Thursday, February 2, 2017
Today I presented a lecture at St. Joseph's University titled "Catholic Universities and our Polarized Nation." I focused on how we can model the concept of civil friendship on campus and beyond. Among several attributes of a commitment to civil friendship, I highlighted the need for coherence in our political engagement:
Citizens may disagree on a given issue, but even those who do should be persuaded of the internal logic and consistency of the worldview and values that animate our positions. If critics perceived that Catholics were willing to move heaven and earth to stop same-sex marriage, but were not willing to lift a finger to roll back no-fault divorce laws, the perception would be that our objective is not to defend the institution of marriage, but rather to keep gays out of it. Opponents of Trump who deemed him unfit for office because of his treatment of women but rushed to defend President Clinton against the women who accused him of sexual misconduct are vulnerable to charges of incoherence and hypocrisy. A lack of coherence in our political engagement doesn’t just make our advocacy less effective – it promotes cynicism, suggesting that politics is just about power, not about reason or principle.
The prompted a line of questioning from students and faculty after the lecture, asking how our media consumption can promote cynicism and make coherence more difficult. One student even asked me which sources I rely on for news if I'm trying to maintain a nuanced, evenhanded understanding of events. In these and other exchanges, I have observed a strong desire among students to be engaged with the world but confused about how to sort through media perspectives/bias in ways that don't boil down to picking a side. The delegitimizing effect of (real or perceived) bias is exacerbated by the social media platforms through which we are encountering the news -- every link served up with a snarky comment thread. In past decades, we may have been too naïve in our consumption of news; now, we're raising a generation inclined to believe that everyone reporting the news has an angle, so our choices are either to stop paying attention or choose camps and stay there. I think we need to devote sustained attention to this problem -- not just the problem of media bias, but the problem of reacting to media bias by dismissing "mainstream" sources of news as tainted to the point of worthlessness. This problem did not begin with Donald Trump, but he is taking it to a new level with sweeping #fakenews pronouncements. (Promoting widespread distrust in our institutions may prove to be the most destructive legacy of President Trump. Can #fakelaw be far behind #fakenews?)
Savvy media consumption is key to a coherent worldview and the cultivation of empathy for those with different perspectives and life experiences. If we're going to tackle our society's polarization head-on, that will have to be at the center of the conversation.