Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Philosophy or Physics 101 For Journalism Students

In philosophy or physics, the notion that there is no such thing as objectivity is not new. 3 centuries ago Bishop Berkeley was giving objectivity some blows, which to some seemed and seem like knockout punches, and in the 20th century Werner Heisenberg and others gave some substantial scientific underpinning to subjectivism -- the assertion that everything we know is subjective and that objectivity is nothing more than an illusion -- a viewpoint which, in philosophy or physics, may not be universal, but which by no means is unfamiliar any longer. Try to introduce it into a discussion of journalism by journalists, however, and you may well be treated as an annoyance who is interrupting the grown-ups.

Well, journalists, the feeling is mutual, frankly. It's astounding that you are so well-insulated, in the 21st century, from the notion that there is no such thing as subjectivity. If you're covering politicians and politics, tell us your opinions of those politicians -- not just in op-ed pieces, but all of the time. Are 94% of you Democrats? That would be a good thing for the public to know. Republican would say -- some currently are saying -- it's proof that you're biased. I would say that you spend your careers studying Democrats and Republicans up close, which naturally makes you the leading experts on Democrats and Republicans, and that if so many of you prefer Democrats, it probably means Democrats are by far the better major party.

*sigh* I know we're a long way from getting there, practically. But conceptually, it's a very simple step to grasping that the best way you can inform the public is to share your opinions with us. "But's it's only our opinions!" you'll object. "It's always people's opinions whenever they communicate," I'd respond. And we always are aware -- well, some of us are aware -- that we're dealing with opinions, with subjective viewpoints. The problem is that you regard this thing you call "objective reporting" as more than subjective opinion, when really it is less. You start with your subjective opinions about the politicians you cover and the things they do, and then you subtract everything which might betray how you feel about what you cover, until you have reduced it to what you call "objectivity." This "objectivity" is not more information than your opinions, it's much, much less. It's a paltry sliver of all that you know.

All I can do is share with you my opinions and experiences -- which is all that you or anybody can do (in my opinion). And for me, this subjectivism is very clear and obvious. As I learned about philosophy and physics and art and other things, suddenly I could feel relativity, could feel the way that everything I know and experience is subjective -- feel it in a physical way as well as intellectually. And there's no way now to un-feel it or un-know it, to become once again unaware of it, and, for example, unaware of how a painting by Matisse of a potted plant is far richer in information than any photograph of a potted plant could be, because it's far more subjective. I'm not familiar with a page of Nietzsche's work that doesn't appear (to me, of course!) to take this lack of objectivity for granted -- but if you want an example of a passage where this is particularly obvious, check out the famous rant of the crazy person in the froehlichen Wissenschaft who keeps exclaiming that God is dead, saying things like "Aren't we continually plunging, backwards, sideways, forward, in every direction? Is there still an up and a down?"

Belief in objectivity is like belief in God: very comforting, extremely useful in some ways from certain points of view, and entirely farfetched, and some of us are past it and occasionally frustrated waiting for the rest of you to catch up.

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