Category Archives: Communication

America is a post truth society in turmoil

 

In my post “The muddled mess of truth today”, I discussed how news site editors like to twist headlines to convey a point of view.  These kinds of banners are not hard to find. Just open up a news feed.

Before me right now is the headline “Amidst Trump Turmoil, Pence carves his own identity.”  Looks benign enough, right? The US Vice President is becoming his own man in the midst of our president’s own mess.

Well, not so fast. The editor has already asked us to take for granted that the current president is encompassed by all kinds of  horrible commotion by their use of the term “turmoil.” It’s a loaded word full of negativity. Who wants turmoil?

In my view, this idea that Trump’s administration is in “turmoil” is a matter of perception and open to debate. I have some questions.

I wonder if President Trump sees himself as surrounded by turmoil.  What does he think about it if he does? Who or what is causing the turmoil?

The answers produced from those questions are also a matter of one’s point of view. Some think our president creates turmoil out of his own alleged incompetence and vulgarity. Others think he also creates chaos because he thrives on it and works better in such an atmosphere.

Mr. Trump’s supporters think that there is no turmoil in the president’s White House. They believe that the media or the president’s opponents have fabricated this as a story.

Those of Mr. Trump’s advocates who do see tension around him also believe the media is at fault. They say that the media is actually creating the disorder to bring the president down.

It’s really difficult in today’s media to get at the truth amidst all the click bait. The owners and editors of news organizations seem to have other agendas they want to follow which triumph over truth. Their goals appear to be more financial and political in nature.

The media is not the only institution where something besides the truth is emphasized. If the purveyors of communication have contributed to the tumult in our society because of their departure from the road to truth, so has the justice system.

Like the media, the American judicial system also has other priorities which supersede discerning the truth. This includes taking the human element out of the equation and emphasizing rules. In an article comparing the American system of justice to the European one, Ellis Washington writes, “Under the Anglo-American/common law system of jurisprudence, especially over the past 100 years, rules trump the truth.”

Washington notes that in the last half century that the US Supreme Court “made up out of whole cloth” criminal defenses which emphasize procedure over the rule of law.  In other words, ‘rules’ rule over  a principle meant to provide fair and equal justice to everyone.

For example, some of SCOTUS’s rulings  developed into something we see all the time on the ubiquitous cop shows on TV: the reading of Miranda Rights. (“You have the right to remain silent, etc. etc.”). We all know what happens if a police officer blows it and doesn’t read a perp their rights.

Washington says such cases “have thoroughly perverted the rule of law and the original intent of the Constitution’s framers, plunging American law, culture and society into our present state of chaos.” Judges are handicapped by rules imposed from above. Criminals go free when rules are broken. Police are tempted to perjure themselves if they break a rule in their arrest.

Washington thinks the Continental System is much better because it gives judges a freer hand. It allows them to be more involved in the cases before them and better arrive at the truth.

Following the Continental System, he says, would be better “because the law’s primary purpose should not be to legalistically follow a case-driven, judge-centered template, not the rules of evidence, not politics, liberalism, conservatism, feminism, humanism, secularism, positivism, pragmatism or any other ‘ism’… but justice, equality under law and veritas – truth.”

Sadly, in today’s America “isms” do tend to run the show in the courtroom.  Judges are more known for their political views then who they are as human beings. Conservatives, for example, think of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals as a bastion of left wing thought. The progressive believes Supreme Court justice Atonin Scalia was a reactionary. Who today focuses on the judge’s ability to arrive at the truth? They instead zero in on their politics.

That we live in a society devoid of truth is evidenced by a term such as ‘post-truth’ receiving the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year Award for 2016. It is a word which Oxford defines as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

There are people who think the Western concept of the rule of law is strong and able to withstand the assault on it described above. British attorney Tamas Lukasi is not worried about the effect of a post-truth world on our legal system. He stresses the soundness of Western law:

“Lawyers are often seen as a greedy and unethical profession; and law as bureaucratic red-tape. To deny this perception would itself be a post-truth posture. Though I happen to have a better opinion of lawyers and the law, who cares about opinions? It is rather facts that should matter. And the fact is facts matter in law and they matter a lot.”

“I am quite confident,” he writes,” that until the deeply rooted rules on legal argument, evidence and standard of proof stand strong, the legal process cannot be else but immune to post-truth. The rule of law has survived much turmoil.”

Despite the convoluted sentence, I presume Lukasi means in context that our Western judicial system will triumph. (He seems to mean “while” the rules stand strong, not “until.” Blame HIS editor.)

I’m not so sure our judicial system is winning. The current situation in it, the media, and other Western institutions is as confusing as Lukasi’s statement.  This is I believe is due to the inability of our thought leaders to even arrive at basic truths. They even have trouble, as I mentioned in my last post, in defining what truth is or even deciding what their own buzz words mean.

For example, the American Bar Association (ABA) admits that the term “rule of law” is difficult to define. The best it can come up with is that it is “an ideal that we strive to achieve but sometimes fail to live up to” and that “institutions and procedures have contributed to the definition of what makes up the rule of law and what is necessary to achieve it.”

The ABA seems to have written an expanded definition without forming a simple one. Let me help. Here’s a formula for  a simple definition by John Swales.

T=G + D1 + D2 etc. or Thing equals General class plus distinguishing characteristics

As I mentioned, there is the even more important attempt to define the concept of “truth”.  A website called DifferenceBetween.net struggles to differentiate between the terms “fact” and “truth.” They note how dictionaries discuss how similar the terms are. In comparing the two, the site calls ‘truth” the “true state of a certain matter.” I was always told by my teachers not to include the term in my definition.

Further (and what is worse), these folks say “truth” is “what a person has come to believe” and that facts are more permanent and more constant than truths are.

DifferenceBetween.net’s kind of definition of truth is at the heart of the problem in today’s world. Truth appears to be relative to modern mankind. There are no universal truths. “Truth” is something we believe. It may be reality. It may not be. It really all depends on what we “believe.”

The consequence of the muddled mess created by inability of our institutions to define truth is that our society is in a state of confusion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The muddled mess of truth today: introductory thoughts

Lately, I’ve noticed that news organizations configure their headlines in such a way that only half truths or even falsehoods are told. Here’s an example

Woman to be deported after traffic violation

The story is accompanied by a picture of the lady and her children.

This limited information evokes an emotional reaction of how unfair it is for this poor lady to be thrown out of the country because of such a trivial incident.

Only after you go beyond the headline and read the details of the story do you get a clear picture of the facts.

This woman has been living in the United States illegally for two decades. She was found out when she was stopped by police and ticketed for operating a vehicle without a driver’s license.

Commenters on this story note that the woman brought this situation on herself by entering the country illegally in the first place and then staying for so long.

Illegal immigration is of course a hot button issue in the US.  There are extremists on both sides.

Some believe that all those who have broken the law by coming here should be sent back to where they came from. This would include “dreamers”, the children who came here before the age of 16 and probably had little say in the matter.

Others think that we should just have open borders. Anyone who wants to live and work in our nation should have the right to do so, they say.

Based on my training in journalism school in ancient times, I would have reported this story with the 5 W’s and H. Just the facts, ma’am. Give ’em who, what, when, where, why and how.

Editors don’t function that way in today’s society, however. What used to be suitable  only for the editorial page is passed off as headline news.

The result is that America is inundated with propaganda.

One of the reasons this is happening is that how we perceive truth is changing.

We used to be a culture based on a Judeo-Christian world view. Thus, the generation after World War 2, for example, tended to see things through that lens.

Nowadays,  young Americans talk about presenting “my truth.” I take this to mean that what they are going to tell me is not the “truth” per se, but their own view of reality.

In  modern America, the state of truth is similar to the condition of my favorite major league baseball team. Baseball writer Ken Rosenthal recently called my Baltimore Orioles a “muddled mess.” I would maintain that truth in the US is in the same shape as my beloved Os.

What is occurring in the media today is that reporters are now giving us SOME facts, and then interpreting them with “their” truth. It used to be that the reader was supposed to do the interpreting.

I can’t philosophize about this phenomenon. I’m not a philosopher. I’m trained in journalism, linguistics and to some extent in practical theology. So I can only look at the problem through those grids.

In terms of language, my observation is that people can’t even get their terms straight. For example, slurs with fully charged political electrons are freely being thrown around like darts, especially in social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter.

In the immigration debate, the left likes to accuse the right of being  “fascists”, “bigots”, “racists” and “Nazis”. The right tosses out equally inflammatory terms toward progressives. Insults such as “loon”, “nut job” and “bomb thrower” come to mind.

From my perspective, it would be appropriate in some cases to question who is actually the fascist or the loon.

I know that questions about truth are not new. Neither are discussions over the meaning of certain vocabulary words.

Even popular culture contains the story of  Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”.

As a student of the Bible, I like to go a little deeper than what a film at Easter might tell me. I want to know the context, i.e. the whole story

In context, Jesus is being examined before Pilate before he was to be delivered up to be executed by Roman soldiers.  The trumped up charge made by the chief priests of Israel at the time was that Jesus was a rebel trying to overthrow the Roman government. The Jewish leaders, who had a stake in trashing Jesus, claimed that he wanted to be a king. Here’s the text from John 18:

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”

The last statement by Jesus prompted Pilate’s question about truth. The excerpt reveals that  Pilate not only did not understand truth, but that he also had no idea what Jesus meant about being a king.

The effects of such miscommunication can be devastating, especially when a politician with authority is involved. Pilate ended up bowing to popular demand and having Jesus nailed to a cross.

In future posts, I will discuss the effects of this kind of confused thinking on our society. But first, I will try to ascertain exactly what we mean when we discuss the term “truth” and how it is related to other words we currently like to bandy about.

I also hope to propose some solutions that could help us work through the murk and gain a clearer picture of reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Garbled messages

I was sitting in my local Starbucks this morning when a soft rock song with a gentle sound and a male singer with a haunting voice was played. It moved me and I wanted to identify the song so I could listen to it again, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t understand the lyrics. I thought I caught part of a sentence and “Googled” it, but never found what I was looking for. I finally gave up.

Shortly after that, an old age pensioner walked by. He was wearing a T-shirt which included a title or name on it, but the complete moniker was concealed by the jacket he was wearing. I was interested because the letters I DID see were identical to ones belonging to the name of a city where I used to live, a place located in Europe.

The old fellow’s jacket bore a lion insignia. This animal is the symbol of the country where this town is located. However, the term “Polizei” was emblazoned next to the lion and a quick Internet search told me that it is the German word for “police”. My city is in Finland. Even so, I was intrigued.

The man passed by me on his way out and as he did a woman walked in. I immediately caught the pleasant scent of her fragrance, but she moved so far away I couldn’t make her out. I was wondering if the attractiveness of the smell was representative of the person, but I couldn’t tell.

It occurred to me after these three consecutive frustrating incidents that a lot of communication gets easily distorted. In my case, the messages were garbled by obstructions in my line of sight and hearing.

I could have sought to overcome these obstacles. For example, I could have asked the senior citizen if he had lived in Finland or asked a barista if they knew the name of the song I had heard. Further, I might have moved closer to the lady with the sweet aroma, but of course that would have been creepy. (As it turned out, she DID walk in my direction and I found that her redolence was more distinctive than her appearance.) In other words, I could have sought to clarify my end of the communication.

I used to teach academic writing to engineers and one of my mantras was that it was not the responsibility of the receiver of their communications to have to interpret their them. I made it clear to these budding stars of technology that it was THEIR job to be clear.

Lack of clarity is what frustrates me when I listen to politicians in this day and age. For instance, I read the following on Yahoo this morning.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is calling on the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate all issues related to obstruction of justice in the events leading up to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the federal probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

This post just added to my earlier frustration I experienced from the incomprehensible communications by people at Starbucks. I knew that the folks at Starbucks did not intend to send me garbled messages. In fact, they were not even aware of their own communication or of me.

However, given the political environment we live in today and Madam Feinstein’s affiliation, I could only presume that she planned her use of the alarming phrase “obstruction of justice”. She was going after her political opponent, i.e., the current president of the United States.

This article prompted my response. I wrote the following in Yahoo’s reaction section of the post:

Exactly what “justice” does Feinstein say is being obstructed? Justice is defined as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals.” (Merriam Webster for kids). What crime was committed? If she is referring to Trump seeking to influence Comey, how is that obstruction? POTUS is in charge of administration of justice and the FBI director is his subordinate in that task.

All the honorable senator’s statement did was raise a bunch of questions. It is her responsibility in my view to answer those questions for me in her public statement. However, I realize this is too much to ask from a politician. As a class, they are almost always purposely vague.

When it comes to my own issues, especially on subjects of importance to me, I can’t be like Senator Feinstein. I have to seek to define them as precisely as possible. I tried to do this as part of a writing exercise while I was the Starbucks.

Author Julia Cameron suggests that writers have a dialogue with their “Inner Writer”. She advises to write two letters; one is to be written from the “Inner Writer” to me and the other is by me to my “Inner Writer”. The task is to clarify my own fears and complaints regarding writing so that I can reassure myself that I have the “right to write” (the title of her book).

One of the problems my Inner Writer came up with is that I feel as if I have no message. My “self” replied:

“If you want my advice, get with God. Get your message from Him. Then write that message.”

In context, I realized as I did this exercise that I felt I am not allowed to be a writer. My response to Inner Writer was this:

You are not only allowed to be what God made you to be. You are encouraged to be what He made you to be.  In fact, it might be said that you are commanded to be what He made you to be. You are asking for a purpose from God. If writing is it, then be a writer. If not, then be whatever else He tells you to be.

One of the problems we have this side of heaven is that messages from God are garbled. The famous “love chapter” in the Bible, I Corinthians 13, likens our understanding of His communications in this life to a person looking in a flawed mirror.  As with my attempt to see the lady at Starbucks, my effort to perception of God is dimmed by our distance from each other.

However, I have had a taste of His presence and He indeed desires mine. My prayers are a sweet incense to Him. Thus, I have to keep trying to find a way through the muck to get to Him and hear what He has to say to me. Making sense of His messages to me are crucial.  He’s not a fellow customer at Starbucks. He’s the living God.

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