Friday, August 12, 2011

Sincerely Yours....

Via John Casey, an assertion about the need for sincerity in public debate:
It is naïve not to expect that the practice of politics demands some amount of assertion that is for purposes other than conveying the truth. But reasoned debate presupposes mutual knowledge of sincerity. In societies in which the media produces only propaganda, it is not possible.... There is thus a special obligation for those in the public arena to take their speech as so constrained, as well as a special obligation not to indulge in unnecessary suspicion of our fellow citizens.
It's impossible to draw a bright line and say, "You can shade the truth for political purposes to this point, but no further." But facts often do support multiple inferences, and there are often merits to competing ideas that must be to some degree reconciled or balanced in order to form a single policy. To that degree, no question, public debate requires that the participants accept that each others' interpretations of the facts and policy arguments are offered in good faith.

That said, I disapprove of the media culture in which it's possible for a politician to say one thing in the green room, say another on a show, and have nobody call him on it. Between guests, the philosophy appears to be, "We all need to lie at times in order to be reelected, so it would be dangerous to bring the green room confession into the live show," and for hosts the philosophy seems to be, "If I embarrass my guest on the air, he won't come back - and it's possible that nobody else will, either, for fear of having their chances for reelection harmed by public knowledge of the truth." How can you credit either the media or the politicians with advancing informed debate when everybody knows that one or more of the participants is being insincere and the debate displayed to the public is nothing more than a sideshow act. It does help explain how politicians who seem to be at each other's throats in any joint television appearance are later seen laughing and glad-handing, but it perpetuates problems of public perception that make it difficult to achieve compromise or to address some extremely important issues.

Casey extends the argument,
The piece focused on the problem of insincere speakers, but the same point might have been made about listeners who won't accept others' claims to sincerity.  In a lot of ways, that would be worse.
That too seems to be a double-edged sword. If politicians agree behind-the-scenes that the eventual outcome of a policy dispute will be X, then go on television and argue that the world will end if the outcome is not Y or Z, is it worse to assume that they're being duplicitous or to assume that they're being sincere?

What would be better, I think, would be for politicians to step back from their insincerity, and to create a context in which it is reasonable for people to believe that they are sincere in their public statements. Instead they're poisoning the well themselves, then asking us to trust their sincerity without so much as a "This time it's different." With a sincere political culture it is fair to ask the public to set aside its cynicism. In a "Fox News culture" it seems risky to accept any political or media message at face value.

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