Fostering Trust in a Pluralistic Society

Before the election, I used to get my news generally from four websites: cnn, huffingtonpost, slate and politico. Don’t know how I settled on these, but there it was. If I wanted to check out conservative opinion, I went to Foxnews and later on Breitbart.

Since the end of the election I have generally avoided these sites. I voted for Clinton and seeing news of Trump and his side taking the victory lap was no fun. But he won, and that’s his right.

Everyone once in a while, like yesterday and today, I get curious what is going on. So I go back to the “neutral” cnn and the liberal huffingtonpost. And then after reading around for a little while, I feel this is pointless and skip it.

Why? Not just because of Trump. But because it is amazing how much CNN and Huffingtonpost are, however unwittingly, giving more power to Trump with how they are covering him. Then again, I suppose it is all part of the process.

We are in the midst of some big tectonic shifts in our society, in America and the world more generally. One of these vast shifts is that with the rise of social media, the idea that there is a uniform, shared structure among all citizens for news is being obliterated. There is no more Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, journalists who seem to merely provide the news and no partisan spin; whose very ethical character seemed defined by the sense that they held themselves to such a standard of neutrality.

But in the 60s for Cronkite and even the 90s for Jennings this was possible not just because of their intrinsic moral worth but because people were dependent 3 or 4 or 5 news outlets for their main national news. It was the very power Cronkite and Jennings had, or their network heads had, which shown through as the moral uprightness of not abusing that power.

Now, no one has that kind of power. Now there are dozens of options of where and how to get the news. We all know this. It is a buyers market.

This is called now the post-Truth world. But that is a misnomer, a Nietzschean exaggeration.

Truth hasn’t disappeared. Either Putin has something on Trump and told him about it, or he didn’t. There is a fact about that.

Nor has people’s desire to know that truth disappeared. Trump supporters aren’t saying the truth isn’t important. They just don’t trust some of the main media reporting on it.

What has become hard to decipher now is who to  trust, and even more importantly, what media structures Trump supporters and critics together trust?

This question is pressing because, after all, CNN and the New York Times are themselves private companies. God or George Washington didnt ordain them as bastions of journalism. So if Trump wants to use, and trusts, the private companies of Fox and Breitbart, and will only trust those companies, on what neutral ground can he be blamed?

But, one might say, New York Times and CNN have earned their reputation, but Breitbart hasnt. Sure. The flip side though is that sounds like saying that the status quo should be trusted. And in American culture, and in the age of pluralism and overthrowing the oppressions of the past,  that is the greatest sin. Breitbart and Twitter gave Trump the distance needed to stand apart from the news status quo and wrap himself in the halo of the outsider and the unprivileged.

For the last 50 years we have tried to divest the status quo of any any moral authority, and so now when Trump aims to do the same to CNN and the New York Times, we are left flat footed, unsure of how to defend the status quo as morally upright and trustworthy.

There are here vast questions about what shared public trust means in a pluralistic society. Fact is the models we have like Cronkite and Jennings are remnants of a less pluralistic society, where there was shared public trust because most of the public wasn’t really participating actively; they were merely letting those “in the know” who they had no option but to trust lead the way. But what happens when society becomes more pluralistic? What fosters the sense of shared public trust then?

It is amazing to think that the progressive thinkers of the last century hardly worried about this problem. I at least in my education or as a citizen have not heard it discussed. So the problem lies on the ground, like a gauntlet waiting to be picked up.

CNN, Huffington Post and others are ignoring that gauntlet, assuming instead that they as new organizations already speak from are space of a shared pluralistic public trust. They assume they already have IT, that special something which can hold a pluralistic society together.

And what is evident to many people, and has been evident to many people, including John Stewart and Noam Chomsky, is that no, CNN doesn’t have it. It has merely substituted quarreling pundits who smile at each other at times for the deep trust beyond political disagreements needed for a healthy democracy. This was in fact John Stewart’s main criticism of CNN all through when he was on the daily show: the tv pundits’ caterwauling is eroding trust, not increasing it, in a deeply divided country. Now when CNN poses as neutral, Trump merely has to laugh and act tough, because he knows liberals themselves laid the foundation for his critique of CNN.

And it’s even easier for Trump to dismiss Huffingtonpost and the like because it is not in the business of creating trust between people of diverse social and political views.

The surest way to minimize Trump’s power is to highlight the reality that there is no pluralistic, shared public space in America – no moral arbiter of public discourse. Then Trump would have nothing to fight, no grandstanding to do. He would then simply be judged on what he can achieve as president, and the people, even his supporters, would have nothing else to judge him by. And we can face head on the task of what public shared trust in a pluralistic society can mean, and how to foster it.

But, the self congratulatory press, like the self congratulatory Hollywood and the self congratulatory academia, will first make this harder, and make Trump’s life easier. For their confidence that they already occupy such a space of pluralistic trust will make them speak not to the real question of how to construct such trust but to the hackneyed issue that Trump is failing their purportedly inclusive and universal standards.

But they fail to see the practical contradiction of their speech act. If someone says, “I don’t trust you capture the public trust in a pluralistic society”, it is no help to simply reply, “Yes, we do! You are simply wrong.” Trump and the alt right would love to keep having this conversation for the next four years, and simply use it for leverage to do whatever they want.

And yet, the question remains, unaddressed by the media and by Trump: what can foster public trust across social and political differences in a pluralistic society? Those who are open to that question can lay the foundations for a future beyond all the headlines and news.

2 thoughts on “Fostering Trust in a Pluralistic Society

  1. Scott Aiken and Robert Talisse had some interesting thoughts with regard to tectonic shifts on the right; they share your observations about a lack of unity underlying pluralism. The post is here: http://dailynous.com/2016/03/14/philosophers-on-the-2016-u-s-presidential-race/

    An excerpt:

    “The trouble with political conservatism in America is that for the past fifty years, its central ideals have been growing increasingly unpopular with the American citizenry. … The fact is that the core conservative values of personal responsibility, self-reliance, restrained government, shared community, and the moral authority of tradition have given way to tendencies that conservatives must regard as base and uncivilized: insatiable appetites for luxury, excess, spectacle, and power, all of which are social forces that dissolve tradition and foster divisions. …

    This cultural shift naturally presented a challenge to the Republican Party, which was faced with a social reality in which winning elections on the basis of their core values was bound to become increasingly unlikely. Again, conservative intellectuals understood that their ideas were bound to be seen as badly out of step. And so they needed to find other ways to win elections beyond explaining their core ideas to what they saw as a fractured populace. What was needed was a way to build a political coalition among people who ultimately have little in common. And this required a strategy by which deep-seated divisions could be overshadowed by some unifying purpose. With the citizenry divided, this unifying purpose needed to be manufactured.

    Alas, the formation of political unity is not as difficult as it may seem, for it is easy to construct nemeses: social and cultural forces that threaten to thwart, disfigure, nullify, or dilute whatever makes America great. Note that in manufacturing such an antagonist, one mustn’t get specific about the nature or target of the threatening body. It is enough to simply characterize it as alien and hostile, or debauched and decadent, thereby allowing each citizen to fill in the details however he or she sees fit. The rest is left unsaid, and this was presented as a matter of etiquette. But it was strategic. A silent majority, insofar as it is silent, doesn’t speak. And insofar as it doesn’t speak, it doesn’t speak to itself, and so it cannot discover how deep its internal divisions may run.

    It is crucial to remember that the Republican strategy initially was to merely manufacture an enemy around which to unify an otherwise divided citizenry for the purpose of winning elections. Once in office, Republicans could govern according to the traditional conservative values that they had downplayed or omitted from the narrative while campaigning. To be sure, this kind of bait-and-switch may seem cynical and disingenuous, but it is the stuff out of which democratic politics is made.

    The most recent national election cycles have shown the hazard of this strategy. One might say that the bait-and-switch has come full circle: The artificial foe has become the concrete enemy, the instrument has become the end, and the rhetoric has become the substantive message. At least since Reagan’s presidency, the Republican Party has undergone a fateful transformation, most evident in the progression from Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America to the Tea Party and Sarah Palin to Donald Trump. The resentment, anxiety, and fear that was once deployed as a device to motivate voting behavior is now the official party platform.”

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  2. Charles Taylor has written interesting things on the ideal of authenticity in modernity, and what gets sacrificed in the pursuit of this ideal. In his short book, The Ethics of Authenticity, he writes:

    “The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define him- or herself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions. That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demands of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. ….

    Otherwise put, I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters. Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.” (pp. 40-41)

    I think Taylor is really on to something here. The desire to live authentically combined with the desire to be part of something bigger than oneself can manifest itself in ways that can erode certain bonds of solidarity, e.g. involvement in identity politics as both self-expression and participation in a larger project. Of course, one could argue that the bonds of solidarity, or, as Taylor would put it, the common “horizon of significance” that Taylor believes existed did not in fact exist for everyone, and that it is these very identity groups that supposedly undermine solidarity that were excluded from the background horizon of significance.

    Still, Taylor gives us a place to start. What would count as a horizon of significance today across all voting blocs, demographics, social classes, and groups? Citizenship/geography? Not in this age of global ethics and the ideal of universal citizenship that is held by many liberals. Religion? No, though maybe this is Taylor’s solution (I’m not sure).

    It seems to me that when it comes to contributing to the development of a horizon of significance, there are two questions that need addressing:
    1. For there to be a decent chance of getting people to get past their differences to talk to each other, their material needs have to be met, i.e., enough food on the table, a stable paycheck, etc.
    2. People tend to unite for two reasons: fear, or a common ideal (not necessarily mutually exclusive).

    In the case of 1., we need to encourage people (especially congress) to become more focused on coming up with practical solutions to local, concrete problems, rather than trying to solve problems through policies that are refracted through an ideological lens. In other words, pursue non-ideal-theoretic, case-by-case solutions rather than channeling Ayn Rand or Marx. (Yeah, I know, easier said than done.) Perhaps, if things get bad enough, people will have to work in this way.

    With respect to 2., using the politics of fear is repugnant. I wonder if that’s the direction we might be headed, given the threat of terrorism. Coming up with a common positive ideal, well, where do we begin? I guess this is part of what you’re trying to do with this blog, esp. as it pertains to academic philosophy.

    I’ve heard of philosophers (Richard Kearney comes to mind) who’ve done interesting reconciliation work, where they get together young people who have been on opposite sides of some very deep divide, and ask each side to tell their story, then form small mixed groups where each group has the assignment of coming up with a new shared narrative that incorporates the stories of both sides. Perhaps something like this might be a place to start.

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