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News That Makes You Stupid

News That Makes You Stupid

I perused through an old article this morning, a special from The Atlantic on Andrew Anglin. The piece was written more than a year ago, and I had neglected it at the time of its publication, despite making the rounds in politically right-wing circles. In reading it, I remember why I had ignored it, and why I should have continued to ignore it.

The article is — or rather, was — demonstrative of a trend in journalism in which the meat of the writing is not in the facts or the sequencing of events, but rather lies in leading hedges. “So-called,” “allegedly,” “self-proclaimed,” and a variety of other diminutive descriptors are appended to the words and descriptions of one side of the story, and omitted from the other. Perhaps the most obvious one is putting words in quotation-marks which are neither direct quotes, nor unfamiliar words being defined, nor a article or song title. The quotation marks are intended only to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the term. This is something Steven Pinker joked about in The Sense of Style, citing some writers’ tendency to do this unintentionally (e.g., “He thought she was “beautiful””). But with modern “journalism”–see?–the effect is very much intentional.

Consider the following paragraph, from the Atlantic piece:

The calls marked the start of a months-long campaign of harassment orchestrated by Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the world’s biggest neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer. He claimed that Gersh was trying to “extort” a property sale from Sherry Spencer, whose son, Richard Spencer, was another prominent white nationalist and the face of the so-called alt-right movement.

What we have here is two sentences, representing two different perspectives.

The first sentence represents the perspective of the journalist, simply observing facts. “The calls” is the subject, and the ending clause–“Andrew Anglin, the publisher… The Daily Stormer”–is the object, meaning the perspective is, in the writing vernacular, an omniscient third-person observer-narrator. It’s a fancy way of saying that the reader is a smart, objective, and most of all, reliable interpreter of events.

Now contrast this with the second sentence. There are three different leading hedges crammed into this single sentence:

He claimed that Gersh was trying to “extort” a property sale from Sherry Spencer, whose son, Richard Spencer, was another prominent white nationalist and the face of the so-called alt-right movement.

Objectively speaking, there is nothing factually incorrect about the sentence. Despite the difference in connotation, “claim” is, if we are being technical, a synonym for “said.” Anglin probably did use the word “extort,” but quotes around isolated, morally-charged words are almost always used to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the word. Saying “he said that Gersh was trying to extort a property sale…” conveys Anglin’s sentiments with the exact same precision, only omitting the author’s personal feelings. And of course, every pop-journalist’s favorite hedge: “so-called.”

So-Called

What is added with the phrase? What is the difference between:

…another prominent white nationalist and the face of the alt-right movement.

and

…another prominent white nationalist and the face of the so-called alt-right movement.

Nothing, except judgment.

To be clear, judgment is an old, and perhaps integral part of writing. Journalists who claim to be dedicated to facts first may have different standards, but The Atlantic is more of a commentary magazine than a journalistic one. Judgment and opinions are a part of the genre, and a part of the purpose. But there are two problems with the manner in which the judgment is injected into the commentary of modern journalism. First, it is oblique, disguised under the pretense of objectivity or “mere facts.” And second, the style itself has become so integral to the way in which modern pundits write that it seems to have affected their ability to think objectively.

The manner in which personal judgments and skepticism is presented as if it were factual is the purpose of a leading hedge. It is almost subliminal, an associative feeling the reader is intended to ascribe to the object in question, but without dwelling too long on the source of the description or the reason for the association.

This kind of leading treats the reader as someone who cannot come to conclusions on their own. Despite presenting an array of facts relating to the subject — an array which the author should believe to be conclusive in favor of their own opinion — they nevertheless inject these sneaky little primers into their sentences in what appears to be a compulsive, habitual manner.

Of course, leading hedges are the more clever kind of priming, but they are not the only kind. Writers will often attach more overt descriptive adjectives (“white supremacist,” “communist,” “neo-nazi,” “racist,” “Islamophobic,” etc), and simply overwhelm the reader with these more blunt literary implements.

Consider, for example, this incredible headline:

WHITE SUPREMACIST REP. STEVE KING ENDORSES WHITE SUPREMACIST FAITH GOLDY FOR TORONTO MAYOR

The Canadian anti-Semite has recited a neo-Nazi slogan, appeared on a neo-Nazi podcast and endorsed a book calling for calling for the “elimination of Jews.”

A man who spouts white supremacist views from his perch in Congress has endorsed another white supremacist vying to become Toronto’s next mayor.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) on Monday tweeted out his support of Faith Goldy, a far-right white nationalist who is looking to lead Canada’s largest city.
“Faith Goldy, an excellent candidate for Toronto mayor, pro Rule of Law, pro Make Canada Safe Again, pro balanced budget, & …BEST of all, Pro Western Civilization and a fighter for our values,” King tweeted. He added that the mayoral candidate “will not be silenced.”

Just a cursory walk-through of this incredible little masterpiece. Not one allegation of “white supremacism,” but two. Interestingly the claim that King is a white supremacist appears to be based upon his concerns about immigration in Europe. The basis for calling Faith Goldy a white supremacist seems to be based upon her willingness to talk with The Daily Stormer, a crime of association which, if one were to be consistent, might condemn Luke O’Brien of the Atlantic piece on Andrew Anglin. Many of the claims are tenuous at best, if not outright false, and are often irrelevant anyway. But their purpose is not to inform or to give relevant and true facts pertinent to the subject. They are to build a rock-solid emotional association, so that the reader will respond in the desired manner to the respective stimulus.

The fact that they are compulsive and habitual is not just a function of their persuasive purpose. “So-called” is a space filler. It is a cheap, 9-character space-filler that makes the writing sound punchy and critical, and implies a promise to explain how the hedged object’s name is, for whatever reason, inappropriate. It also cannot be falsified. Whatever object is “so-called” is, indeed, called so — at least by someone. If these injections are habitual and compulsive, rather than conscious additions, then their effects are not limited to the readers, but to the writers themselves.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Both the disguised nature of the bias and its effect on the thinking of the writer produce commentary that makes people stupid. It makes them unable to accurately and critically evaluate facts and draw their own conclusions from them, because the saturation of the presented writing with leading hedges creates an overwhelming moralistic sense of the presented position is not just “correct,” but “good.” Moralizing a position makes it unchallengeable. No one has a problem saying “I’m not sure if that’s true,” but it becomes socially hazardous to go against what is deemed good and evil.

And of course, the subliminal priming works. If people don’t notice it, the leading hedges can and do result in people accepting positions and conclusions that, if questioned about it, they cannot give reasons for. Sometimes, they don’t even remember how or why they hold these positions, but if challenged, they have no trouble moralizing about it. Especially if you disagree.

Let’s fast-forward to today.

There has been a fair bit of interest over the new NPC meme, which describes mainstream media consumers (especially liberals and progressives) as Non-Playable Characters (NPCs), which are famous for their scripted dialogues and generally poor observation and reasoning skills. Twitter, for example, has been banning thousands of accounts for making references to the meme, and some progressives are even calling it dehumanizing. To their credit, it is pretty insulting.

But is it unwarranted?

So far as I can tell, those who follow the professional pundits and clever commentators gradually do take on these irritating attributes of unmanned bots, regurgitating scripted lines and unable to deal with criticisms or alternatives that have not been pre-scripted by their proverbial programmers. In short, some news makes people stupid.

Obviously, not all outlets are uniform in their stupefying nature. On FOX news, for example, I find Tucker Carlson’s interviews to be interesting and sometimes even informative, while Sean Hannity’s “Opening Monologue” seems to be just a hodgepodge of conservative buzzwords and group-think amalgamated into a rambling diatribe. The title suits the content, I suppose. Those who swallow this without chewing are not doing themselves any intellectual favors. They’d be better off with Keeping up with the Kardashians, which at least makes no pretense to political profundity.

But the greater point is that the process is reversible. If you keep an eye out for these leading hedges, I guarantee you will find no shortage of them. While being able to see them is not an inoculation, it is a defense of sorts. Perhaps more importantly, it reveals bad writing, and can help the reader be more discerning and more equipped to identify poor writing and, by extension, poor reasoning. And perhaps after enough time, you can accumulate a list of sources which genuinely make you smarter.

Or at least less easily programmed.

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