As some readers will know, we have a longstanding interest in the nature of public discourse. As far back as our second volume, we argued that “all moral communities are, at bottom, linguistic communities.” They are more than that, we were clear to say, but never less. For this reason, we have consistently taken up the topic of language—highlighting in Vol. 28, for example, the relation of language to power. Two pieces on this topic caught our eye this week.
We have entered an era in which rhetoric replaces actual argument.
The first is a distillation of a recent academic paper which argues that America’s “two major parties are now divided by a common language.” What we have, according to researchers Matthew Gentzkow, Jesse Shapiro, and Matt Taddy, is “two separate political lexicons within the same polity.” To support this claim, the researchers tested “the ease with which an observer could guess a speaker’s party based solely on the speaker’s choice of words,” using clips of political speeches dating back to 1870. They found that “for roughly 120 years, the probability of correctly guessing a speaker’s party by listening to a one-minute speech was about 52–55 percent.” “But suddenly,” they continue, “in the early 1990s, rhetorical partisanship exploded.”
The result is that our current political debates are not actually debates in any meaningful sense of the term. When one party insists upon naming a group of people “illegal aliens,” while the other invariably calls the very same people “undocumented workers,” two important challenges to democratic self-governance come to the foreground.
The first of these, as Thompson notes, is that the polarization of language exacerbates the differences between the two parties. It’s not just that Republicans and Democrats have different views on policy; increasingly, they don’t even speak the same language. Perhaps a more threatening challenge, however, is that particular terms begin to take the place of actual arguments. These terms are not mere shorthand—not a kind of political acronym employed for efficiency’s sake. Rather, we have entered an era in which rhetoric replaces actual argument. So, to continue with the example of immigration policy, politicians drop partisan buzzwords—“illegal aliens” or “undocumented workers”—without paying sufficient attention to the real issues at hand: the need to respect the rule of law, on the one hand, and the fact that most immigrants have meaningful and settled lives here and make major contributions to our common life, on the other. This way of speaking obscures what we should be most intent upon seeing: the very real plight of our neighbors.
Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, takes up a similar topic in an extended essay published last month titled “How technology disrupted the truth.” Viner’s point is fairly straightforward: when clicks become central to journalism’s self-understanding, the incentives for truthful and accurate reporting weaken.
Viner begins with an odd and ultimately unsubstantiated story from last fall, published as the Brexit debate began heating up, which claimed without qualification that British Prime Minister David Cameron “once took part in an outrageous initiation ceremony” involving a lurid act with a dead pig. The story, such as it was, had its intended effect: within minutes, a multitude of hashtags bubbled up, website clicks spiked, and late-night comedians had a field day. And yet, a day later, the journalist responsible for the scoop admitted that she had no evidence to substantiate the claim. Moreover, she claimed that journalists do not even need to believe their stories to be true: “It’s up to other people to decide whether they give it any credibility or not,” she explained.
For Viner, this approach to reporting signals “a fundamental change in the values of journalism—a consumerist shift.” When news organizations’ revenue becomes driven by “clickbait,” they must adapt their business models to maintain their integrity. Ultimately, she writes, the industry’s most important task “is to establish what role journalistic organizations still play in a public discourse that has become impossibly fragmented and radically destabilised.” The basic question her essay asks is provocative and important: Can an industry that is caught “desperately chasing down every cheap click” enhance rather than deplete democratic discourse?
If, as we have suggested, moral communities are always linguistic communities—and, if, as these two pieces show, our current social order is marked by a profound skepticism about the reliability of knowledge for a whole society—then the need for truthful speech is paramount.
Culture Briefing is taking a break next week; we’ll be back with a new volume on August 18! As always, send your feedback, questions, comments, and kudos to Philip at firstname.lastname@example.org.