image: cover of Hallucination - Famous Stranger ( - click)

Like most people (I think), I find it interesting, at times fascinating, to speculate about WHY people do and say what they do … WHY they might express views that they hold in the way they do … and WHY they enter into discussions or debates (and sometimes flame wars) on the internet.

But I’ve learned it’s pretty futile.

Futile? Yep. Because reliably identifying people’s motivations for anything is an all-but-impossible task at the best of times — even if it seems obvious, and, perhaps surprisingly, even if they tell you what they think is driving their actions.

I described in another context (see ‘When propaganda turns into ‘demonizing’ …

Targeting individuals is always tricky. Motivations are near-impossible to divine. ‘Sympathies’ even more so. There’s usually a whole lot of hallucination going on.

or here when discussing what psychology calls the fundamental attribution error in a context of ‘I know why you’re being so mean’:

Essentially, the fundamental attribution error involves placing a heavy emphasis on internal personality characteristics to explain someone’s behaviour in a given situation, rather than thinking about external situational factors.

Amateur psychologists are everywhere — quick to offer a ‘diagnosis’ like ‘That b*tch is crazy’ or the more academic ‘Judging by his pattern of behaviour, he appears to be a sociopath … with narcissistic personality disorder. And a compulsive liar’.

Wearing a mask: Aggressive, anonymous comment makes me ponder. (image: AP - click)

I got to thinking about this again because I’ve recently expressed disrespect for an anonymous blogger’s published comments. (For a change. Ha!) This anonymous blogger is someone with whom I sense I might agree about all number of other matters, and whose company I might enjoy.

My lack of respect for his actions (leading me to label him ‘nasty’) is on the basis of his willingness to repeatedly denigrate someone: insulting them and describing them as ‘crazy’ on the basis of their written remarks. His anonymous condemnation of this person (who blogs in their own name) and his on-going aggressive treatment of them is, in my view, largely an expression of tribalism.

See what I’m doing there? Projecting. It’s natural to reinforce previously held beliefs by filtering or constructing arguments that ‘fit the thesis’. (Yes, it’s shallow, I know, but we all fall into that trap.)

‘Us’ and ‘them’

We homo sapiens can be (at least partially) defined by our co-operative traits: our tendency to form bands, teams, communities and societies. The ‘shadow’ of that, sadly, is our terrible practice of ‘us and them’-ness.

As social and co-operative as we might be with our ‘in-group’ for the most part, we can be equally hard to get on with, rejecting others, expressing an active, at times aggressive xenophobia, sometimes even murderous hatred for those in the ‘out-group’ … whatever form it might take.

Consider the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the very recent past. What the hell were ‘Serbian Christians’ doing to ‘Serbian Muslims’? Or were they ‘Albanians’? And why? (My view: It probably had something to do with ‘us and them’-ness.)

Competition for ‘scarce resources’, as we discussed in Q: Where does conflict come from?, is not an adequate explanation. Likewise religious rivalry is often overstated (see: ‘The overblown role of religion in conflict‘).

We just tend to despise and feel alienated from people who are not in our ‘tribe’.

Something that can help us — in some situations — is openness with each other: Telling the truth and being open about where we’re coming from; sharing our stories, good and bad. To put it another way: being less reactive and more authentic with each other.

Rather than leaving people to attempt to deduce our motivations, filling in the gaps with questionable assertions, why not try to express them? Yeah, I know I just said that’s not all that reliable, but it’s good to attempt it. At least we can start a conversation. What do you think?

Taking that idea as a starting point, look at this from NYU journalism professor (and thinker) Jay Rosen. I respect and quote Rosen here now and then because our interests and world views coincide fairly frequently. Lucky for me.

Here’s the introduction to his keynote speech ‘Covering Wicked Problems‘ at the 2nd UK Conference of Science Journalists, 25 June 2012 at The Royal Society, London.

I think every writer, every journalist, every scholar, should tell you where he’s coming from before he tells you what he knows. I am not a science journalist, or a science blogger, or a scientist who writes. But I am interested in your world, and I try to follow developments in it. My field of study is what I call “pressthink,” which is sort of like groupthink– but for people in journalism. Lately I have been fixated on the problems of the press as it tries to adapt to the digital world. So that’s what I do. But it’s not where I’m coming from.

He then goes on to show how it could be done:

Culturally, I’m a secular Jew. (From New York.) Demographically, a baby boomer. Socially, I’m an introvert who has learned to fake conviviality. Politically, a liberal democrat. Musically: lost. Intellectually, I am a pragmatist. …

Not bad. That does help form a picture, doesn’t it? Read the speech notes on Jay’s Pressthink blog.

The idea of being open about ‘where I’m coming from’ dovetails nicely with a quote I’ve recycled previously from Rachel Maddow:

“I think a lot of people of my generation are discomfited by the assertion of neutrality in the mainstream media, this idea that they’re the voice of God. I think it’s just honest to say, yes, you know where I’m coming from but you can fact-check anything I say.” — Rachel Maddow The Guardian April 2011

Since these ideas relate to people writing and broadcasting in the media, there’s another layer: the expectation by our audience or readership of an intent to maintain the truthfulness or the veracity of statements or ‘reporting’. I bang on about that, I know.

As Maddow effectively says, just because I have a point of view doesn’t entitle me to deceive my audience. Go ahead: Fact check me.

See, that’s my problem with outfits like Fox News and the like, so beautifully described by Rolling Stone as a political ‘fear factory’ and propaganda operation masquerading as a news organisation, or …

“… a giant soundstage created to mimic the look and feel of a news operation, cleverly camouflaging political propaganda as independent journalism.”

Yeah, the whole ‘Fair and Balanced’ schtick is so bleurgh!

Especially when indulging in ‘criticism’ I think one owes a duty of accuracy, of truthfulness (that word again).

A regular commenter here at The Paepae, Craig, accuses me (or as Miss Piggy would say: ‘Moi!’) of a similar kind of ‘pretend’ political neutrality, declaring he can discern from burnt goat entrails my choice of topics here that I am [allegedly] in the Labour Party’s camp. (Er, nope, as I explained, but he’s entitled to his view.)

Another commenter, poormastery, describes me as a “sickly liberal”, (which, I think I put my hand up for a while ago, didn’t I?) … but we both agree that it’s possible to be economically conservative and socially liberal — in the spirit of the vivacious Tory MP Louise Mensch whose Twitter bio is “Conservative means deliver liberal ends”. In that respect, I’m actually politically agnostic, with ‘heroes’ on all sides of the political divide — I’m not kidding —  and allowing (or insisting) that democratically-elected governments be empowered to implement their announced policies for good as they see them. And then to face the electoral consequences, and political cycles.

Negative labelling … or defining ourselves by what we oppose

image: (ha! - click)

It’s a paradox, but I observe that people (read: we all) can find it easier to define ourselves in an “anti-matter” way: Declaring what we oppose is sometimes easier than saying what we stand for. (I don’t know why that should be so, but it seems to me it is. Any thoughts?)

The 1981 anti-Springbok Tour protests saw people from all walks of life (cliché, but true) wonderfully, courageously unite in opposition to something: Halt All Racist Tours. Maybe I’m wrong, but I cannot imagine a cause which the same cross-section of society (another cliché) would unite to support. Can you? The recent Occupy ‘movement’ had none of the widespread appeal.

But back to the (nominal) topic: being open about where you are ‘coming from’ as part of any public communication …

Robbie Burns talks about ‘the gift‘ of seeing ourselves as others see us … which is why I welcome feedback. And recommend it. How does that work if you’re anonymous?

While it’s not my intention to move through life highlighting other people’s foibles and weaknesses, when I do criticise, it’s natural for people to ask: ‘And who the hell are YOU to judge?’ That happened recently in connection with discussion about harshly negative statements published on a blog leading to court action. Fair enough.

Me? Nobody special. No big deal. I don’t even claim that I’m particularly well-informed. I’m just someone who pays some attention to such things, with a background outlined here and with a commitment to publishing my comments and opinions in my own name. As I have noted before, I don’t ‘do’ anonymous, I blog here openly, and comment elsewhere in my own name, therefore it’s relatively easy to see what I ‘fink about fings’.

The ‘hostile media’ effect — ironic

But even knowing what you know about me (for example), there’s an observable phenomenon where the context within which information is presented can colour our view of its veracity. Discussing this with a couple of local bloggers recently, I referred to what I call the ‘Give a dog a bad name’ effect … but which students of media in the US call the ‘hostile media’ effect. (It’s ironic that I earlier expressed my loathing for misgivings about Fox News, huh? That’s a pretty good example of it.)

We touched on it here in our discussions On narrow social focus and moral taste buds and Danger of dogma wherein it becomes obvious that our world view filters what we see.

And there’s a really good article at the Nieman Journalism Lab: How do you tell when the news is biased? It depends on how you see yourself by Jonathan Stray …

If you’re interested in such things, go and read it. The article’s presentation of questionnaire statistics [right] mades me nostalgic for my time as a psych. major at Victoria. The main point is that we regard certain news outlets as ‘biased’ (boo hiss) and THAT colours our view of the information they present. Such expectations are a goldmine for psychology students …

Like a lot of experimental psychological research, the hostile media effect suggests we’re not as smart as we think we are. We might like to think of ourselves as impartial judges of credibility and fairness, but the evidence says otherwise. Liberals and conservatives can (and often do) believe the same news report is biased against both their views; they aren’t both right.

Stray is singing from my songbook when he says, ‘You see bias when you see yourself as part of a group’. Oh yes.

And his prescription? Worth reproducing at a bit of length:

What’s a journalist to do?

The first defense against accusations of bias is to report fairly. But the hostile media effect pretty much guarantees that some stories are going to be hated by just about everyone , no matter how they’re written. I suppose this is no surprise for any journalist who reads the comments section, but it has implications for how news organizations might respond to such accusations.
This research also suggests that the longstanding practice of journalists hiding their personal affiliations might actually be effective at reducing perceived bias. But only up to a point: To avoid charges of bias, the audience needs to be able to see the journalist as fundamentally one of them. This might require getting closer to the audience, not hiding from them. If we each live inside of many identities, then there are many possible ways to connect; conversely, it would be helpful to know, empirically, under what conditions a journalist’s politics are actually going to be a problem for readers, and for which readers.
We might also want to consider our framing more carefully. Because perceptions of bias depend on how we are thinking about our identity in that moment, if we can find a way to tell our stories outside of partisan frames, we might also reduce feelings of unfairness.

What do you think of “reducing feelings of unfairness” as a goal? Is it a worthy one? Hmm.

I cop it now and then on that score. Recent discussion here with people whom I regard as reasonable and intelligent saw it suggested that a post I wrote attempted to ‘whitewash’ and minimize the actions of one side of a dispute and exaggerate criticism of the other side. Does that sound close to a description of someone experiencing ‘hostile media effect’? Maybe. Maybe justifiably. I do allow that possibility. (Certitude is for bigots.)

Anyone can be a ‘publisher’

According to some, the bubble has burst on blogging. In Internet terms, blogging is an “old” platform for self-expression and publishing. Various theories abound regarding who/what was the ‘killer’ … Facebook, Twitter, whatever.

Are they right? Dunno. I don’t think so completely, because I think many people want their own space for longer-form discussion in cyberspace … without the constraints and interference of Facebook, and with more permanence than Twitter (which resembles, as someone tweeted last month: ‘Leaves blowing in the wind’. Very transient.)

In the case of this blog, The Paepae, I’m happiest when it works to generate and bring to light thoughtful discussion, even if it’s critical of ideas or thoughts I’ve advanced. That’s just not a happening thing on Facebook and Twitter, at present, which seem to bring out kindergarten spats and vendettas, complete with fake profiles and anonymous trolls.

The internet and blogging have lowered the barriers to entry SO MUCH. As Clay Shirky opined recently: Publishing used to be an industry, now it’s a button.

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

So, as a result, the ‘stuff’ published online varies in quality … from golden to dreck … some of it, judged by objective standards, is near to illiterate raving. But like any artistic ‘output’, perceptions of quality are in the eye of the beholder.

What to someone might look like a campaign in defence of the public (in effect, a ‘consumer watchdog’ role) might to someone else look like a nasty, fixated vendetta intent on destroying someone’s reputation. Who decides?

Well, ultimately the readership, I guess. But passers-by are helped, a lot I think, if we declare where we’re coming from, rather than leaving them to suppose, guess, project or interpret.

Or hallucinate.

– P