomfortable space, but I think we need to navigate there.
I like this quote I heard by the actor and comedian Ricky Gervais:
“What’s happened this year is a reaction to that stifling [mentality of] free speech and overpowering political correctness. People started thinking that they could say “I’m offended,” and that we were meant to do something about it. You’re offended, so what? Now what? Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right. People started thinking not just that their opinion was worth just as much as someone else’s opinion–which it is–but people now think that their opinion is worth as much as facts. And that’s just not true. It’s just not true, and they get offended by that. So someone might say, ‘Well, I believe the earth is 5,000 years old.’ You can’t have an opinion about how old the fucking earth is. It’s 4.6 billion years old. Read another book. Don’t just read the one fucking book, read two fucking books!”
Ultimately, I would go even further than what Ricky says here. I think we should read as many books as we can, explore the Internet, watch films, listen to podcasts, and so on. But we should never treat any of these ideas as our new sets of beliefs. Instead, we should use them as a growing body of evidence that can help us transform what we think we “know” into that which we are actively and collectively working to discover.