Are you forced to be free?
Published on -2/28/2014, 4:35 PM
"Today we are all 'forced to be free' in a way that Rousseau could not have imagined when he coined that famous phrase. We have to make choices from a range of different stories -- stories about what the universe is like, about who the good guys and the bad guys are -- and also have to make choices about how to make choices. The only thing we lack is the option of not having to make choices -- although many of us try hard, and with some success to conceal that from ourselves."
Reality Isn't What It Used to Be. Walter Truett Anderson. Harper & Row. 1994
I'm no fan of "fair and balanced" if that means falsehoods get equal space with fact. Admittedly, distinguishing between the two often is neither easy, predictably enjoyable, nor comfortable ... maybe impossible. Sometimes the truth bites us in the rear, and we must live with it.
With multi-channel cable TV, AM and FM radio, an explosion of books, magazines, pamphlets and fliers (including what lands in my post office box regularly), and the Internet (including the blogosphere and email), it is tempting to suppose facts ultimately would be the winners. After all, we are free to choose from an onslaught of allegation and opinion offered by the truly global media.
As never before, the survival of a democratic republic demands journalistic ethics. I'll offer prime examples selected from the venerable Society for Professional Journalists:
"Seek truth and report it. Be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Check for inaccuracies. Use reliable sources. Identify them unless the information cannot be obtained otherwise. Don't plagiarize."
There are three big problems. First, virtually everyone today can be a published journalist -- at least by his, her or their own definition and estimation of "common sense" and ethics. Second and related, special interests with the goal of economic gain or political power deliberately can trump ethics. Calculated propaganda or outright lies can be very, very profitable to some.
As for the third, one might naively assume the more choices humans are offered, the likelier the truth ultimately would prevail. That, indeed, was the optimistic philosophy of the Enlightenment: Reason always wins.
As the French philosopher Rene' Descartes (1596 to 1650) quipped, "One of the best distributed commodities in the world is common sense, for every man is convinced he is well-supplied with it." (Choose whether or not Descartes was sarcastic.)
More commonly, business guru Dale Carnegie's (1888 to 1945) observation applies: "When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity." (Carnegie's 1936 book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" has sold 15 million copies and still is selling.) I can't argue with Carnegie's conclusion, except to add "fear" as a common if not even more effective motivator in choosing what to accept as true.
One of my favorite living authors is George Lakoff, distinguished professor of linguistics at Berkeley. Lakoff puts it this way: "It is a basic principle of false reason that every human being has the same reason governed by logic -- and that if you just tell people the truth, they will reason to the right conclusion."
Basically, Lakoff agrees with the English philosopher David Hume (1711 to 1776) that, "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." The point: What someone concludes is coldly reasonable doesn't assure it is moral, and morality should be the first priority.
In the best of all worlds, if passions did impose morality on reason, I would agree. In the real world, however, agreeing on moral values often is problematic. Quick examples: When is small government better than big government? Are there moral limits on individual or corporate freedom? Explain. Should the minimum wage be increased? Do gays threaten heterosexual marriages? Should public school classrooms begin with Christian prayer?
Whatever the case, Carnegie had a point. What too many people conclude is truth, or reject as untruth, involves thinking in polar opposites, supported by neither morality nor fact, but by pride, vanity, prejudice -- and fear. In our post-modern world -- given the variety and utter deluge of what we loosely might define as information -- we truly are forced to be free. That fact guarantees nothing further.
In my next column, the focus will be less on broad philosophy (which some surely find tedious) but on one specific believe-it-or-not article mailed to me "proving" civilians owning more firearms make us all safer.
Bob Hooper is a fourth-generation western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue.