"Fake news" is the slogan of the day. As a concept, it's typical: it has a grain of truth and descriptive value, but has been wantonly overused and twisted for partisan ends. Will you run into "news" that is based on simply false facts? Yes. Will you also see people using "fake news" to describe anything they don't like? Absolutely.
The heart of this is a surge of mistrust in the media. Some of that mistrust is well-earned, and some of it is promoted for political reasons — to cripple the press' ability to limit government power through questioning it. The press — including both nominally factual reporters and commentators — don't deserve to be trusted without question, and ought not be by a free people. People who write about current events, descriptively or (deliberately) persuasively, ought to be self-critical and think about why they are or aren't believed. That includes bloggers, who have an increasingly large role in public debate.
You cannot make people trust you or believe you. But you can work to be worthy of trust, and hope that the trust follows.
How could you earn trust, even as a commentator?
Focus on values. The best path to deserving trust is focusing on values rather than personalities or factions. Values can be principled; factions can't. Which values? That's up to you. What do you care about? It might be due process of law and equality before it, or limited government, or freedom of expression. If you are open about what values are important to you, open to discussing why those values are worthy and how heavily they should weigh in the balance, and open in your analysis of why particular policies promote or weaken those values, you can earn trust and credibility. If you focus instead on teams, and treat the virtues of one team as self-evident, you won't. The goal is not to persuade everyone or to "win." Some righteous values are unpopular and always will be. The goal is to offer the clearest, the best-supported, the most principled defense of the values you care about.
Question essentialism. Part of focusing on values is being skeptical of essentialism. Essentialism is the belief (for instance) that Trump is bad because Trump is bad and therefore things Trump proposes must be bad. Essentialism is the loudest voice in our political culture. The Koch brothers support that, it must be bad! That's a Hillary Clinton proposal, so it's liberal and awful! Essentialism is popular and persuasive with people who already agree with you, but to everyone else it's a signal not to trust you, because your analysis is nothing more than "red team is bad." Essentialism is also seductive, because it carries with it a feeling of belonging.
Asking who proposed a policy — or asking cui bono — can be a good starting point, but it's not an endpoint. The endpoint has to be an analysis of the act or policy, not just the source of it. Essentialism writes off a large segment of America — be it "conservative" or "liberal" — as irredeemable, and therefore abandons any effort to persuade those people that your values are the right ones, or that you are worthy of trust.1
Praise what is right. If you focus on values, you'll support policies that promote those values, even if you don't like the source. A politician you don't like will probably do some things right. Praise them when that happens. It's the right thing to do, it promotes the value you care about, and it earns trust.
Criticize what is wrong. People you support will make wrong choices that are bad for your values. Say so. Ignore party loyalists who complain you are "concern trolling." In fact, this ought to be your first priority. Start with the mote in your own eye. It's essential to trust.
Be skeptical. There's tons of misinformation out there. Much of it will support your views. Be skeptical. When you bite on a bogus story — and we all will — be forthright afterwards in noting that the story was false and you bit on it.
Promote knowledge. You have specialized knowledge of some sort. That knowledge can be relevant to policy debates. Support the debates by sharing the knowledge. Provide primary documentary support for the knowledge — in a world of easy hyperlinks, there's no excuse not to — and try to make the knowledge accessible. In other words, "here's the facts, and here are the sources of the facts, and here's how to read the sources" is preferable to "I'm right because I'm an expert." (Except on Twitter, obviously).
You can do absolutely everything right and some people will still belittle you because of who you are or what values you support. That's fine. Get over it. The goal isn't forcing people to agree. The goal is offering the best possible defense of the values you care about, and — hopefully — in the process earning trust from people who can be persuaded, from people willing to change their minds.
- I say question essentialism because it's probably not worthwhile or realistic to abandon it entirely. I'm not telling you to devote yourself to converting, say, white nationalists. I'm suggesting you question the categories of people you think are unreachable or inherently wrong. ▲
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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