Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Relativity of Objectivity Open Thread

I was a bit surprised to read a line in an arts article in The New York Times this morning that used what even I consider a subjective term in the context of journalism to describe the ongoing effort to fight terrorists hellbent on attacking the US. It's a term I use myself frequently, it's a term I totally understand and sympathize with, and it's a term that I read without giving it a second thought in the editorial section of the Times just yesterday.

My reason for highlighting it is not to disagree with the writer or even to suggest the writer is consciously making an overt politic statement by doing so. I was simply surprised, that's all, and it got me to thinking about how it's become rather difficult to separate out politics from anything these days.

In
a report on the third annual Conflux festival that was held in Williamsburg this past weekend, Martha Schwendener (who I know to be an insightful and thoughtful writer) wrote the following:
....was a presentation on “Guy Debord’s Game of War,” a work in progress by the Radical Software Group that the artists plan to publish eventually as free, open-source software. Taking their cues from an actual game developed by Debord, the group used its discussion to gather feedback on how older war-game strategies jibe with contemporary warfare, like the so-called war on terrorism. [emphasis mine]
With no quotes around it suggesting this was the term the Radical Software Group used, I was surprised to read this. Has "so-called war on terrorism" reached such a widely accepted usage that it's now truly, more-or-less neutrally synonymous with the "Global War on Terror." Or was Martha editorializing?

Now I don't mean to pick on Martha. She's a great art critic, and her report represents the sort of coverage I would like to see a lot more of, but this phrase made me wonder at what point does what was once a clearly political characterization become neutral enough to get past the editors?

Don't get me wrong, I consider Global War on Terror to be equally political (and grammatically, if not logically, challenged), but because the administration uses it (they still use it, no? Or has it morphed into the "Global War on Enemy Combatants and by 'Enemy Combatants' I mean anyone I, George Bush [and by 'I George Bush,' I mean I Dick Cheney] decide to haul off the streets and send to our 'enhanced interrogation' chambers"), I guess I let it go when a journalist uses it (but even as I write that I can see the inherent laziness of that).

In the end, I agree with Martha's characterization, but if someone uses it during dinner conversation I do indeed make a mental note that he/she is on my side of that issue, so I don't see it as entirely neutral. On the other hand, if Martha had used "Global War on Terror," I would have suspected interference by an editor (perhaps the one who dropped the ball in monitoring the propaganda Judith Miller was filing daily). So I wonder if a journalist isn't caught between a rock and a hard place here (yes, puns are calling).

Or is there a spectrum of objectivity for journalists based on their beat? If everyone you write about refuses to use the term Global War on Terror, aren't you making an equally questionable political statement by discussing their actions via the use of that phrase? Yes, quotes would technically absolve you, but even quotes (saying "these are not my words, Home Land Security") becomes a political statement, suggesting the subjects being covered are perhaps out of step with (who?) the President(?) to use what they do.

I'm sure there have been studies (anyone?) of how language or terminology shifts as the general sentiment for or against a political action shifts. Consider this an open thread on art, politics, language and objectivity.

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23 Comments:

Blogger prettylady said...

Well, Edward, I have to admit that my mind simply shuts off and turns away whenever any of these political rhetorical devices are used, because it is so staggeringly obvious that attacking anything makes it stronger. 'War on Poverty,' 'War on Drugs,''War on Terror'--these have all resulted in more poverty, more drugs, more terror.

Whether or not the Bush administration is sincere in its declaration that it is genuinely fighting terror, then, is beside the point. Declaring 'War on Terror' is a purely emotional response, bearing no relation to the actual steps it might take to eliminate terror and terrorism in the world.

My feeling is that terrorism would probably peter out by attrition if we weren't so assiduously fighting it, particularly because it is a remarkably poor means of achieving political objectives. But you can't reason with people who are operating emotionally, so I tend not to discuss it at all.

9/18/2007 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I had the idea that it might be better to think in terms of firefighters. I love firefighters because their motivations are so basically noble. No one fights fires because they get to beat people up or boss people around or get back at childhood bullies. People fight fires because they think it's important to help people. (Notice how few volunteer police departments there are.)

So I was thinking it'd be better if we used firefighting as our metaphor, instead of the military. Specifically I was thinking of this in terms of world hunger. Imagine treating an outbreak of hunger the way we treat fires: A team rushes out to the scene with food and feeds everyone!

The parallel isn't that crazy when you think about it. Firefighters began as a profession when people realized that fire was a problem for the whole community -- anyone's house could burn down, and any one fire could spread to hurt the entire populace. So people got together to take care of it before it got too far out of hand. Many problems are similar -- hunger, terrorism, poverty.

I think fighting hunger is probably the one that lends itself best to firefighting as a strategy, but even so, there are problems. Terrorism even more. Mainly because firemen aren't military and worldwide, hunger and terrorism (and often poverty) are military problems.

Still, I like the idea. It rolls around in my head from time to time.

9/18/2007 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Nice article PL. Thanks.

I've been thinking a good deal about the lack of correspondence between terrorism and logic lately though, because I've seen two films centered on the Israeli / Palestinian conflict in which I got so remarkably upset at the character in each who blows himself and others up, not only because it's a barbaric and wholly unforgivable thing to do in my opinion (and I'd hope this doesn't descend into a defense of terrorism on any level by anyone because I strongly oppose it by anyone for any purpose, even when it's not called terrorism by that entity, and even when it's considered an act of legitimate war...targeting innocents is and will always remain the lowest of human conduct in my opinion) but also because I couldn't see the thread that led these otherwise sympathetic characters to make that leap to killer.

In neither movie (The Bubble or Paradise Now) did I even remotely feel the narrative led to the final destructive action. There was a large gap in both stories, from my point of view.

A good friend of mine in the movie industry explained while I was ranting about this sloppy filmmaking that perhaps in both the point was that looking for logic or sense in such actions is pointless. There is none.

Leading me back to your article, which I agree with. Choosing terrorism to attain your political goals is moronic because it is so ineffective. Even though most terrorists will claim to have political objectives, I feel that for many of them the point of terrorism (like the point of torture being torture itself) is indeed terrorism itself. Inflicting pain, making others feel as horrible as you feel, is the point for many I suspect.

9/18/2007 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger RichardTScott said...

I don't know if you've read it, but there's an interesting article from 2003 by George Lakoff, linguistics professor at UC Berkeley, discussing the use of language in politics.

9/18/2007 01:06:00 PM  
Blogger jec said...

"so-called" is one of Lou Dobbs' favorite phrases. I notice it every time he uses it, as I notice that he refers to China as "Communist China." The thing is that most people who watch Dobbs probably consider him a journalist or anchor, not an opinion journalist. The lines have become completely blurred and most viewers don't know there is a difference. That's how Fox News gets away with their claim that they are "fair and balanced."

Journalism in this country is in a terrible state, and it's hurting discourse and ultimately hurting our democracy. I'm an attentive, informed viewer/reader, and even I don't always recognize when I'm being scammed. The sad thing is, often the reporters don't either.

9/18/2007 01:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Barry said...

It doesn't seem that unusual for the New York Times to inject editorial comments in the political/war coverage either. See James for an example.

9/18/2007 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Well...

...it is a so-called war on terror.

Rationally speaking, there are a bunch of people who use the term "War on Terror." This term is a logical absurdity, akin to declaring a "War on Kicking," or a "War on Bullying." But through sheer repetition by powerful people this illogical idea has become something we all have to deal with.

The only rational way to deal with such a situation is to use a term like "so-called war on terror," that acknowledges that it's in play without allowing it to become factual through an act of intellectual bludgeoning.

When journalists prioritize objectivity over rationality, they allow huge lapses in reality and logic to develop and expand. While there are few situations in which there is one "right" and one "wrong" side, not every single thing one says is an issue, or a situation. There are such things as facts, and it is too easy to use buzzwords like "objectivity" to distort thought.

9/18/2007 01:29:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Agree with most of what you write, Deborah, but most journalists I know (and I know a few) would say that "objectivity" is a hallmark, not just a buzzword, of their profession.

9/18/2007 01:40:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Well, "objectivity" is an ideal, not an actual achievable condition.

9/18/2007 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

And like any ideal, without a commitment to strive for it, things get even worse.

9/18/2007 02:05:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Don't mind me. I'm so bored right now I'm very near to hallucinating. I'm not sure why I posted that.

Right. We should have a commitment to objectivity in news reporting, even though we know we can never really be objective. Agreed.

I wonder why Deborah says that objectivity allows huge lapses in reality and logic. It's not objectivity, or its pursuit, that does that; it's the desire to present a "balanced" view. A more objective view would reveal that many times, that opposing view included for "balance" is complete nonsense.

9/18/2007 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I think there is a difference between not taking a side on an issue and making sure each fact or phrase one uses doesn't favor one side.

I don't think journalists should take a side on any one issue.

But when journalists avoid calling things what they are in the name of objectivity, they wind up taking the side of whomever is willing to exploit this specific intellectual weakness.

9/18/2007 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Chris, blast it, I think we are arguing the same thing.

9/18/2007 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Yeah, Deborah -- can I call you Deb? -- we agree. But I think your use of the word "objectivity" is wrong. It's not objectivity that gets them in trouble, it's balance. Which may be caused by journalists' confusion as to what constitutes objectivity, true.

Objectivity doesn't mean treating evolution and intelligent design as equally valid -- which a journalist might do to provide "balance". Equal air time and all. Objectivity, in fact, would mean treating evolution as scientific theory and intelligent design as religion, and keeping them separated, as one would keep apples and burned out alternators separated.

9/18/2007 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan T. D. Neil said...

If 'objectivity' is the question here, I recommend David Halberstam's The Powers That Be', which details the rise of the modern mainstream media in the US (the book is composed of 4 intertwined histories of CBS, Time, The Washington Post and The LA Times).

The objectivity that Chris calls a hallmark of journalism is a surprisingly recent development in this country. DH gives most of the credit to Phil and Kay Graham at the Post for the high standards that paper achieved in the 60s and 70s. Prior to that period, most papers were in the pockets of their publishers and could hardly be relied upon for anything approaching 'objective' reporting. Of course, most big towns had competing papers with competing politics, so it wasn't too hard to find the rag which reconfirmed your already existing views (sound familiar?).

Which is to say: it is quite possible that the rise of 'objectivity' in journalism will turn out to be a short-lived rhetorical strategy which was tried out at a moment of upheaval within the history of the information age; and that moment, with the arrival of the internet, is now over.

9/18/2007 05:01:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Please excuse me for being redundant, but I think that the point that Chris and Deborah are both arguing is the one made by Deborah Tannen in 'The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words'--that we assume the Truth is arrived at by dialectical argument. Thus we try to construct two oppositional 'sides' and pit them against one another as equals, even if there are dozens of potential perspectives on the issue, some of them radically more reality-based than others.

Truly 'objective' journalism would actually try to get at some facts, not just present obvious fallacies as valid 'perspectives,' for the sake of a manufactured argument.

9/18/2007 06:26:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Hm. Could be that's what underlies the action of "balanced" reporting. It seems to me to be a new thing, though: As JTDN says above, objectivity in journalism is a relatively new phenomenon. While I'm not sure past journalists were entirely under the control of their publishers, certainly they were more willing to take one side and present it without equivocation. This has its drawbacks -- ordering cultures from worst to best (with "ours" being the "top", of course) is one obvious problem -- but also its advantages.

I think this attitude of balance has infected other areas, too. For example, you're not supposed to say "Conceptual art sucks," you're supposed to keep it to yourself, lest someone tell you that it's you who sucks.

I'd rather a world where people take sides and hold opinions and then argue about it. Because you know, deep down, when someone says "Let's agree to disagree," what they're really saying is "Obviously you're a moron who will never come around to the only intelligent position on this matter, so let's stop discussing what a fucking idiot you are."

9/18/2007 07:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Using prettylady's logic

it is so staggeringly obvious that attacking anything makes it stronger

I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce a declaration for a "War on Peace"

9/18/2007 10:40:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Peace is strength, dear. It is not possible to make it any stronger.

9/19/2007 01:16:00 AM  
Anonymous ben said...

The term 'insurgents' comes to mind in relation to all this. supposedly it was a victory for journalistic integrity over the spin of the Bush-administration, (if i remember correctly they were calling those who now get the label insurgents 'terrorists', please correct me if i'm wrong on this).

We surely miss the point if we label all attacks on US troops and the Iraqi people as the work of "insurgents". Attacks on civilians in Iraqi are what we would have called (without hesitation prior to the ramping up of retoric around terrorism) terrorist attacks, while attacks on a force that illegally invaded your country could easily be considered "acts of war", (war in the old sense before it became possible to fight with things like drugs).

For me the term "insurgents" confers legitimacy to the Iraqi government and the occupying force of US troops. it suggests that the "INsurgents" are fighting their own people (in which case they should be called terrorists) rather than an illegitimate invading force.

Perhaps this is why Bush et al are happy to call them insurgents.

9/19/2007 03:34:00 AM  
Anonymous cerberus said...

What bothers me is not bias but a lack of transparency. You and I know David Brooks is a mouth-piece for the current administration, so why not list his affiliation with his name? "Written by David Brooks, shilling for the Bush Administration." Just own up to the bias so that the reader knows how to filter the information.

9/19/2007 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Just own up to the bias so that the reader knows how to filter the information.

That may, in the end, be the very best we can hope for, I agree.

There is this gray area though in which even though I know that, say, The New York Post, is a mouthpiece for the GOP, that I'll retain some information I read in there (I occassionally will if I'm on the subway and someone left their copy on the seat) and file it away as "fact." There are of course some facts in the NYPOST (there would have to be, no?), but my point is that even if you declare a bias or the reader is aware of it, there's this osmosis of sort that happens anyway, suggesting we still have to hammer away at the lack of objectivity of journalists who ask to be taken seriously.

9/19/2007 10:57:00 AM  
Anonymous cerberus said...

The only facts I believe from the Post are on the sports page.

9/19/2007 04:36:00 PM  

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