P094: Two Ideas, One Mind

Another terrorist attack. Another outpouring of grief, rage, ignorance, humanity. Another reminder to step away from the keyboard, away from the phone, and tell someone you love them. And of course: another wave of tone-policing Tweets and Facebook posts chastising us all for not dealing with this modern world correctly.

The flavor of the day is the idea that everybody cares about Paris but nobody cares about the bombings in Beirut. Max Fisher takes this notion to task with a thoughtful piece on how the American media covers foreign tragedy. Fisher puts forth the idea that the reporting is there but the audience is not:

“I still hold out hope that it’s possible to get readers interested. And I have been trying over and over in the five years since to get readers engaged with these stories. Incidents of mass violence in the world are, I believe, desperately important for readers to know. Not just so that readers can offer sympathy to the victims, but so that they may better understand what’s happening in the world and thus can better and more actively participate in whatever role they have to play as voters and global citizens. But unless the victims are either children or Christian, I have never really succeeded in getting readers to care about such bombings that happen outside of the Western world.”

It is my hope that the Internet’s function as the everyman’s printing press will be remembered with the same reverence as Gutenberg’s machine. The democratization of the means of production is undoubtably a good thing for our culture, and as a progressive person, I’m naturally inclined to believe that social norms will trend towards equality.

But of course we have a two thousands years of histories being written by the winner to disprove this notion. That’s what reporting is: writing history. And it’s not just reporting that we’re talking about – it’s also the crap that people like you and me jettison out into the world every day that shapes our collective narrative. You don’t have to look any further than the Library of Congress to see proof of this.

Two ideas, one mind

I’ve been enamored lately with an idea put forth most gracefully by musician, podcaster and internet person John Roderick: the belief that there’s value in holding two opposing ideas in your head at once. It’s almost certainly true that whatever “the mainstream media” is these days cares more about terror attacks in “white” countries than “brown” countries. It’s also almost certainly true that the barrier for accurate, diversely-sourced information has never, even been so low and it’s the reader’s duty to get the whole story.

These ideas don’t have to cancel each other out. Even if one is more objectively true, the ability to (in John’s word) :try on ideas like sport-coats” is so helpful when it comes to understanding the situation holistically.

Teach the controversy

Now, I don’t want this to sound like seeing both sides of an issue is some sort of revolutionary concept – it’s a thing that we’ve been taught to do since forever. But the media landscape is such that we can have news feeds so perfectly calibrated to our own pre-existing worldview that we never are even presented with challenging positions. The impulse to retweet something that seems true, that strikes a chord, risks turning even the most open minds into party-line ditto-heads.

Take your time. Think for yourself. And if nothing else, at least remember that your hasty ejaculate might end up in the Library of Congress.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron