Friday, July 21, 2006

The Necessity Of Vice

One of the standard complaints everyone has now learnt to expect during any set of political divisive events is that the media, or some, necessarily influential, subsection of it, is misrepresenting or under-reporting some feature of the situation to the disadvantage of the position of the complainant. It's there in the Euston Manifesto, for example:

[t]he present initiative has its roots in and has found a constituency through the Internet, especially the "blogosphere". It is our perception, however, that this constituency is under-represented elsewhere — in much of the media and the other forums of contemporary political life.

Because there are no Decent Left columnists at major national newspapers, clearly, and Norm Geras, despite all his efforts, can't get a regular column in the Guardian.

More relevantly, I'd guess it's probably a feature of the majority of (blogospheric) commentary more or less every aspect of the conflict in the Middle East. It's almost a part of the background noise: accusations of under-reporting of the tactics, strategic vision behind and consequences of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank countered by claims that both the depth and character of the hatred which is ranged against Israel are downplayed by more liberal parts of the press, and so on, with new and exciting facts that the world fails to appreciate the significance of.

Much of this is doubtless just straightforward political smear, intended to do little more than muddy the waters: "I raise your denial of access to medical treatment, theft of land, theft of water, demolition of houses, shooting of civilians, use of sonic booms as a form of population control, and so on, with the dread anti-semitism, the mere existence of which in people's minds justifies stripping them of their basic human rights" is hardly particularly convincing, for example. That is not to say all of it is though. News organisations tend to have their biases, some of which may or may not be justified, and their coverage of events will tend to reflect those biases, which, if those biases are egregious enough, presumably justifies a complaint about the coverage in question.

What's interesting about this though, is the way in which any of these complaints invokes a particular kind of conception of the ideals that journalism, at least in its conventional forms, ought to live up to. Not only should journalism tell the truth, but it should tell the truth in a manner which presents the most salient truths as just that, the pieces of information without which an adequate understanding of the events in question simply isn't possible. The point of the complaints isn't usually that what is being complained about is literally false, but that it in some way obscures or diminishes the complainant's prefered interpretation: the reason Arab and Palestinian anti-semitism is relevant for those on the right, for example, more relevant than the grinding mounting-up of little and not-so-little indignities and brutalities in the Gaza Strip and the Lebanon, is that it presents Arabs and particularly Palestinians as presenting an existential threat to Israel, an existential threat which licences conduct that might not be acceptable in other circumstances - after all, you are allowed to kill in self-defence.

This ideal, satisfied only by both accuracy and relevance, obviously presents problems for journalists, more so when the other, sometimes competing, imperatives that, depending on their role, news organisations and their members might have: a degree of political impartiality, and retaining a sufficient audience to be economically viable, for example. Despite the criticism that it receives, I think that the BBC often deals quite well with these challenges. As a publicly funded broadcaster, I think it's reasonable to think that it has a more extensive duty of political neutrality than privately owned media outlets, since it cannot regard itself as having a sub-national constituency, at least in its news coverage. Its ambivalence about the use of the word 'terrorist' and studiously neutral stance in much of its reportage, for example, seem like attempts to avoid creating news coverage which excludes any major, centrist, concerns. It reflects the way a certain kind of wind blows, certainly, but while there are undoubtedly problems with that, as an interpretation of the kind of stance required by the BBC's role, it is hardly bizarre.

Earlier in the week, I linked to a thread at Crooked Timber, discussing the relationship between Foucault and Habermas and, by extension, the possibility of a genuinely normatively empty work of something like social science. Habermas occupies something of a slightly odd position in relation to the tradition of European social theory of which he is, despite this, firmly a part. His project can be understood as an attempt to resolve the difficulty of engaging in any form of social critique whilst acknowledging that there are social processes which tend to work to reproduce that society by acclimatising its members to it, making the habits which run with it, rather than against it, semi-conscious, almost pre-reflective. Once the possibility that a social researcher, like anyone else, might suffer from forms of false consciousness exists, the question of the value, the validity of their research is immediately open, because they, like anyone else, might be reproducing biases which disguise the true nature of what they are investigating.

The problem here is that it looks like it is impossible for the social researcher to occupy a perspective from which things appear to them as they are: the presumption is that, unless some perspective untrammeled by inevitable distortions can be attained, the panoptican, the God's Eye view, the results of any investigation into any set of social processes will be skewed by those distortions. Habermas' point is that that idea depends to deprecate the epistemological warrant of actual investigations on the standards of a hypothetical ideal investigation that it acknowledges is impossible to actually achieve, yet is nevertheless able to summon up a conception of to serve as a standard of critique, something which we fail to live up to. It denies the possibility of epistemologically warranted conclusions about social life, yet nonetheless, in that denial makes use of the very resources required to make sense of the idea of an epistemological warrant. If an analysis of systems of knowledge as systems of social reproduction is to have any pretence to be an analysis in the first place, it cannot subvert totally the idea of what it is for something to be an analysis, which, in distinction from a system of social reproduction for example, includes aiming at truth and further, aiming at displaying it.

We might call this - I can't remember quite where the phrase comes from - crypto-normativity: the encryption of essentially unavoidable normative claims, to do with the necessity of having a sense of what it is for something to be true in order to criticise it as false, in a discourse which seeks to undermine our confidence in the normative acceptability of some set of practices. Normativity, it turns out, is inescapable. Ideals of honesty, integrity, responsibility and even proportionality really are in some sense embedded in our social practices, do, in some sense, provide their structure, their meaning. Please supply your own punchlines, though.

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