In the last post, I talked about how journalism’s conventions lead to pacification of public discourse: torture, with its radically offensive nature, is rebranded and mollified via the term “enhanced interrogation.” This way, controversial topics have the ethical implications stripped from the record of events: a tricky aspect of journalism, as it makes history more opaque (to the benefit of the elites who benefit from that ambiguity).

These arguments in the public are uncomfortable, but they are necessary. It’s how we determine the limits to our society: without an authentic ethical framework, we are left with either self-serving opportunism or interpersonal chaos. Here, I’m talking about both institutional and personal ethics. And the only way we can develop either is through the discussion. As we know, the government and other groups don’t necessarily want to advocate a particular viewpoint at the expense of others, but that doesn’t mean they should squelch the conversation.

I was invited to give presentations at two middle school assembly programs in New Hampshire, followed by an evening community talk, based on my book, Most Good, Least Harm, which explores ways in which we can each make choices in our lives that do the most good and the least harm to ourselves, other people, other species, and the environment.

…I thought it went well. So did the teacher who’d invited me who was thrilled by the response of the enthusiastic and fully engaged students. Imagine our surprise when ten minutes after the presentation we found out that the second one was canceled. The principal – who’d come in a few times during my presentation but wasn’t able to attend the entire talk – felt it was too political and called ahead to stop me from speaking at any other school that day.

I asked to speak to him to find out what aspects of my talk he thought were too political. He could barely make eye contact with me. He was so anxious and upset. He told me that there were some words I used that were political, such as “war,” “healthcare” and “illegal immigrants.” While he admitted that I didn’t discuss current wars and the politics of them; health care reform or the various opinions about it, or the debates over how to handle illegal immigration, the very mention of these words was, he felt, too political. He worried that the kids would go home and share things from the assembly (whether accurately relayed or not) that would anger some parents.

The rest of the article is well worth reading, and raises the issue of critical thinking where passivity seems to be the norm. It also echoes points made by a former teacher of mine:

…a stable political system is an undemocratic political system, i.e. a stable system gives the illusion of choice and the illusion of unpredictability. When journalists’ reporting helps stabilize a political system they are harming democracy.

Call it mythology. Call it master narrative. Call it bad journalism.

The cure: Journalists must be custodians of fact and operate with a discipline of verification. That means questioning EVERYTHING (including the system itself).

Alexander Spirkin‘s Dialetic Materialism says,

The original form of world-view was mythology, the imaginal and basically fantastic, generalised reflection of phenomena in which a certain general idea is thought of in personified, symbolical, sensuously concrete, plastically vivid and hyper trophied form, as in the fairy-tale. But whereas the fairy-tale is accepted as pure invention, the myth is regarded as something real.

Spirkin here is inadvertently coming to our current dilemma. While he uses it as a stepping stone to importance of philosophy/ethics, he gives the public too much credit for being rational.  Dr. Cline’s accusations against “bad journalists” are spot on – it is easier to peddle in the logical fallacies of media frames than it is to present truly unbiased truth. As Howard Zinn said, “Objectivity is impossible, and it is also undesirable.”  Undesirable because of our ability to use information to pursue our aims – which we all have. Transparency, not objectivity, should be our modus operandi.

Mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives metaphorical of the possibilities and fulfillment in a given culture at a given time. Mythology is a metaphor.”
– Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, p. 139

Without transparency, we have to pretend to be objective. But since we’re incapable of that, we inevitably develop the popular mythology which expresses our values. If we are honest with ourself about ethical dilemmas, which are real and need to be argued, then the media’s rationality will inevitably lead to a healthier popular mythos. We can’t always expect the public to exercise critical thinking, especially when the prospect of abandoning popular beliefs makes some paranoid. But we should never discourage it, either actively, or by depending on the easy outs.