Saturday, May 12, 2018

Truth and Sophistry and the Crisis of Communication

The ancient Athenians both elevated and suspected a democratic ideal of citizens’ full participation in the polis through that form of communication known as rhetoric (note that citizens were a privileged few in Athenian society).

Simultaneously, many citizens and philosophers doubted the capacity for public reason, fearing that the polis would be corrupted by sophistry as rhetoric was suborned to self-serving intentions.

Today these same concerns prevail, as evident in the articulation and framing of fake news as the central problem of western democracy.

What I think is interesting is that the problem of sophistry is framed primarily as a problem of Russian propaganda.

I have no doubt that the Russians are propagandists. I’ve noted for years their strategy of identifying and promoting what Gramsci described as “organic intellectuals,” such as Chris Hedges, Max Keiser, and Stacy Herbert. This strategy does not entail deception, but rather gives voice to internal opposition. It is not sophistry in the Platonic sense of the word.

The Russian-traced Facebook and Twitter posts designed by the Russians to foment divisiveness do illustrate the type of persuasion through deception that was rejected by Plato and the Aristotelian tradition as sophistry.

The Russians are propagandists guilty of sophistry, but as I’ve noted before they are operating in a crowded field. 

The techniques of propaganda were refined over the twentieth century in the fields of industrial psychology (e.g., Human Relations), marketing and public relations (see Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays), and political-military operations aimed at engineering and/or deconstructing political legitimacy (see Noam Chomsky). 

The articulation and promotion of organic intellectuals and the deliberate promotion of known untruths, including "noble lies," are tactics deployed by a wide array of forces aimed at engineering consent.

How can communication operate to promote democracy when truth is so elusive? I think that the answer to this question hinges on examining the ethics of communication first and foremost.

It is the human condition to advance one’s cause in communication, but the ethics deployed in that process vary significantly. 


The first question asked when interrogating communication ethics addresses who communicates to who and by what means (this requires identifying the message source, the audience, and any intended persuasive effects).

How open are the channels of communication? Do particular well-positioned sources monopolize the production and dissemination of mass communication?

What are the regularities in the patterns of access to the means of disseminating communication? Put otherwise, which individuals and groups are best positioned to advance their communications, framing events and elevating values with what aims?

I believe that TRANSPARENCY of message source is critical to addressing these vital questions and I applaud Facebook and other social media’s stated commitment to increasing transparency of messaging. Indeed, the entire political process needs more transparency.

An important way to combat the worst forms of sophistry is transparency of sourcing because it allows audiences to evaluate source ethics, especially with respect to conflicting interests.

The next step in evaluating communication concerns semantics and pragmatics. How does a particular communication construct meaning?

What problems does it identify or presuppose? What assumptions about the nature of reality and the distribution of power in society are built into the communications?  What values are structured into these assumptions and flow from from its solution-frames?

By addressing how truth is produced and governed in communication, analysts can disclose relations of power encoded into the “ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true,” as articulated by Michel Foucault (1979 Power/Knowledge, p. 132).

Efforts to historicize truth need not lapse into cultural relativism whereupon all forms of rhetoric are evaluated as equal in their virtues when the production and governance of truth are interrogated in relation to power effects. As Foucault observed, “its not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role that it plays” (p. 132).

How does the communication operate? What value and/or policy implications follow from its semantics? What are audiences called upon to do in response to the communication?

How do the fundamental semantic and pragmatic properties of a particular communication link up to others communications produced both by nodes in networked systems?

Transparency coupled with critical interrogation of the (historicized) truth value and ethics of communication are the solution, rather than censorship, to the crisis of communication in democracy.


1 comment:

  1. The Allegory of the Cave: the shadows on the cave wall serve most people for news and information. Journalists for the most part carry the shapes in front of the fire that cast the shadows. The fires represent the finance that keeps this operation going--not just MSM but text book publishers and probably the majority of the books sold by Amazon; and films and videos; etc. Plato left the cave. Probably Aristotle made it out, but I suspect he was not entirely comfortable there. So our civilization produces a few enlightened souls. Do universities currently encourage students to study the creations of these men and women? Someone well versed in the classics is not likely to be deceived or duped by fake news. Or to spread it. Eventually it is like music; you recognize the Beethoven or rap. Popular music at its best reflects classical music at its best. Great music carries a great message. Great poetry does the same thing. Dostoevsky out shines the NYT even at its best. It is hard to beat eating well.
    " “its not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role that it plays” This sentence is an example of why I quit reading Foucault. What in heavens name does he mean by the status of truth? My day consists in pursuing the truth: what should I feed the dog and the cat? myself? will it rain this afternoon while I am out? what shall I read this evening? is the Special Counsel un-Constitutional? Etc.?


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