The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

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Enough SaidThe title is a phrase I encountered while reading Mark Thompson’s excellent book on political rhetoric, Enough Said: What’s Wrong With the Language of Politics? Thompson’s book is both about the current and historic use of political rhetoric (from Aristotle forward), but also about the role of journalists in covering it. Thompson — a former new editor and executive in the BBC and now with the New York Times — maintains we are in  “a crisis of political language” that comes from a combination of modern media, social media use, and also in the changing way politicians speak (“characterised by lies, spin and demagoguery.”)

The phrase itself was coined by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur, in his book on the writings of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Thompson uses it to describe the mindset of suspicion and disbelief in modern journalists towards politicians, and the reverse shared distrust, as well as the public’s suspicion of the media in presenting its content.*

Personally, I believe a strong sense of skepticism and disbelief is necessary for a journalist to see through the spin and the bullshit to the hidden truths and the corruption below the surface. It’s necessary to have a skeptical perspective so as not to be conned by the blandishments and empty assurances of the corporate elite, too. Without skepticism, journalists are vulnerable to piffle in an age where there is so much disinformation and claptrap around.

In a speech given in 2008, Thompson said, 

…proportionate, rational scepticism is healthy and a civic good – as well as being a prime building block of good journalism… the evidence points rather the other way: the less you trust politicians and public institutions, the more likely you are to believe in outré conspiracy theories, not to mention witches and warlocks and so on.
What the evidence points to, I think, is of a large group of the population who feel outside a charmed circle of knowledge and power. Modern public policy is fiendishly complex and debates about it are conducted in a mysterious, technocratic language which – despite the best efforts of the BBC and some of the rest of the media – many people find hard to understand. This by the way may be why, as Onora O’Neill pointed out, the modern mechanisms of accountability, which are riddled with this impenetrable language, have not only failed to arrest the decline in trust but may have accelerated it.

And also in that same speech, he noted,

One of the tasks of a free press is to uncover public malfeasance. The media is right to be alert to it and to pursue and investigate any evidence that it is taking place. But no good – and almost certainly some ill – is served by exaggeration or endlessly crying wolf… However, this does not seem to be one of the main drivers of broader public disillusion…The biggest reason people give is because, in their view, politicians don’t tell the truth. People also think politicians “say what they want people to hear” and they don’t give straight answers – all issues related to the theme of truth telling.

Trust has to be earned by both sides, and is not a right or a given by either. It starts by being honest. Non-critical acceptance of political or corporate blarney by the media leads to the sort of banal, bland coverage (it doesn’t deserve to be called reporting) we get in the ideological media (like PostMedia and Fox “News”) where everything conservative is treated as wonderful and illuminating, and anything done, suggested, or spoken by a liberal or Democrat is vilified regardless of content or context. This reduces their content to a sort of Tarzan-Jane language of simplisticisms: “Them bad. Us good.” This, of course, appeals increasingly to a polarized audience that views complexity and intellectualism with suspicion and hostility.

Little wonder public disillusion with politicians has extended to the media**. We used to expect of our media to be the watchdogs of the greater good; trusted guardians of the public weal to give us truth and fairness. We also expected them to look deeper into issues on our behalf. Now we expect far too many of them to merely regurgitate the party line, shills for the shallow, self-serving ideology of their corporate owners.

In 2005, Thompson spoke about a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury on British  journalism, in which Thompson concluded that,

…although the best journalism really does support the common good and the interests of a ‘mature democracy’, some aspects of what some British journalists do are, to use his words, ‘lethally damaging’ to the reputation of contemporary journalism and ‘contribute to the embarrassingly low level of trust in the profession (especially in the UK) shown in most opinion polls.’

In the Guardian review of Thompson’s book, it notes how media has changed radically and irrevocably, even in the few decades since I was part of it, and how this has also affected journalism and its practitioners:

“Most of the young people who work for the new publishers find themselves not knee-deep in a war zone or with the time and resources to pursue a heroic long-term investigation, but locked in a digital sweatshop, ripping off other people’s work, making lists and chasing clicks, racing to keep one step ahead of the scything blades of Facebook’s unforgiving algorithm,” Thompson writes. He also gives a kicking to newspapers and conventional broadcasters who, scared of looking backward and hungry for free content, give further amplification to the howlround.
The result is political discourse in which there is no longer any presumption of good faith between opponents, “just a fight to the political death, a fight in which every linguistic weapon is fair game”. Rhetorical self-restraint is abandoned and vituperative exaggeration, often vaulting into outright mendacity, is rampant.

The “howlround” you already know: read the comments or responses on any Facebook feed or tweet — even non-controversial, innocuous posts get sucked into the maelstrom because everyone feels he/she has not only the right but the obligation to comment. You even find it in local newspapers (if a publication with 85% advertising can even be fairly called a “news” paper and not merely ad ad wrapper) where the space once reserved for public engagement — letters to the editor and community commentary  — has been replaced by banal, irrelevant snippets culled from social media instead (with no sense of the irony of copying on-the-fly, interactive content from the fast-moving timelines and feeds onto the static, unengaged page).

Plus there the “accelerants” as Thompson calls them: the growing competition for audience attention from an escalating number of sources. Traditional media is challenged for audience from online media, the ideological media, the countless individuals who have YouTube channels, websites, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok accounts, Facebook pages and groups, vlogs, and blogs all screaming for attention. Which among them — if any — is credible? And who among us has the time and energy to actually go through the tedious process of hunting down the facts behind claims to verify them?

(Just look at the number of well-debunked hoaxes, cons, and lies that get frequently regurgitated on Facebook as memes. If the posters won’t do a simple search to verify a single meme, how likely are they to delve into the conspiracies about Democrats eating children, or Obama’s birth certificate? Easier to post, share, and move on because the social media treadmills favour shallow, rapid, run-and-gun actions, not deep thought or analysis; just as they encourage knee-jerk, angry responses rather than civil debate).

And with the placement shift in the ideological media of opinion into traditional news slots, commentary — even when outrageously defamatory or mendacious — has replaced credible, factual reporting in order to promote specific political and social goals.**** The audience has a difficult time determining if a piece is reporting or simply the bloviations of some network loudmouth whose relationship with objectivity and truth is as distant as the stars from our planet (for example, Tucker Carlson of Fox “news”).

The Guardian piece continues,

Conventional politicians of the mainstream are both culprits and victims of this trend. The easy bromides, sleights of tongue, spin and other techniques they borrowed from the world of commercial marketing got them by in peace and prosperity, but are now found wanting during a period of conflict and austerity.

And on it goes. The majority of Thompson’s book is about how political communications have devolved from the actual use of rhetoric (as once taught as far back as ancient Greece and Rome) and grandiloquence to the sort of populist, low-vocabulary, angry demagoguery we get today.  It’s a kind of sad paean to the loss of  wit, erudition, and oratory. We have fallen from  the memorable phrase in John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” to Donald Trump’s crude and violent, “Lock ‘er up!”

We see the same sort of anti-intellectualism shift in politics as we’ve seen in medicine and science, where facts are treated as mere opinions and the opinion of those who shout loudest become the received “facts” for many (i.e. in the anti-science/pro-disease, anti-vaccination groups, or the anti-community/pro-disease, anti-maskers). Truth — political or otherwise —becomes the property of whoever shouts it most often and most loudly. As psychologist Tom Stafford wrote,

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Among psychologists something like this known as the “illusion of truth” effect.

Will Thompson’s book and his views — undeniably important and increasingly relevant today in the age of Donald Trump, QAnon, fake news, ideological media, and the reduction of fact to mere opinion competing with all other opinions — change anything? I doubt it. He is, I’m afraid, vox clamantis in deserto.

To effect any sort of change, it needs to be read and digested by both media people (editors, reporters, columnists, etc.) and by politicians (at all levels) in order to have any relevant impact. How many will actually read it or discuss his views, or even incorporate them in their work cannot be answered. If the local situation is any model, I would suggest few if any of these two groups will even bother.*** And the general public? Too many people today have the attention span of gnats (those under 35 in particular) and cannot get off their phones long enough to focus on 375 deeply intellectual and potentially challenging pages.

~~~~~
* Ricœur’s phrase is actually more about literary criticism than politics. Literary theorist Rita Felski called it, “…a distinctively modern style of interpretation that circumvents obvious or self-evident meanings in order to draw out less visible and less flattering truths.” On the Oxford University Press site it notes, 

The expression “hermeneutic of suspicion” is a tautological way of saying what thoughtful people have always known, that words may not always mean what they seem to mean. Some forms of expression, such as allegory and irony, depend of this fact. Sometimes a hermeneutic of suspicion may be important for more negative reasons, as when we suspect that texts are not telling us the whole truth.

Thompson takes it outside its literary box and applies it to the relationship between reporters and reported, interviewer and interviewee.

** In a 2019 survey of 2,000 journalists worldwide, 63% felt the public had lost faith in the media that year. This was spun as a good result, because the number was down from down from 71% in 2018 and 91% in 2017. Perhaps no one explained the notion of diminishing returns to the authors of this piffle: perhaps the number was less simply because there were fewer credible media left. Other studies show the public trust in the media continues to decline, and one study suggests only 44% of Canadians trust their media to be honest and fair (in the USA, the home of Fox “news” and its 24-hour rightwing screamfest, it’s a mere 29%).

We also see the effect on credibility where close friendships between local politicians and reporters protect the politicians from scrutiny or criticism. The public never finds out who is pulling the levers behind the curtain in town hall, never reads of a municipal decision or motion questioned, much less criticized or examined. Little wonder so many local papers often go directly from driveway to recycling box with nothing read in between.

A more focused study this year found that coverage is also affected by journalists’ relationship with their peers rather than by their own independent analysis, which contributes further to public distrust:

Washington journalists’ tweets and interactions on Twitter show that those delivering news on government and politics to most Americans live in “more insular microbubbles than previously thought,” … These journalists display a “vulnerability to groupthink and blind spots,” the study says.

*** Local politicians have a well-deserved reputation of being reluctant to read anything, including their meeting agendas, so a whole book is definitely out of the question. And if local media people won’t read a basic style guide or grammar book important to their career, how can we expect them to read something so intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking as this?

**** Locally, we recall when the former community newspaper, the Enterprise-Bulletin, once a reliable and respected source of local news and opinion, became an ideological tool for a group of the editor’s angry friends. Their self-serving opinions were printed on the front page — uncritically with no attempt to fact-check their claims or their sources  — as if they were actual news. The demise of the paper in both public opinion and credibility was rapid after that.

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