True Enough

I don’t normally discuss books on the blog, mainly because I rarely read books with any relationship to libraries. Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws or Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars (to name two books I’m currently reading) seem to be of little relevance to librarianship, though I suppose the same could be said of Aristotle’s ethical theory and Rawls’ political philosophy and I’ve managed to draw connections between them and reference service and collection development.

This week I did read a book of some library interest, or at least I think it might be: True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008). I ran across it because someone mentioned it in a comment on this blog (thanks, John!).

It’s a quick read, though perhaps a bit depressing. Mostly it’s about the way that the Web and other modern communication technology and trends are exacerbating a problem inherent in the human psyche. We have a tendency to see what we want to see or believe things that reinforce what we already believe rather than challenging ourselves or seeing another’s point of view. We tend to believe what we want to be true. The book mentions several psychological experiments that seem to confirm this. With what the author calls the splitting of reality, it’s easier than ever to get just the news and views we want, which tend to be the ones that confirm what we already think it true. Of necessity, we act as if what we believe is true, which implies that we all think people who disagree with us are wrong. With the Internet and niche television, we can now insulate ourselves from the Other. A mission of higher education should be to challenge our own thinking and make us more able to empathize with others. In the last post I wrote that if we can’t understand why people would hold political views very different from our own, then the problem is our own lack of knowledge and imagination. True Enough is in one sense an examination of willful ignorance and an absence of empathetic imagination. There are chapters on the swift-boating of John Kerry, 9/11 conspiracies, and the “stolen” presidential election of 2004 that investigate why people seem to believe things that have by any reasonable standard been unproven. Some people just want to believe that John Kerry was a bad soldier or that he really won the 2004 election or that the US government blew up the World Trade Center, despite the lack of real evidence.

The chapter on 9/11 conspiracies resonated the most with me because I’ve watched a lot of the conspiracy videos (such as Loose Change, which Manjoo discusses) and seen a lot of the websites in my exploration of this bizarre shadow world. In my writing seminar I use a 9/11 conspiracy website and the 9/11 Commission Report in an exercise on evaluating sources. How does one debunk conspiracy theories, since the people holding them are apparently incapable of seeing any evidence that doesn’t affirm what they already believe? If True Enough is true enough, then one doesn’t debunk them for the true believers.

There was even a Princeton connection, which I’m sure will be fascinating for the three of my readers at Princeton. The author describes different perspectives on a 1951 Princeton-Dartmouth football game that Princeton won despite what some Princetonians claimed was Dartmouth’s dirty playing. Princetonians watched the game and saw Dartmouth playing dirty. Dartmouthians (is that the right word? probably not) watched the game and just saw a rough game. The point is that everyone sees the same thing going on, but processes it according to their own biased perspective. We see what we want to see, and perhaps more importantly don’t see what we don’t want to believe. We all witnessed the news in the months leading up to war in Iraq. Some of us saw a compelling case for going to war with an evil dictator who had attacked the US on 9/11 and who had weapons of mass destruction he was just itching to use on America, while others of us waited in vain for any substantial case for war and wondered why other people were gullible enough to believe the unjustified lies daily emanating from the White House. Reality is what we want it to be.

We’re in the business of information, and how information is manipulated and propagated is probably of interest to a lot of us. I’d recommend True Enough as a good quick read about some ways information is now disseminated in society. I’ll conclude with a quote from the book:

“Propagandists have become experts at mining the vulnerabilities of the many-media world . . . . They’ve adopted a range of methods to exploit the current conditions–some are as benign as the covert placement of products in films and TV shows, but others are more questionable, such as planting VNRs on the news, or buying up pundits, or spreading their messages anonymously and “virally” through blogs, videos, and photos on the Web.

Technically, what these operatives aim to do is capture one or many of the forces I’ve discussed so far: selective exposure, in which we indulge information that pleases us and cocoon ourselves among others who think as we do; selective perception, in which we interpret documentary proof according to our long-held beliefs; peripheral processing, which produces a swarm of phony experts: and the hostile media phenomenon, which pushes the news away from objectivity and toward the sort of drivel one sees on cable.

In practice, what propagandists are doing is simpler to describe: they’ve mastered a new way to lie.”