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 most 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.