Silly-gisms

The current occupant of the White House in Washington has stated on more than one occasion that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals.  If true, it would logically follow that, if your father was an immigrant from Mexico, he was, unarguably, a rapist and criminal.

This is an example of a faulty, nonsensical syllogism, an illogical construct I like to call a silly-gism.

A bona fide syllogism is defined as a formal argument in logic, comprised of two statements—a major and a minor premise—followed by a conclusion.  If the two statements are true, the conclusion must also be true.  Take this Socratic example: all women are mortal; my sister is a woman; therefore, my sister is mortal.  Or another: all daffodils are flowers; I am holding a daffodil; therefore, I am holding a flower.  Because both premises in each example are indisputably true, both examples are authentic Socratic syllogisms.

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However, if I were to alter that second example—all daffodils are flowers; I am holding a flower; therefore, I am holding a daffodil—the conclusion would not necessarily be true.  The flower I am holding might very well be a rose.

True syllogisms abound in literature, in public discourse, and in everyday conversations.  Alas, so, too, do false ones, the silly-gisms.

Some of these can sound almost logical, given our habit of reading with a non-critical eye.  To wit: all crows are black; the bird in my cage is black; therefore, I have a crow in my cage.  Or this one:  I ride a bicycle; I am a man; therefore, all men ride bicycles.

Silly-gisms are bandied about by all and sundry, particularly on social media, and especially when controversy surrounds them.  The problem, as I see it, is that far too many people fail to distinguish between what is truly logical and what is patently absurd, blindly accepting whatever they read as true.  Individuals who are untrained in critical thinking skills—who are used to being told what to do, say, and think—tend to accept what they hear or read from a source they trust.

Major news organizations report the facts accurately; Breitbart is one such major news organization; therefore, Breitbart is reporting the news accurately.  In this example, only the second premise is demonstrably true, so the conclusion cannot be relied upon.  Nevertheless, it is Breitbart reporting that provides many citizens their news, and it is amazing how many people buy it.

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The same might be said of other news disseminators (CNN, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Toronto Star, et al) —that they pander to their audience’s predilections, aiming their reporting squarely at those who automatically believe anything that matches their preconceived opinions on a subject.  Except that, responsible news organizations deliberately present opposing points of views in their broadcasts and in their pages, striving for fair balance in these op-ed pieces.  The question is, how many viewers and readers actually take the time needed to explore alternative viewpoints?

Given the ubiquitous social media presence in our lives, and given the relative non-regulation of these online sources, it is scarcely surprising that so many of us get our daily dose of news from Facebook or Twitter.  And too often, that news is so unverified, uncorroborated, and unsubstantiated, that it might better be called un-news!

The real problem, as far as I am concerned, is not that these silly-gisms proliferate; rather, it is that they are deliberately broadcast and published by unscrupulous agents seeking to influence the public.  If I am repeatedly told by an automobile company, for example, that beautiful, young women are attracted to men who drive luxury cars, and if that becomes my primary reason for purchasing such a car, I may (more likely, will) be extremely disappointed with the result.  Nevertheless, no lasting harm is being done to anyone but me, and no one else is to blame for my lack of critical reflection before buying.  It is a matter of caveat emptor—the buyer must be wary.

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As the old saying has it:  Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

However, when the silly-gisms are widespread and malevolent, maliciously intended to mislead, great harm can be done.  Consider this blast from the past, before the advent of social media:  people elected to high office are above chicanery and corruption; Richard Nixon was elected U.S. president; therefore, Nixon was not a crook.  How did that work out?

But if Nixon were president today, how many people would choose to believe he was above reproach if they read it over and over again on media they trust?  Can anyone doubt that would be the message his acolytes would be spreading?

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Here is a silly-gism from the current president:  Our country used to be great; it is broken now, so badly that no one knows what to do; therefore, only I can fix it!

Only I can fix it!  How many times have we heard that mantra from his followers, and from media outlets that support him?  More importantly, how many of his country-men and -women believe it?  Do they have evidence to support his claim?  Do they even seek it?  Or, like lemmings to the sea, do they blindly follow the leader?

Here is another example:  governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; in the last presidential election, the people consented to be governed by this man; therefore, he has the mandate to fix it any way he sees fit.

Syllogism or silly-gism?  Time will tell, I suppose.

In the meantime, it behooves us all to try not to believe everything we are told.  For there is increasingly the distinct possibility that the people can, indeed, be fooled all the time.

 

Tell It Like It Is

Tell it like it is!

Grammatically incorrect ‘though it may be, that sentence succinctly describes the prime duty of every responsible journalist.  Consumers of our many print and digital mainstream media (MSM) outlets have the right to expect balanced, accurate reporting from them.  How else will we citizens learn about events transpiring in the world around us?

There are currently several threats confronting trustworthy journalism, however.  The first centres on how we are to define the words responsible, balanced, and accurate.  Each of us may have our own definition, but ours might well differ from someone else’s.  Who is to say whose version is correct?  In an environment where media entities range from the far-right of the political spectrum (eg. Breitbart or Sean Hannity) to the far-left (eg. New Yorker or Slate), woe betide the consumer who does not comprehend the disparity in the balance and accuracy of their reporting.  Each of them defends their coverage of the news as responsible, balanced, and accurate, so it falls to us to ensure we are knowledgeable of their respective stances.

Almost every media outlet has its own bias; the responsible ones make their position clear to their followers, who can then interpret what they’re receiving through that filter—thus becoming informed citizens.  But those outlets that mask their editorial stances encourage a rising mistrust of all MSM among the citizenry, who, as a consequence, begin to paint every one of them with the same brush.

Both dishonest journalism and a widespread mistrust of journalism are bad for the survival of democracy.

Another threat to be taken seriously arises from the deteriorating economic conditions facing segments of the industry.  With the rise of digital platforms across the internet, and with almost-universal access available to so many people, the established print outlets are faced with declining revenues from shrinking advertising and circulation.  These losses are resulting in layoffs of journalists and closing of newspapers, with a concomitant reduction in comprehensive coverage of local issues so important to us.

It is at the local level where much of what we citizens need to know is reported.  If all media outlets were global in scope, such as those found on the internet, who would inform us of problems facing us in our own communities and neighbourhoods?  One of the most important, yet undervalued, roles of local media is investigative journalism, inquiring on our behalf into questionable practices by government and private enterprises.

Who, other than those directly affected, would have known of the tainted-water scandals in Walkerton, Ontario or Flint, Michigan, for example, if local media had not persevered in their probes?  Who would be reporting chemical spills or pipeline leaks, if not responsible journalists?  Who else can rouse governments to action around contraventions of regulatory inspections of dairy- or meat-manufacturing facilities, for instance, that result in danger to the public?  Who will rail against the delays in bringing accused felons to trial in an overcrowded, underfunded court system—delays that result in the staying of charges and release of those persons because their rights have been violated?

Concerned citizens’ groups can’t do any of these things if they are not first made aware of the issues by the journalists who find and pursue them.  If we don’t have responsible investigative journalism at the local level, who will watch the watchers on our behalf?

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A third threat, perhaps the most serious, is posed by government.  The threat may arise from a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt to bolster the media by subsidizing them through the public purse in order to maintain local coverage.

Or, more ominously, it may come from an unbridled attempt by government to discredit or even censor media outlets that don’t adhere to an ideological, doctrinal line.

The subsidizing of MSM outlets from public tax dollars, which at first blush could be seen as helpful in this era of declining revenues, is a two-edged sword.  While an infusion of revenue might well enable local media outlets to remain viable, thus allowing them to continue their reporting of the news, that support could come with strings attached.

What happens, for example, when the reporting of an issue is contrary to the government’s position on that issue?  Does the funding suddenly dry up?  Or does the coverage change?  Either option is a blow to a healthy democracy.

It’s a well-established maxim, after all, that (s)he who pays the piper calls the tune.  It would take a highly-ethical party on either side to resist the temptation to bully the other, or to refrain from caving in.

Censorship or assaults on the integrity of the media are equally evil, if not more so.  And even in prospering democracies, both can raise their ugly heads.  Just the other day, a highly-placed official in the recently-installed American government referred to the MSM as “the opposition party”, and said they should “keep its (sic) mouth shut.”  Although that official is the founder of one of those far-right news outlets (Breitbart)—which might lead one to expect such a stance—the tacit threat from one so close to the seat of power is chilling.

 

     [Photo Credit: Copyright © 2013 Universal Press Syndicate]

 

As I’ve written in previous posts, it is one of the expectations of the MSM that they must act as guardians of perhaps the most precious of all our rights, the right to free speech.  And a closely-related tenet in a democratic society is citizens’ right to a free press, unconstrained by government interference or intimidation.

When a government claims that media outlets disagreeing with the party line are dishonest, fake, and disgraceful, publishing deliberately false information, and involved in a running war with the government, there is a clear and present danger to those cherished rights.

In the face of such attacks, it is incumbent upon citizens to defend the media, lest we lose them—whether for economic reasons or other, more insidious, pretexts.  And we must defend all of them, far-right, far-left, and every outlet in between, because they all contribute to the dialogue that generates and nourishes a flourishing democracy.

Additionally, it is every citizen’s responsibility to make him- or herself aware of the widely-discrepant editorial leanings of those outlets in order to make sense of what they are reporting.  Otherwise, the media will be rendered unable to fulfil their essential mandate, which is—

Tell it like it is!