Shades Of Subjectivity

Among those individuals who feel compelled to attack me because my writing challenges their beliefs, the most common refrains are along these lines: “You’re promoting your own ideology”; “You’re just as biased as the people you’re criticizing”; “You’re just expressing your opinion”; “You’re called The Propaganda Professor because you’re trying to teach propaganda”. These knee-jerk comments are not particularly worth responding to in themselves, but taken as a whole they reveal some interesting misunderstandings about subjectivity that we might as well try to clear up.

Here’s a sampling from my mailbag:

Like all propagandists, you’re just too quick to remind your readers that you’re somehow immune from bias. “Aw shucks, I’m just a home plate umpire who simply calls balls and strikes”…No educated person over thirty is unbiased or impartial. …. By the time one reaches your age, unless you’re a moron incapable of reason, or have been living in a vacuum, you’ve acquired a specific set of beliefs like anyone else. To suggest otherwise, like you do, is delusional.

Wow. It’s always amusing to hear form those people (total strangers) who claim to know me better than I know myself. I can only assume that they’re not only professing to be extremely gifted psychoanalysts, but also extremely gifted psychics. I must inform them, however, that their Ouija boards are very much in need of a trip to the shop for an overhaul. It’s hard to imagine a more knotted tangle of misconceptions than that above, which all came from a single reader.

One problem I keep seeing is that there is often a tendency to bundle bias, opinion, ideology, distortion and propaganda into a single entity — and then to demonstrate confusion about what each one really is. They’re all quite distinct, however, though they all are indicators of subjectivity. Let’s take a look at the different types, or shades of subjectivity if you will, and some examples of each.

1. Objectivity (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate as well as vanilla.”)

This is simply a straightforward reporting of the facts, with absolutely no intrusion of personality or judgment. Or is there? Why are the flavors listed in that particular order? Are there also other flavors that have been omitted? Why does the speaker feel compelled to say “as well as”, as if there would be any question about it? Why “as well as” instead of “both…and” or just “and”?

The truth is that aside from such very fundamental propositions as “two plus two equals four” or “the earth orbits around the sun”, it’s virtually impossible to maintain total objectivity. Nor is there necessarily any reason why we should in many cases. Subjectivity does not by any means automatically compromise accuracy.

When I first began writing this blog, I had the intention of striving for as purely an objective a tone as possible. I soon abandoned this criterion for two reasons: first, staying behind that line is so difficult that even balancing on it could be perceived as a failure to adhere to my objective; and second, subjectively presented material is just more fun and interesting both to write and to read.

2. Normal Subjectivity (“Fortunately, the ice cream parlor sells chocolate and vanilla.”)

So if we can’t have pure objectivity, then naturally our observations are tinged with our own likes and dislikes.  The speaker of the above comment feels that it’s a good thing that both chocolate and vanilla are being sold, and says so. Notice that this does not alter the accuracy of the central fact being related: the two flavors are still being sold, whether it’s fortunate or not.

Quite often, it’s a matter of what labels or adjectives are applied to a particular person, group of people or thing.  Note the difference, for example, between “gun rights advocates”, “gun culture” and “gun nuts”. They all might refer to the same group of people, but the individuals doing the referring are exhibiting very different attitudes. Or note the difference between “environmental activists”, “elite environmentalists” and “tree huggers”.

Again, these are examples of what we call “normal” subjectivity. There is no distinct dividing line on the scale of subjectivity that separates the “normal” from the extreme or calculated forms of subjectivity. The scale isn’t like a guitar fingerboard, where frets mark the distinct gradations. It’s more like the board on a violin, where the steps aren’t conspicuous, but are still evident when heard by a trained ear.

Yes, I exhibit subjectivity of my own. I find it very difficult, for example, to speak of Dick Cheney without the same snarl he displays when anyone dares challenge his supremacy. But that doesn’t mean that I lie or distort the facts when I’m discussing him. There’s no need to.

3. Bias (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate and other flavors.”)

Here there’s a very strong indication that the speaker favors chocolate over the “other flavors”. And that’s generally what bias boils down to: a manifest preference for one thing over another.  And it’s usually expressed in one of two ways: how much coverage you give one thing versus another, or how favorable or unfavorable that coverage is.  Bias tends to be quite consistent within a given source, whereas “normal” subjectivity may or may not be.

Yet bias itself is not undesirable, nor does it necessarily indicate inaccuracy or falsehood. People sometimes call Fox “the most biased name in news”, which is certainly true enough if you actually classify the network as a news source, but the complaint is not particularly relevant. The problem with Fox is not that it’s biased; the problem with Fox is that it relentlessly lies and distorts, and passes off propaganda as legitimate news. These are not always functions of bias.

In sharp contrast, Media Matters for America is also quite biased. But unlike Fox, it makes no effort to conceal the fact, loudly proclaiming that it exists specifically to combat “conservative misinformation”. Yet Media Matters is excruciatingly thorough and accurate, and indeed more fair and balanced than Fox will ever be in its wildest nightmares. It also comes about as close as humanly possible to a purely objective journalistic voice.

4. Opinion (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate and vanilla, the two best flavors.”)

Opinion entails not only expressing your preferences, but your beliefs.  Such opinions frequently are conclusions based on a subjective definition of terms or subjective interpretation of facts. The conclusion, for example, that chocolate and vanilla are the “best” flavors might be based on the fact that they are the most popular — which in turn might be defined by sales volume.

But even opinion does not necessarily signal inaccuracy or dishonesty — not unless the speaker tries, as in the above example, to pass off those opinions and beliefs as fact. I probably don’t have to tell you that his happens constantly in the media and in politics.

Certainly, you’ll find an occasional opinion in my writings, but not that often. And only about minor matters — not as the main thrust of the discussion. This is not a blog of opinion but of facts. And when readers declare that I’m just expressing my opinion, they’re almost always confused.

A good example is the following statement from my post The Myth Of Hitler’s Gun Ban.

Given all of this, it’s pretty hard to make a case that “gun control” played a significant role in Nazi conquest.

Which also I paraphrased elsewhere by saying that “there is no reason to believe” it would have made a difference had the Jews been better armed. This, the Psychic Psychoanalysts proclaim, is mere opinion; and they just know that with a few more weapons, the Jews could have avoided their fate.

But in fact it is they who are expressing an opinion, and they have damn little to support it. It is a historical fact that oppressed minorities have usually fared poorly in armed conflicts against their oppressors, and nobody has yet presented any reason to believe that Jews in Germany would have been an exception — no reason except, “they just would have, that’s all”.

Now if I’d said instead that “it would not have made any difference had the Jews been better armed”, then you might get away with calling that an opinion, albeit a highly informed one. But when I say “there is no reason to believe…” any such thing, I am not being speculative or opinionated but realistic.

5. Propaganda (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate, which raises your IQ, and vanilla, the favorite of terrorists.”)

Propaganda, as we define the term here (and as it’s almost always defined in contemporary society) is deliberately manipulating, distorting or misrepresenting the truth in order to persuade other people to believe or disbelieve a certain thing. This is the sin that reactionary detractors love to accuse me of, since it’s the very thing I decry. But they have yet to produce any instances of my doing so.

Certainly, I have beliefs of my own. I believe that the earth orbits around the sun, that Paris is a city in France, and that my eyes are blue. But unlike most other people (certainly most Americans) I don’t crave having beliefs, and will do everything I can to avoid them; it takes a great deal to get me to believe anything.

Perhaps what the commentator meant to say was that I have values and principles of my own. This is true as well, of course. Indeed, I have probably more or less the same values and principles you do: justice, fairness, honesty, tolerance, love, truth, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But we don’t all always have the same concept of what constitutes these things or how best to achieve them. Thus ideologies are born.

And contrary to rumor, I don’t have any ideology of my own. An ideology, as we commonly use the term,  is not just a set of principles, values and/or beliefs. It’s a standardized set of beliefs. I am not a Democrat, a Republican, a communist, a fascist, a socialist, a capitalist, a Libertarian, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist or a Scientologist. My practice is to see the positives and negatives in all such ideologies, and to weigh each issue on its own merits rather than how it fits into a preconceived template.

Yes, it requires more effort. But it’s worth it.

Circular Firing Squad; the Gun Culture’s Curious Campaign of Irony, Hypocrisy, Contradiction and Self-Abasement

Let’s be clear: most gun owners are (to the best of my knowledge) rather sane and reasonable individuals. But the public forum has never been dominated by sanity or reason. Instead, it’s dominated by those who are the loudest and most obnoxious; thus, gun issues are perennially represented by what we call the gun culture —  meaning those to whom guns are not only important, but are a way of life. It’s a relatively small cult, but its members are mad as hell about… well, something. Always. They’re loud, they’re obnoxious, they’re confrontational, and — quite often — they’re self-sabotaging and downright cannibalistic.

I probably don’t have to tell you how they reacted when the President of the United States uttered the following:

“While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.And “Certain forms of ammunition have no legitimate sporting, recreational, or self-defense use and thus should be prohibited.”

And you surely can guess how they screeched when the head of the nation’s foremost gun control organization declared this:

“I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons… I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

“Nazi”? “Communist”? “Terrorist”? “Frenchman”? Actually, it might surprise you to learn that they said none of these things. I tricked you. The president quoted above wasn’t Barack H. Obama, but Ronald W. Reagan.  That’s right: The Gipper was an outspoken, if not entirely consistent, advocate of “gun control”, even before he had a personal stake in it.  (And incidentally, in the photo above, taken just before he was shot, he’s surrounded by armed and highly trained gunmen whose sole responsibility is his safety. Which casts a very long shadow of doubt on the gunsters’ prime tenet that surrounding yourself with fire power necessarily makes you safer.)

This is a cause of considerable cognitive dissonance among gunsters, many of whom desperately want to paint the debate over guns as a “liberal” vs. “conservative” conflict, and to peg  “gun control” as being a matter of “them librulz want to take away our guns, but I’m gonna fight off a whole army of them.” But in fact many “liberals” (specifically, about 25 percent of Democrats) own guns and many “conservatives” support “gun control” — even those measures pushed by President Obama, whom they’ve been conditioned to oppose at every turn. This despite the fact that some polls frame the issue as  “gun control” versus “the right to own guns”, which is a bullshit stacked-deck question — the two are by no means mutually exclusive.

Michael Moore is a lifetime member of the NRA. James Brady, lest we forget, was a (Republican) member of Reagan’s staff before he became an activist after the reality of gun violence struck too close to home.  In other words, “gun control” is not the most suitable of lenses for those wishing to view the world in black and white, and it appears the gun culture is intentionally alienating people whom they could very much use as allies. The evidence suggests that for the past three decades, the NRA’s primary focus has been promoting reactionary politics rather than promoting responsible gun ownership.

Not only most gun owners, but most members of the NRA support one or more gun control measures. The NRA leadership, however, routinely battles any and every measure to regulate firearms in any fashion. In so doing, they are countering the wishes of most of their followers. Yet their followers continue to be loyal; if that isn’t characteristic of a cult, what is?

It was not always thus. Remember that quote above from the leader of the most prominent “gun control” organization? We don’t mean James Brady. Those words were spoken by Karl Frederick, an Olympic shooter who at the time he made this statement was president of the NRA. Yes, that NRA.  For the first century of its existence, the NRA was the foremost advocacy group for “gun control” in the nation. But that was before it discovered that there are much heftier profits to be made by vilifying “gun control”  and its proponents, and whipping up hysteria among impressionable tin hat right-wingers. But by ferociously battling “gun control”, LaPierre and company are not only spitting in the faces of their constituents, but spitting upon their organization’s own heritage.

When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, and the NRA was still in its “gun control” phase, “conservative” politicians were very much in favor of placing heavy restrictions on firearms. One reason was that, in California at least, they were facing what they perceived as a threat to public safety posed by, um, certain armed citizens:

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This even led to the passage of a law in the state, the Mulford Act, which was signed into effect by Gov. Reagan, who commented that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”  And the NRA, by the way, helped fashion similar legislation in other states. Its own actions weren’t necessarily motivated by racial concerns; remember, it had been a champion of firearm regulation all along. For Reagan and other right-wing politicians, however, it’s hard not to conclude that they were dirtying their drawers not just because of armed citizens, but armed citizens of a particular ethnic flavor.

I don’t mean to suggest that race plays a significant role in right-wing “gun control” politics or anything. I’m sure that if a bunch of armed white guys showed up at a public gathering, the NRA and The Tea Party would be just as concerned and outraged. Wouldn’t they?

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Well, they have yet to demonstrate it. And they have yet to demonstrate that they’re as concerned about deranged mass murderers with guns as they are about African-American activists with guns.  Yet today’s NRA diehards, while denying any racist bent to their own motivations, often declare that racism has always been a prime motive for “liberal”- inspired “gun control” — in large part because over 150 years ago, unarmed slaves had a hard time fighting for their freedom. Yes, seriously.

Despite its ill-informed elevation of Ronald Reagan to figurehead status, one could make a case that the gun culture really didn’t have a warm and cuddly bedmate in the White House until Bush. The younger Bush. His father, though he had the backing of the NRA during his initial run for president in 1988, pissed them off so much during his term that they opposed him during his second run. Three years later he renounced his lifetime membership in the cult when Wayne LaPierre (who at that time was its executive vice president) called ATF agents “jack-booted thugs” who were “scarier than the Nazis”. The NRA is a group that likes to portray itself as super-patriotic, doncha know.

Bush had been personally acquainted with several agents, including one who died in the Oklahoma City blast, which was fueled by NRA-flavored contempt for “the government”. And while I don’t know how many federal agents had been NRA boosters before McVeigh and LaPierre detonated their respective bombs, I’m willing to bet that there were considerably fewer subsequently. Way to rally those troops, Wayne.

Then along came Bush the Younger, and the gun lobby was in hog heaven. Oh, he didn’t do quite as much ass-kissing as they would have liked, and on occasion he even paid lip service to stricter gun laws. But on the other hand he appointed two Supreme Court justices who were willing to essentially rewrite the Second Amendment to the gun lobby’s liking. You can’t hope for much more than that.

And Dick Cheney, who was vice president (at least according to the Supreme Court) openly indulged in passionate lovemaking with the NRA, even speaking at its convention. And here’s where something really interesting happened. While addressing an assemblage of a cult that had become devoted to the maxim that any kind of restraint against firearms was pure evil (no word on whether he consulted his hunting partners on that), Mr. Cheney exercised the most extreme form of “gun control” of all: attendees had to check their hardware at the door.

I know, I know: it was really the Secret Service who insisted on this, and not the Mr. Cheney-who-never-thinks-about-his-flaws himself. But c’mon: he was the second most powerful human on the planet (many would say, with good reason, that he was actually the first). You mean to say that he couldn’t have overridden their orders if he hadn’t considered his own safety more important than that of the average citizen affected by the presence of guns? He and the NRA had a golden opportunity to practice what they preached, and send a message to the nation about just how sincere they were in standing against “gun control”. But they blew it big time.

Am I suggesting that the prohibition against the audience being armed at an appearance by the putative vice president is the same as the type of “gun control” that is applied to society at large? Not at all.  Society at large is made up of all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. The annual gun cult gathering is a highly controlled environment, and for Cheney’s appearance, it was patrolled by a top-notch security force. It was attended by people who are allegedly responsible, law-abiding gun owners — most of whom believe that an armed society is a polite society and guns make you safer and guns don’t kill, people do. But when confronted with the chance to put their barrels where their mouths are, Cheney and his NRA accomplices essentially told the faithful to go Cheney themselves, and did exactly what so many of them falsely accuse Barack Obama (and Adolf Hitler) of doing: they took away everyone’s guns.

And that brings us to the present, and to the chief executive who, for some reason or other, is even more of a godsend for the gunsters — not because he gives them everything they want, but because they can get away with pretending that he’s trying to take away everything they have. In the real world, Obama is no more restrictive on guns than was Reagan; and for that matter, he’s only slightly more “liberal”. Yet the gun culture deifies one and demonizes the other. Which leads one to suspect rather strongly that his complexion might be a factor — particularly when one considers that the gunsters are even far more hostile toward Obama than they were toward Clinton, even though the latter was at least as gung ho about “gun control”, at least as “liberal”, and was a Democrat to boot.

We’ve already given far, far FAR more attention to the Obama-Hitler meme (here, and here and here) than it ever deserved. Unfortunately, it’s still bringing in the lion’s share of page views and comments on this site. No wonder; it’s a trope so misguided, so hateful, so deranged, so monumentally idiotic that it was bound to become a solid fixture in the gunster gospel. The “thinking” goes like this: because Obama is trying to outlaw guns (which he isn’t) that makes him just like Hitler (who also didn’t), whose nonexistent gun ban made the Holocaust possible.

These are the same folks who love to proclaim that “gun control doesn’t work”, yet they also declare that “gun control” was nonetheless responsible for the quintessential tyranny and genocide in world history. When I point out this contradiction to them, the response I tend to get is “You fucking moron! This is different!” Oh. Now I’m really confused. Is Obama a Hitler clone or isn’t he? Does “gun control” work or doesn’t it? What’s that you say? Ah. “Gun control” doesn’t work to reduce crime, but it does work to enable a dictator to control the populace. So it always works to try to eliminate all guns, but it never works to try to eliminate just a few of them. Got it.

It has become an automatic response from gunsters to “defend” guns and all the harm they do by claiming that more people are killed by knives and/or blunt instruments. Both of which are irrelevant. Not to mention not even close to being true.  And of course, they absolutely must point out that more people are killed by automobiles. Which actually is true, but probably not for long. True or not, it’s a breathtakingly inept attempt at defense. Automobiles are designed for a constructive purpose rather than for killing, and are in use constantly, everywhere. Furthermore, their use is rather strictly regulated. Gunsters are being sarcastic when they suggest that those deadly cars should be regulated like guns; but I doubt if any advocates for gun regulation would have any problem with taking that quite literally.

The Second Amendment crowd particularly has its thong in a bunch over the president’s drawing a bead on assault weapons. It isn’t just that they don’t think assault weapons should be restricted; they don’t think there’s any such thing as an assault weapon. It is, they assert, just a fuzzy term made up by the media and other assorted libruls as an excuse to deprive them of their liberty.

Really? Looks like somebody forgot to pass that memo along to the Merchants of Death themselves:

 

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What’s that? “There’s a difference between assault rifle and assault weapon, you fucking commie Nazi gun-grabbing librul moron”? Oh. Sorry.
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Okay, let’s see if we can sort it all out. It’s forbidden for those outside the cult to use the A-word, even though those inside do. It’s mandatory to point out that automobiles kill more people than guns, but taboo to suggest that maybe guns should be regulated at least a fraction as much as automobiles. “Gun control” always fails, except for when it always succeeds. Obama is just like Hitler, except for when he’s totally different.  Obama is an enemy of the Second Amendment for wanting to ban assault weapons, but Reagan was a champion of the Second Amendment for wanting to ban assault weapons, certain types of ammunition, and armed civilians in the streets. Guns make you safer in the streets, but they can’t be permitted in a controlled environment — at least not if a right-wing VIP is making a speech. “Gun control” is racist when proposed by “liberals” because slaves were prohibited from owning guns (along with many, many other things) more than 150 years ago; but just ignore those instances of genuinely racist gun regulation 40 years ago, because they were crafted by the NRA and right-wing politicians, who are never guilty of such things. Everybody up to speed now?
But there’s even more to the tale. In a snit over new proposed gun laws, some American firearms companies, like spoiled schoolyard brats who take their bats and go home if everyone doesn’t play by their rules, have started refusing to sell their products to law enforcement agencies that support the restrictions; and members of the gun culture consider this very cute and clever.  What they may not realize is that many law enforcement agencies already had been planning to boycott firearms manufacturers that didn’t clean up their act. In any case it’s an excellent illustration of just how warped the gun culture mentality is when gun companies think they can teach police departments a lesson by cutting off  40 percent of their own revenues. There are plenty of foreign gun companies that are quite willing to do business with American law enforcement agencies. And if it becomes necessary for a substantially larger number of them to do so, it probably will result in greater expense to those agencies, which eventually will be passed on to citizens in the form of higher taxes and fees. And chances are the gun culture, being composed largely of rabid anti-government types, will not consider that very cute and clever.
But seeing long-term consequences is not exactly their strong suit. So for the time being, giddy from inhaling Second Amendment helium, they’re hellbent for leather on shooting themselves in both feet. And sticking both feet in their mouths.
(NOTE: As you’ve probably noticed, “gun control” is, like “liberal” and “conservative”, one of those terms I invariably enclose in quotation marks. There are mainly two reasons for this: (1) the expression has been co-opted by the gun culture as a term of derision; (2) it was never very accurate in the first place. Guns in the U.S. are WAY beyond “control”, but at least they can be regulated to some extent.
Incidentally, some gunsters object on similar grounds to the term “gun culture”, which is actually rather precise and appropriate. In any case, I’ve never known any of them to provide an alternative — much less a satisfactory one. I’m open to suggestions.)