Thursday, November 20, 2008

Some thoughts on objectivity

As we noted in the comments to my "blogging our bodies" post, the idea that language and the user of language can be neutral is impossible. Queen Emily noted that it is cisgender white men who write with the "objective" voice, that others are always assumed to be Other, to be biased.

In studying journalism, it's been pointed out to me several times that women journalists and journalists of color are always presumed to be biased when dealing with issues that relate to their gender or race. White men, by contrast, can be "neutral"--can live up to the famed journalistic goal of being "objective."

Of course, this is crap.

Straight, cisgender white men write from a straight, cisgender white man perspective. In the field of journalism, most of them are also from the middle or upper classes, are educated, and thus bring additional slants to their writings. (Witness the coverage of the bailout of the financial giants v. the coverage of the proposed bailout of the big 3 automakers.)

In any case, "objectivity" is impossible. I would maintain that facts and truth are possible (at least truth insofar as it relates to empirical fact--George Bush is President, Nancy Pelosi said something, John McCain voted for that bill, it contained this text), but the idea that a journalist can put aside his or her own personal feelings and more importantly, his or her background to write from an "objective" position is impossible. The best we can hope for is, as one of my profs said, verification.

We see more and more verification being supplanted with this false idea of "balance" these days. Balance is even more screwed up than objectivity. Remember Jon Stewart going on Crossfire (a purportedly "balanced" show) to bitch out the hosts for hurting America?

"Balance" means that you go find someone from one side of an issue, and someone from another side, and get both their opinions, and then you're being "objective."

Yeah, well, there are lots of problems with that. But the one I'm thinking about right now is that it once again buys into a false binary. The idea that there are only two sides to any issue is a lie, but it sure buys into the way we like to see things in this country.

Democrat/Republican. Black/white. Male/female. Gay/straight. For/against. Enemy/ally.

This leaves out so much nuance that it's disgusting.

For instance, the auto company bailout. I hate the auto execs--they've fought environmental restrictions for years, they'd love to bust their unions themselves, and it was damn stupid of them to fly private jets to Washington to ask for money. I would much rather see $25 billion spent elsewhere. But I think we should do it, because millions of jobs would be lost, because bankruptcy would completely break the unions for good, and because the auto companies are finally starting to invest in green technology, and right now would be a good time to continue supporting that.

In any case, I would argue that our binary fetish is one of the biggest problems we've got in this country, and it's being made worse by this obsession with "both sides" in the media. There are never just two sides to any issue.

It's even worse when the binary drawn is completely false: black voters vs. gay voters over Prop 8, for example. Two completely different categories--as if one cannot be black and gay, or that these categories have anything to do with one another, even if you accept that they are categories with clearly defined boundaries, which I don't.

One of the things I liked best about Obama was that he seemed to understand that issues are more complex than two sides. That he can and will talk to people who are on "the other side" and find common ground, and that being biracial, being raised by a white family while being read as black by society, he understood that binaries are not what they appear to be. I hope that continues.

So back to journalism. It would seem that the profession, which often talks about the need for more diversity, understands that bodies and language are not neutral, that one cannot leave one's body and background behind to be objective. Yet it still clings to these ideals as though there is no other way to be.

Well, those of us in the blogosphere know otherwise. We neither leave our identities at the door, nor bother trying for "balance." Yet at least some of us try to verify our facts--the very custom of linking to other blogs, to news organizations, YouTube videos, documents, government sites shows that. You can't just state a fact in the blogosphere without backing it up--well, you can, but you're soon going to be asked for backup.

And since we have unlimited space to rant and rave and receive comments from readers, we get to explore many, many perspectives on complex issues. Our readership may (except for the occasional troll) agree with us on core principles, but any comment thread on a well-read blog will show you plenty of differences, arguments, and hairsplitting. This is a GOOD thing. It's far healthier than tossing up Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson and pretending that these two rich white guys actually cover a range of opinions.