You Gotta Love Philosophy

Not sure most on the Left will get this.
WSJ – 8/6/2018

Many in the media—particularly the high-profile outlets that President Trump frequently attacks, such as CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times—seem to be concerned that they are inadvertently helping him, even as they fact-check his tweets relentlessly on the front page or at the top of the hour and back that up with opinion journalism, equally relentless, calling him a liar.

The crisis of self-reflection is precipitated by the circumstance that, no matter how loudly they scream, the president’s poll numbers are strikingly immobile. The current rethinking of how to present the facts seems to be driven by Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, and is being cast in terms of concepts developed in communications theory in the 1980s. In particular, the ideas of “framing” and “messaging” have gained prominence within the media, now with the unfortunate yet unforgettable added image of the “truth sandwich,” credited to CNN’s media reporter, Brian Stelter.

Mr. Lakoff, author of “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things” and “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” argues that fact-checking Mr. Trump is often counterproductive, in that it repeats the false claim, and people remember the false claim but not the evidence of its falsity. This is partly because, according to Mr. Lakoff, repetition changes our brain circuitry. “His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy,” Mr. Lakoff wrote in January. “Language works by activating basic structures called ‘frame-circuits’ used to understand experience. They get stronger when we hear activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.”

While interviewing Mr. Lakoff, Mr. Stelter suggested the “truth sandwich” approach to this difficulty. Journalism professor Indira Lakshmanan gives the following application. Let’s say Mr. Trump tweets that a wave of illegal-alien criminals are endangering all real Americans. Now, instead of writing an article reporting the tweet itself, followed by a fact-check, write an article that starts with the fact that illegal entry at the Mexican border is actually going down. Then report the tweet, and then its falsity. That way the facts get introduced first and last, providing the frame, and everyone ends up focusing on the truth.

I want to point out a few drawbacks. First off, in Ms. Lakshmanan’s example, she sets out to report on the president’s tweet, but “reports” instead on some generalized facts that are available on Wikipedia. In other words, she pretends to cover a story other than the one she is in fact covering. Her objective is not to report what is happening, but to manipulate her audience into believing what she says, so they will share her outrage about Mr. Trump. And the metaphor is confusing. Bologna is in the middle of a bologna sandwich. By analogy, in this “truth sandwich,” Mr. Trump’s tweet would be the truth, not the baloney.

Though Mr. Lakoff and his media devotees no doubt think their manipulative strategies diabolically clever and undetectable, they are as obvious as can be. The approach endorsed by Mr. Stelter and Ms. Lakshmanan is pointedly condescending to their own audiences.

Do they believe about themselves what they apparently believe about all people? If they themselves read an assertion and then a careful fact-check of that assertion showing it to be false, do they usually come out of that experience believing the assertion? In their own offices and newsrooms, they have seen Mr. Trump’s tweets repeated as much as anyone has. Has this increased their tendency to accept his frame or believe what he says?

If, as Mr. Lakoff thinks, human beings autonomically believe whatever we are told first and whatever we are told often, there really is no help possible for us anyway. Anyone can manipulate any of us by the most primitive methods. We are a species of suckers, and there’s not going to be any way of keeping any of us from believing all sorts of random nonsense, never mind making politics rational.

The people watching CNN or reading the Times see and hear Mr. Trump’s tweets as much as any Americans, and more or less universally oppose him. Mr. Lakoff’s account is as obviously false as it is patronizing. Indeed, his defense of his own views constitutes the worst sort of pseudoscience, and I challenge him actually to get from his concept of “framing” to the “framing circuits” in the brain. The appeal to neurology here is precisely what we would expect from Mr. Lakoff’s own account of human communication: an attempt to manipulate you into agreement. Maybe if he repeats “frame circuits” a few million more times, such circuits will actually appear.

Mr. Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.


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