An important lawyer and writer, Philip Howard has written well and eloquently about the excessive and negative influence of too much law, too many lawyers, and too much bureaucracy.
In a recent Daily Beast article Howard reviewed a new book by Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times Company. The title, Enough Said.
Howard opened with an important point. In today’s culture we are told to forget about facts and objective realities—because facts are really just a matter of opinion. What matters is what you believe, not what is true.
Howard might have noted that Thompson’s New York Times just spent all of its election coverage distorting facts in order to proselytize its own opinions. So much so that it had to apologize. Its leadership promised to change course, but, as of now, the evidence is scant.
Mark Thompson would make a major contribution to solving the problem if he cleaned up his own house first. Who is better placed to show scrupulous respect for facts than the CEO of the New York Times Company. You might respond that Thompson has no real say over the editorial policies of the Times, but surely he has some influence.
In the meantime, Howard (after Thompson) offers a useful thesis:
We are now at a point in politics, a new book warns, where reality has lost its authority: Facts are considered a matter of opinion.
Public discourse has degenerated into a shouting match. Everything is either black or white. Is our only choice inept big government or no government? How about government that aspires to be practical and responsive?
How did this come about? Does the media, as in the New York Times, foster this condition by appealing to its readers’ confirmation bias, thus selecting our facts that affirm readers deeply held beliefs and suppressing the facts—like negative stories about Hillary Clinton—that would tend to discomfit them.
Whatever the cause, it is true that in today’s America facts lack any authority. Reality does not seem to matter. We believe what we believe and do not like it when anyone suggests that a mere fact can discredit or disprove our belief.
To be more precise, we are all idealists now. Just as Plato taught that what we take to be facts are mere appearances Nietzsche believed that there were no facts, only interpretations.
All of which buttresses the point that Howard and Thompson are making. Our culture rejects facts in favor of beliefs. Or opinions.
As it happens, when no one believes in facts and when no one believes in authority conferred by experience, people assert dominance by trying to shout louder than each other. They want to show that their conviction is a higher truth, thus that it is impervious to facts.
The alternative is an empirical or pragmatic culture where experiments are allowed to prove or disprove our hypotheses or where practical results are permitted to affirm the wisdom or folly of policy decisions. And of course, where experience matters… and is respected.
In this article, Howard is too judicious to mention that idealists on the political left, often on the radical political left, are largely responsible for this state of affairs. After all, they control most of the media and the vast part of the university system. They insist that their ideas are the best, to the point where nothing, no fact, no objective reality can possibly refute them. Rather than admit that their policies do not work, they prefer to shift the blame to someone else.
In an empirical culture opinions are not absolute truths but are more like hypotheses, to be tested, in debate and discussion, and in terms of the practical consequences they produce.
How can our political system possibly deal with modern challenges when we can’t even talk about them sensibly? That’s what Mark Thompson asks in his new book, Enough Said. Thompson, the CEO of The New York Times and former director-general of the BBC, dissects the degeneration of discourse over recent decades. We are now at a point in politics, he explains, where reality has lost its authority: Facts are considered a matter of opinion.
Words matter. A functioning democracy requires a public narrative that acknowledges different points of view, and encourages practical compromises. Words can inspire as well as destroy: “The right words at the right time,” political strategist Frank Luntz observed, “can literally change history.” Winston Churchill and FDR come to mind.
You have probably noticed by now that Howard and Thompson are using the term “authority” in a slightly peculiar sense. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Normally, when we talk about authority we are referring to individuals who exercise it, who can make things happen, whose word sets policy, who have superior wisdom. For my part, I have no problem with granting authority to objective facts—in truth, I find it refreshing—but making the argument that this authority is the same as the authority granted to individuals requires some serious thought.
And, if we ask what happened to the respect for authority, we know, as Howard does, that it gotten beaten down by the counterculture warriors of the 1960s. We must add the influence of psycho professionals who have told parents across the nation that rebellion is normal and that a compliant, respectful child is repressed.
For his part, Howard emphasizes the fact that people who misbehave, especially college students who disrupt the campus are never held to account. College officials have abrogated their authority and have allowed their campuses to become shouting fields:
The decline in reasonable discourse, he [Thompson] observes, is associated with a general suspicion of all authority. Pause here. Extreme or counter-factual rhetoric is harmless noise if decision-makers have the authority to ignore it and act on their best judgment. But the breakdown of authority means there’s no cost to being unreasonable. College students who shout down speakers they disagree with are not suspended or sanctioned. Hey, let’s have some fun, and use macro-aggression to give vent to our theories of micro-aggression!
The problem then is: no one is ever held to account for trafficking in noise. That is, for contributing to social disharmony.
We emphasize the point, because classical ethical treatises, from Confucius, emphasize the goal of producing social harmony. If we should be seeking social harmony, we should oppose those who produce noise and should hold them accountable. Theirs is not a crime, but it is certainly an offense against public order.
If a student gets up in the middle of a lecture and starts playing his harmonica, he should be held responsible. At the least, he should be shown the door. Such is not what happens today. University administrators are more likely to believe that harmonica playing is a reasonable expression of opinion, even if it undermines the authority of the lecturer. Thus, we are all in trouble.
As I have often remarked, Confucius once said that if you do not allow everyone’s sense of shame to order society, you will need to use rules and regulations, coupled with threats of punishment. Howard has often made the point, in different terms, and he is an expert in the deleterious effects of bureaucratic overregulation.
Public discourse is a cacophony because the words don’t matter. There’s no decision-maker to persuade or to hold you accountable. The disappearance of authority was no accident. After the 1960s, we reorganized government to avoid fallible human judgment by replacing human authority with thick rulebooks. That’s why government is a tangle of red tape where no one can do much of anything. Critical infrastructure projects languish on drawing boards because no official has authority to give a permit. Schools are chaotic because teachers must prove in a due process hearing that Johnny threw the punch. In government without human authority, irresponsible actions have few consequences, and irresponsible words have no consequences. Yell, hiss, lie… whatever.
Thompson sees the link between discourse and bureaucracy: “The culture of compliance is a false god,” Thompson notes, “a failed rationalist attempt to turn…human qualities of honesty, integrity and trust into a regulatory algorithm. Abandon it. Start from scratch. Fit your rules around…the reality that trust is central to all our affairs.”
But, trust requires an ethic of good behavior. It requires that we know right from wrong and to act accordingly. It requires that you do so consistently. It requires that we hold everyone to the same standards, to the point where we do not excuse those who have appallingly bad manners. But, trust must be earned. Perhaps the New York Times will earn back the trust that it squandered in its crusade to elect Hillary Clinton. Time will tell.