The Problem with Partisans

There is no denying that today’s world is rife with hyperpartisanship. It’s everywhere, and it seems to infiltrate everything. One need look no further than to contrasting headlines from Huffington Post and Fox News (or similar examples) to describe a hot button issue in current events:

 

 

And the general public reading these sites? They tend to fall in line with the opinions put forth by the publications they like. If the views are hypocritical – to the point where you could literally swap out one prominent party figure’s name for another and spur an entirely different reaction – it doesn’t matter to them.

We’ve become a nation where it is party, not country, before all else. It is a trend that is endangering our democracy.

When citizens lose the ability to be discerning in a meaningful way about what they read, we enter an era in which critical thinking is set by the wayside. What do I mean by critical thinking? Let’s take the Google definition, to start:

The key word in this definition is the one that often eludes us most: “objective.” We can easily find and make analyses of issues, and even more easily form judgments, but to do so objectively requires something different. This involves more than a gut feeling, or a quick look at a few varying opinions, or even (perhaps especially) a propensity to look to certain public figures for their take on a given issue in order to “know where to stand” on it. If a news story comes out on a political matter in today’s world, how many Americans simply digest the information first – taking the facts and reports for themselves, processing them, trying to grasp and grapple with them – before heading over to a popular website to get the partisan “spin”? Very few, I’d wager.

And this is where we wade into the modern-day problem with prominent figures – many of whom are not reporters, journalists, or otherwise credentialed seekers of truth (not that all of the aforementioned can be characterized as such, but at least most profess as much in practicing established journalistic standards while they dig for stories and work with sources and editors to ensure accuracy) – who are, for lack of a softer term, purely partisan hacks.

Take, for example, Matt Walsh. A blogger who rose to fame from his “real-talk” takes on controversial issues, Walsh refers to himself as a “professional truth sayer” and often relies upon his self-identification as a Christian and conservative to defend his (often bombastic) contentions. Walsh is just one of the more prominent modern examples of a person who gained popularity primarily through the medium of blogging, but he is especially noteworthy because his central gimmick – that of being a straight shooter about things that others are perhaps ‘too hesitant’ to discuss – joins the ranks of a larger movement that has veered away from objective analysis and moved closer to the deep personalization of, seemingly, just about everything in contemporary culture.

The problem with this isn’t necessarily in blogging – obviously – or even in sharing one’s personal views with every willing participant within the world wide web. The problem arises when these personal views become conflated with objective analysis – or “truth,” as Walsh claims to have sole access to and ownership of – and readers begin to equate subjective, often impulsive rants with carefully researched evaluations.

I’ve written before on climate change; this is one serious issue where the gap between subjective feelings and scientific evidence could not be more prevalent, or consequential. The volumes of data and reams of peer reviewed research that forms a behemoth of clear support for climate change, along with its man-made acceleration, is countered in the virtual world with words of “belief” and “common sense.” It is the scientific equivalent of a mathematician stating that 2+2=4, and a random respondent replying that well, “perhaps YOU might think so, but I choose to think that 2+2 cannot really ever equal ANYTHING” – and then expecting for his opinion to carry equal weight in the matter. (And also of course, due to his presentation of a dissenting view, he will also now frame the issue as constituting a “debate.”)

For Walsh and others of his ilk, similar difficulties arise when they construe the mere virtue of their own popularity as a valid basis for presenting personal opinions as objective truths. And this is not only disingenuous; is it dangerous.

A couple of days ago, Walsh weighed in on the controversy surrounding Attorney General Jeff Sessions amid revelations that Sessions had met twice with a Russian ambassador during the campaign season, yet had not disclosed this information when questioned under oath. The story had broken less than a day before Walsh opted to weigh in with his “expert take” – Walsh, who is neither a political operative nor a legal expert, who is not a player in any aspect of the situation, who has not engaged in any form of actual journalism in uncovering details of the story, who has no access to any data or intelligence beyond what has been presented in the media, who is most certainly not an independent special investigator into the issue – and decided to announce with an air of unequivocal ‘truthiness’ that “there’s nothing strange” about any of these revelations and that we all need to “get a grip.”

One needn’t be a rocket scientist (or even a popular blogger) to understand that serious matters of national security are rarely, if ever, issues that can be easily condensed into simple black-and-white narratives. It is even less likely that these narratives can be clearly discerned in a span of fewer than 24 hours from when they were first revealed.

What *should* be clear to all Americans after the Sessions revelations is that the story constitutes one more among a string of incidents tying Trump associates to Russian operatives in less-than-forthcoming ways. What *should* be the response of the average American is one that demands further, and exhaustive, inquiry. This raises questions – many questions. A plethora of questions. And to dismiss these revelations offhand, with nary a glance in the direction of the objective pursuit of truth, is a dishonor to the very duties of basic American citizenship.

There is literally nothing to be lost from appointing an independent investigator into the slew of odd connections that are popping up between Trump associates and Russian operatives. If the billows of smoke in fact lead to no fire, then let us all rest more easily in the comfort of that knowledge. If there are deeper and more serious connections involved…then the integrity of American democratic institutions is at stake. The only clear truth is here that we all need more answers.

I certainly don’t have those answers here. I don’t pretend to have them, either. I don’t think anyone does, yet – not even Matt Walsh, blogger and Keeper of Truth.

We must fiercely guard our democracy against external threats, but also, we must guard against internal threats. This includes blinding ourselves with the harsh rays of partisanship. No one benefits when critical thinking becomes a last, rather than a first, resort. We may be a nation divided, but let us not be divided on that.