I have decided to more or less shut off the information stream that is Facebook. The noise has been getting too much to bear. I’m afraid that people I love may get hurt by my, most certainly, minority opinions on most things. And that goes for partisans on both (all?) sides of the issues that are currently getting up people’s asses. I tend to agree and disagree with most everyone and usually for counterintuitive reasons.
That is, I may agree with you or disagree with you, but my reasoning – the intellectual route through which I derived my opinion – will be completely different from yours or those of your run-of-the-mill opponent. Not to say it is better, just different.
Facebook doesn’t lend itself well to having intelligent conversations with people. Blogging lends itself better to the conversations we should be having. It is more measured and more nuanced. So when I see people getting all het up about an issue on Facebook, and I care enough to write about it, I shall be doing it here.
I spent a lot of my teen to adult life watching the fringes, following a lot of alternative press and (eventually) web sites (who here remembers Usenet?), and not just those locally printed rags packed with entertainment listings and personals that passed for “alternative” throughout the 80s and 90s. I was going to where not very many people go and wouldn’t even know existed. [Note 1]
I also read Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann at an early point in my intellectual formation. Whether you agree with their politics or not, or the specific examples they give in the book, they were spot on about the uses of the mass media to manipulate the dominant cultural narrative.
From this book, which I read circa 1991-2, I learned early to watch the mainstream press and analyse it in a way that I could begin to surmise the story that wasn’t being told just by the omissions, or to figure out who the next national bogeyman would be. From watching the mainstream media and its treatment of the militia movement, I eerily predicted that something like the Oklahoma City Bombing was about to happen – much to the dismay of my first wife when it did happen and I said “toldya so”.
When I see a piece of reporting (even where I agree with the bias of the reporting), I ask myself: what isn’t being asked here? If I see a statistic, and I care enough about the story, I immediately start doing sums in my head to figure out just how intense the situation is that the statistic may imply.
Because I know there is bias in every bit of reporting. From the way the paragraphs are arranged to the supporting photos and graphics. The BBC News web site is not set up by a bunch of amateurs. Even if the editors are junior and nowhere near the broadcast news, they are learning the tools of propaganda from the masters and every nuance of the layout and writing is considered before it is published, particularly on stories that have partisan views.
Most people don’t see bias in mainstream reporting except to maybe have some vague idea about corporate advertising and sponsorship. But really, our perceptions are part of the reality that is being manufactured by the self-same media and by (some) people whose motivations are more than just corporate. The effect of these people has been to manufacture a type of groupthink with two sides about things, about what we call news.
(If you really want to go down the rabbit hole and begin unplugging from the matrix, google Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, Critical Theory, and the Long March Through the Institutions. This is what has formed our modern mainstream narrative on culture and politics – and I’ve even seen it be said that Trump is the unintended manifestation of all these people and movements. I find that difficult to disagree when “Alternative Facts” is something straight out of the Frankfurt School or the Saul Alinsky playbook.)
When one doesn’t really care what’s happening halfway around the world, or even in the ghettoised part of one’s own city, one will take the mainstream media’s views on it and move on to one’s own immediate concerns, such as “where am I going to go to dinner this weekend”, “how late should I stay at work”, or “what school is my child going to get into”.
And one will ponder (or not) on even these quotidian things, without realising that even these seemingly trifling issues are influenced by larger cultural and political forces, as well as cognitive biases that were either put there via one’s brain’s wiring, one’s family upbringing, the education one had, and the media one has been exposed to.
Most people go through their lives never questioning standardised thinking – this is not a judgment, just an observation. Also, many (most?) people appear to have never really examined their own opinions or how they came to them – sometimes (most times?) those opinions are derived because some clever-looking bloke on the telly (or the Interwebs, or the radio) said it was so, so it must be. And many (most?) people mistake opinions for facts.
(As they used to say back home: Opinions are like Camaros, everybody has one.)
And if you are watching something on the news and you think it is unbiased – it’s not. The viewpoint of the story just happens to align with your own worldview, which was probably put there by that self-same news organisation.
And at the end of the day, most issues are more nuanced than the space that a news broadcast or a web page may allow. I try to read a lot of analytical pieces as well as books, from all points of the spectrum. I try to find out the facts, and then have an opinion about them (which isn’t to say I do get knee-jerk reactions to things).
And I also know that when a news source claims to be unbiased, it is full of shit. Give me Mother Jones, Breitbart, Disinfo or Infowars over the BBC, CNN, Sky, and, yes, Fox News.
I read and listen to people I don’t agree with because I may just learn something from them. Most of my thinking on things at the moment has come about because I am willing to do this. And I know that what I think on any given issue right now is different from what I thought when I was younger, and I may just change my mind on a few things again, a few times, by the time this trip is over.
As Mohammed Ali said: “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
We do live in interesting times. But Facebook and Twitter are not the best way to document them. I see (hope for?) a resurgence of blogging. It is the best format for dealing with interesting times. Podcasting is such a one-way medium, which, despite its popularity, is maybe not the best way to engage with these interesting times. Besides, who would want to listen to me rant on a podcast?
So, if you want to engage with me on the issues of the day, come over here – hell feel free to randomly ask my opinion on anything in the comments and I may end up doing a post on it. I ain’t doing it on Facebook any more, if I can help it.
And if I don’t get a chance to say Happy Birthday to you on Facebook, it is not because I don’t care about you. It is because Facebook drains a lot of energy that could be spent writing things and searching new stuff out – the sort of stuff that might just make me a more interesting, and better, friend.
Note 1: The 90s, before Internet saturation, held a great wealth of alternative thinking both on and off the Internet.
I had a side-hobby: The Rev Ivan Stang, the creator of the Church of the SubGenius [See Note 2], wrote a fantastic book called High Weirdness by Mail, wherein he put together a long list of addresses for enthusiasts, nutters, and cretins who would send you pamphlets, hand-written letters, and even free merchandise detailing their offbeat or twisted worldviews if you sent them a self-addressed stamped envelope. I used up a lot of stamps and envelopes. It was a lot more fun than trawling the Internet for them is nowadays.
Alongside this, I picked up any ‘zine I could find whenever I walked into alternative bookstores.
Although I would never be convinced of any one group’s worldview, I gained an appreciation for the fact that my way of looking at the world was not shared by everyone else.
Note 2: Disclosure, I became an ordained minister in the Church of the SubGenius around about 1992-3. It is the world’s only for-profit religious institution (it refuses to seek charitable status). It will ordain you for the paltry sum of $30. Its mad mix of satire, clip art, radio shows, conspiracy theory, and just plain weirdness went a long way in de-programming me from a lot of the evangelical bible-thumping stuff I grew up around.