How President Trump’s Attack on the Media Undermines Our Ability to Be Brave and to Think Critically

I consider myself extremely fortunate because all of my life I have been exposed to a wonderful variety of both conservative and liberal ideas. It has made me a better thinker and a more brave and loving person. I grew up in a large, conservative and republican family. My grandpa idolized Ronald Regan, and when I was younger, I was pretty much convinced that Ronald Regan was on par with the twelve disciples.

My family is also Quaker on both sides going back many generations. Quakers historically have been extremely concerned about social issues such as the abolition of slavery, prison reform, gender equality, and women’s suffrage.

Furthermore, Quakers believe that every human being possesses the light of God and so they generally refuse to acknowledge social hierarchies; they refuse to fight in wars; and they are critical of social institutions that dehumanize anyone. Quaker civil action has been largely responsible for many of the civil right advances in our country.

Because of my Quaker influence growing up I have always been critical of ideologies suggesting that social welfare institutions are, in themselves, wrong; that unwavering patriotism or loyalty to political authorities is virtuous; or that certain groups of people are less valuable than other groups.

 

I was also fortunate to attend a Quaker college, Malone University, that encouraged critical thinking. My college was generally conservative, but my professors and mentors continually encouraged me to think carefully. For example, although my college had very strong pro-life inclinations, one of my professors invited to class a woman who was strongly committed to her faith but who also worked at an abortion clinic. She spoke to us about her job, why she did it, and why she believed it was compatible with her religious beliefs.

My professor did this because he thought it was important for us to interact with people who held ideas very different from our own so that we could sharpen our understanding and analysis of the world. This taught me that we do not have to be afraid of examining an issue from different viewpoints, even viewpoints that are really different from one another.

In addition, although my college was largely Republican, one of the main campus groups I was involved in taught me to be critical of oppressive, racist, and sexist social structures that dishonor the image of God in people, silence their voices, and prevent the development of a just and peaceful society. This group continually stressed that sin, ignorance, and imperfection are present in both religious and non-religious groups, Republicans and Democrats.

This taught me that I could not adopt any religious or political ideology in an uncritical manner. Rather, I had to continually analyze the ideas I was hearing and consider whether they were right or wrong, how they honored the dignity of human beings, and whether they worked to bring justice and the kingdom of God here on earth.

quakers-and-native-americans

One of the things I appreciate about my Quaker ancestors is their respect for and peaceful relationships with Native Americans. This picture depicts William Penn making a treaty with Native Americans.

Given these influences and the profound affect they had on my thinking, it is not surprising that eventually I decided to pursue a PhD in philosophy with an emphasis in social and political philosophy. In my doctoral program, I had the privilege of reading a wide variety of conservative and liberal political views and studying under professors who held both conservative and liberal philosophies. I read books by people who were staunch conservatives, libertarians, classic liberals, anarchists, socialists and communists

My thinking grew stronger by reading all of these different views, and it taught me how to dialogue and work with a wide variety of people. I eventually wrote my dissertation on education and justice, and the special focus of my dissertation was how we educate students so that they can create a more just society.

Drawing on the educational philosophy of writers such as Immanuel Kant, Hegel, Herbert Marcuse, and Paulo Freire, I argue that these philosophers suggest that if education is to bring about a more just society, it is imperative that it foster certain virtues. These are virtues such as hospitality for other views (which requires bravery and love), humility about the finitude of our own reasoning, as well as the virtues of playfulness and hope that inspire us to keep searching for the answers we need to create a better world.

lincoln-douglas-debate-2

This picture depicts an advertisement for the widely attended public debates between Lincoln and Douglas, many of which lasted hours at a time.

These are virtues that I try to instill in my students in my philosophy classes. I do this by exposing them to a wide variety of philosophical views and by helping them craft careful arguments in support of their own views. On the first day of class, I tell them that my goal is that they become the boss of themselves—that they know why they believe what they do and that they have good, solid reasons for their beliefs.

If I do this well, I find that students often correct errors in their own arguments. If, on the other hand, I try to force students to believe what I believe, I have not taught them to think on their own. I have taught them to acquiesce to the loudest and most aggressive authority figure in their lives.

This brings me to President Trump. Throughout his political campaign and the first few months of his presidency, President Trump has consistently railed against the liberal media, the dishonest media, the enemy of the people, and he has accused the media of spreading fake news. There is nothing wrong, per se, with his calling attention to these various issues.

After all, neither liberals or conservatives are perfect, and in our common life together, it is likely that people all along the political spectrum sometimes abuse and misuse public discourse. Certainly some left-leaning news sources do have an unprofessional bias, as do some conservative news sources, and sometimes left-leaning news sources do spread fake news, as do conservative news sources.

One thing that is troubling about President Trump’s recent attacks on the media is that he refuses to hold himself to any similar standard. For instance, while President Trump barred certain media outlets from recent press conferences, he permitted other media outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News, which appear to have a strong, even sometimes an unprofessional conservative bias, to attend his press conference. This suggests that President Trump is less concerned about whether news is biased and more concerned about whether the news presents him in a favorable light.

While President Trump has criticized fake news, he promulgates fake news of his own, whether purposefully or not, such as when he implied that there had been a recent terrorists attack in Sweden. And this was not the first time President Trump’s administration has spread inaccurate news. It also occurred when Kellyanne Conway spoke of the Bowling Green attack, an attack that never occurred. This indicates that Trump is less concerned with whether news is accurate and more concerned with whether news supports the points he wants to make.

Trump is not the only president to take on the press, as this article from the Los Angeles Times points out. Presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, and even President Obama have criticized various aspects of the press. What is especially troubling about President Trump’s recent rhetoric about the media is that he continually suggests that he is the only one who really gets the American public; that he is the only one who is speaking the truth to the American people; and that he is the best person to guide their thinking.

This is paternalistic, controlling, and authoritarian, and the President does not have the right to decide such things for us. We are adults. We can think for ourselves. We can decide whether the news we read is unduly biased or is untrue. There are simple ways to do this such as reading a wide variety of news sources to get different views of a particular issue or story, as well as analyzing the credentials of journalists and the sources they use for their stories. To do these things well, we need access to a wide variety of liberal, conservative, and other types of news sources.

democracy-and-the-press

This comic by Ed Stein originally appeared in the Rocky Mountain News in 2008, and so it certainly is not about our current President and may have even been aimed at the last one. Nevertheless, it does a great job of depicting the essential role the press plays in democracy.

Liberals and conservatives disagree on many things, but one of the things they historically tend to agree on is that democracy flourishes and progresses when people debate a wide variety of ideas. John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher, writes in On Liberty that freedom and diversity of thought is what helps us advance as a species. He notes that humans tend to get stuck in patterns of group think which he calls the tyranny of the majority.[2]

He writes, “Since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”[3] It is by the confrontation of beliefs in the public square, Mill argues, that we are forced to wrestle with different ideas and evidence and determine which ideas are accurate or not. This makes us better thinkers and better people.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French citizen who visited the United States and praised the ethos of our country, wrote about the way in which the press was integral to the success of American democracy. He writes, “When each person is granted a right to govern the society, it is necessary to grant him the capacity to choose between the different opinions that agitate his contemporaries, and to evaluate the different facts the knowledge of which can guide him.”[4]

I do not think Mill and Tocqueville would approve of all the ways our country has developed, but I think they would agree that our variety of news sources, liberal and conservative, are necessary for the health of our country. These sources allow us to take responsibility and think for ourselves.

Granted, it is unpredictable and often inconvenient to allow people to think for themselves. When people think for themselves, they may not do what we want them to do. They make mistakes. They are less easy to control, and it becomes much more difficult to use them as a tool to accomplish our ends. But when we try to control and limit people’s ability to think for themselves, we dehumanize them.

The unique capacity of human beings is our ability to reflect on our world, to name it, and to act on our naming to transform the world for greater beauty, justice, equality, and humanization. This is something the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire refers to as praxis.[5]

This ability to engage in praxis is the ability and right of every human being, not just a few. Not just the President. Therefore, Freire argues, if we wish to create a more just and beautiful world in which everyone is fully human together, dialogue is essential. When we do not dialogue, we are in danger of transforming the world in a way that is better and more beautiful for us but actually oppressive, dehumanizing and unjust for other people.

While it may be tempting to oppress others, and it may be beneficial for us in the short run, creating dehumanizing situations for other people undermines ourselves in the end. We lock ourselves into relationships of aggression, dominance, and force, and we destroy the ability of the human species to express itself in new and helpful ways. We prevent new ideas, inventions, and helpful modes of relating with one another from becoming fully present in the world. This decreases our power of being fully human together.  I have written more at length about these ideas here and here.

If we really want to be powerful as a nation and as individuals, we have to dialogue with one another, especially people who think very differently from us. This helps us to discover ways of seeing the world that we have not yet developed. This takes bravery, and this takes love. Freire writes, “As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve as a pretext for manipulation. It must generate other acts of freedom…If I do not love the world—if I do not love life–if I do not love people–I cannot enter into dialogue.”[6] Dialogue allows us to progress as a species, and dialogue takes bravery and love.

When President Trump attempts to control the press and force his opinions on the American people, this is neither brave nor loving, and it is certainly not bringing about greater justice in the world. It is an act of control born out of fear of people thinking for themselves (and criticizing him).

We do not need the President to tell us which news stories are worth our time or to decide which news outlets are worthy or not. The President needs to foster an atmosphere in which all of us—Republican, democrat, etc.—can work together to create a stronger country, and we need to take responsibility for our own thinking through dialogue. This is not always comfortable, but it is most certainly necessary if we are to be a truly powerful nation.

[2]John Stuart Mill. On Liberty. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN: pg. 2

[3] Ibid, pg. 50.

[4]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN: pg. 81

[5] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. New York, NY: pg. 86.

[6] Ibid, pg. 90.

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