Sep. 21st, 2008

flewellyn: (Default)
I was browsing through the Onion's archives, looking for an old article that I wanted to reread, when I came across this little story:

Study: 38 Percent Of People Not Actually Entitled To Their Opinion

I won't quote it all here, mostly for reasons of copyright and fair use; the critical quote is this: "On topics from evolution to the environment to gay marriage to immigration reform, we found that many of the opinions expressed were so off-base and ill-informed that they actually hurt society by being voiced".

Funny? Sure it is. But it's the kind of thing you laugh at uncomfortably, because it's a truth many of us don't want to admit.

Now, as a progressive, liberal type, I do believe in the principle that everyone should have the right to express their informed, considered opinions. But I think the key words there are "informed" and "considered". Too many people today (it might even be as large as 38%, I have no idea) think that they can just spout off on whatever, without actually knowing anything about it. Not incidentally, many of them are Bush voters, but I'm certain we've all seen them on all sides of the political arena.

And in the press, of course. $DEITY help us, the press, especially the cable news media and the Washington press corps, are FULL of these sorts of people, who feel no compunction about substituting their whims for facts, or polling themselves and their pundit friends and calling that the will of the people. I think that's the part that frightens me the most about this age, not that there are so many ignorant people out there, but that the ignorant and vapid are in charge.

We're faced with a system in which the news media, charged with the most important task in a democratic republic, finding out the truth about the world, has absolutely no interest in doing that job. They would rather manufacture stories than seek them out, rather opine from their mountaintop than actually figure out what's really important to the rest of the country or the world.

How did this happen? Well, others have written more cogently, and at great length, about how the Republican party and its corporate backers have spent the last 30 years taking over the national media and consolidating it into a sanitized machine for expressing their will rather than the truth; I'm not going to repeat all that here, I wouldn't do it any justice. But I think, to some extent, we progressives allowed this to happen, by not fighting it when we saw it.

We adopted, for the best of reasons and out of the purest intentions, the principle that everyone is entitled to an opinion, and everyone's entitled to a voice, and if someone says something which is not just objectionable, but factually incorrect, we should challenge what they say, but not their right to say it. If someone habitually speaks falsely, or just spouts outright gibberish, we should refute it, but not tell them to shut up or refuse to listen to them. It's a great principle, and in many cases it's workable. But it only works as long as the forum in which we do this discussion and refutation is not under hostile control.

That's not the case anymore. For various reasons, we didn't recognize the neoconservative movement for what it was, didn't realize that they were not just presenting alternative ideas but trying to rewrite the national discourse to suit themselves. We didn't understand that they had no interest in a genuine meeting of the minds, coming to some kind of consensus, but sought our destruction, and that any concessions they made were not compromise, but temporary retreat. In the face of the wholesale takeover of the media by regressive and reactionary forces, the government's near-total takeover by the far right, and the near-total dismantling of the progressive institutions and protections we once spent over a century to build, we must reexamine the idea that everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Certainly, the Onion is being satirical, but I think they're expressing a truth that progressives need to own, and need to present to the world: a person is not entitled to an uninformed, ignorant opinion. In order to be worth listening to, that person needs to demonstrate that he or she actually knows something about the subject, and has considered the issue sufficiently. And if we're confronted with people who are not just misguided, or misinformed, but unwilling to learn and hellbent on spreading harmful memes, we must be willing to do more than simply refute what they say. We must challenge their qualifications to say it, and refuse to allow them to dominate the discourse.

I'm not advocating government censorship here; what I call for is both safer and more effective. What we must do is socially censor these fools, by making it clear that they are fools, and that we won't suffer them gladly. We have to be willing to say, not just "I disagree", but "You are wrong, you are speaking falsely". We need not tolerate intolerance, and we need not grapple logically with illogic. Sometimes, we need to do the only thing these people deserve: we need to say "Shut up and sit down."

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flewellyn

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