What is objectivity?

by Dave Maier

Gladstone A most interesting book I've been reading lately is The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (comix art by Josh Neufeld). Gladstone's main point so far seems to be that while the (news) media have an obligation to be “objective” in the sense that what they tell us must be true (or at least aim at truth, employing fact-checkers and so on), they also hide behind that obligation. As I would put it, one sense of the term “objectivity” is “fairness,” which can make it seem that media should not “take sides” on any of the contentious issues on which they report. This leads to the sort of he-said-she-said, “scientists say earth is round; others disagree” news reporting Gladstone is complaining about. According to her, journalists justify their failure to stick their necks out, even when what they (should) say is true and documented (and thus “objective” in this sense), by saying that journalistic “objectivity” requires them to stay out of political battles. Gladstone finds this ideal perverse, and this book is dedicated to combating it.

Gladstone invokes numerous historical and cultural figures in the course of her argument. In a remarkable drawing which I will not attempt to describe here, Gladstone's avatar proclaims: “Few reporters proclaim their convictions. Fewer still act on them to serve what they believe to be the greater good. Even now, arguably another time of profound moral crisis [that is, besides the ones she's already discussed], most reporters make the Great Refusal.”

This last, she has already mentioned, is Dante's term (Inferno, Canto 3) for a renunciation of one's responsibility to take a stand. I had forgotten this part, but apparently (ironically enough given our context) Dante has prudently omitted to identify the particular shade he takes to exemplify this sorry lot. An internet commentator fills us in:

“From among the cowardly fence-sitters, Dante singles out only the shade of one who made “the great refusal” (Inf. 3.60). In fact, he says that it was the sight of this one shade–unnamed yet evidently well known–that confirmed for him the nature of all the souls in this region. The most likely candidate for this figure is Pope Celestine V. His refusal to perform the duties required of the pope (he abdicated five months after his election in July 1294) allowed Benedetto Caetani to become Pope Boniface VIII, the man who proved to be Dante's most reviled theological, political, and personal enemy. An alternative candidate is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who refused to pass judgment on Jesus.”

Gladstone's first mention of this Dantean term occurs when she quotes W. B. Yeats's bitter denunciation of journalists: “I hate journalists. There is nothing in them but tittering, jeering emptiness. They have all made what Dante calls “The Great Refusal.” The shallowest people on the face of the earth” (this from a letter to Katherine Tynan dated August 30, 1888, when the poet was 23).

Now comes the puzzling part. After representing “most reporters” as making the “Great Refusal” [“Dante would say the hottest places in Hell are too good for them”], she continues: “On the other hand, an important poem penned in the devastating wake of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution fervently asserts: Deeply held conviction leads to mayhem.” And after quoting the poem (the familiar lines from The Second Coming): “Damn you, Yeats! Pick a side! […] Yeats is the typical news consumer. On any issue — where one person sees moral courage, another sees culpable bias.”

Here are the (relevant) quoted lines: […]

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

And here's Wikipedia: “According to some interpretations “the best” referred to the traditional ruling classes of Europe who were unable to protect the traditional culture of Europe from materialistic mass movements.”

In any case, surely the natural reading is that “the best” are those who know best how things are, but unfortunately lack the moral courage to take a stand (so in this sense they aren't so great after all), while “the worst” are those whose passionate intensity is directly related to the lack of nuance in their convictions. On this reading, which again I had always thought to be the consensus one, Yeats's point is not at all that “deeply held conviction leads to mayhem.” Instead, very much like Gladstone herself (and her earlier citation of his reference to the Dantean “Great Refusal”), he sees mayhem (literal for him; figurative for her) resulting when unscrupulous dogmatism goes unopposed. In this sense, the point seems similar to the rather less poetic saying that “History is made by those who show up” (or, similarly, “All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”)

Of course Gladstone hasn't forgotten her earlier citation of Yeats; she simply sees him as having changed his mind (and thus adding another sense to “Damn you, Yeats! Pick a side!”). In any case, her main point isn't affected by her unusual reading of the poem. As her subtitle [“Brooke Gladstone on the Media”] makes clear, her concern is to document and classify the various types of distortion and bias specific to journalism. Many of her examples are themselves familiar from the media, if only elaborated in alternative or other left-oriented sources: the Iraq War/WMD, government secrecy, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth – not that she herself is anything less than scrupulous, as far as I can tell. (In fact the book is very persuasive and insightful.)

However, you don't have to have a particular political orientation to complain about bias and the death of objectivity. Indeed, one of the points of Alan Sokal's famous hoax was that it wasn't just conservatives but also progressives who should shun postmodernism's nihilistic rejection of the idea of objective truth. Indeed, it is usually conservatives who cite Yeats's apocalyptic vision. But Yeats is not the only twentieth-century intellectual to rue the advent of the modern age, and in their own jeremiads today's cultural conservatives (q.v. Roger Kimball) often append Yeats's lament to another seemingly similar denunciation of the “treason of the intellectuals” (i.e. in embracing modernity in the way they do).

Latrahisondeclercs I refer to Julien Benda's 1927 essay La Trahison des Clercs, which serves as an interesting comparison to Gladstone's much later book. Benda's target resembles Gladstone's in that a “clerc” is someone whose concern should be the truth, but who instead has betrayed that noble vocation, whether out of venality or cowardice. But the differences are crucial to how their stories unfold. According to Herbert Read's introduction to the Beacon Press English edition: “The clerk … is the disinterested thinker—the man who pursues his knowledge oblivious of the social and economic tendencies of his time. He is devoted to pure thought and sacrifices everything to that end.” That reference to “pure thought” tells us that we're not talking about the media professional here, but instead the very opposite of the dogged researcher into documented empirical fact.

That we are speaking here about metaphysicians, not journalists, becomes evident when Read elaborates Benda's complaint: “M. Benda's charge is that the clerks of today …. have betrayed the cause of speculative thought to the interests of political passion.” Given the differences, Benda's examples and details are surprisingly similar to Gladstone's: our clercs have lost faith in objectivity, so they feel free to push whichever point of view they find expedient. In particular they have fallen prey to the lure of nationalism: where beforehand “Plato demanded that the philosopher should be bound in chains in order to compel him to take an interest in the State,” nowadays they are all to willing to serve its propagandistic needs. They indulge in the most despicable xenophobia; they align shamelessly align their thought to a perceived “national character.” Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (That's French.)

But that's not the interesting part. The focus on philosophy rather than journalism makes a big difference. For the charge is not simply that clercs abandon philosophy for worldly concerns, which would be bad enough. It's that they allow these worldly concerns to infect and pervert philosophy itself. Here's Read again: “The clerks, in short, betray their trust in two general ways: they exalt the particular at the expense of the universal, and they exalt the practical at the expense of the spiritual.” Indeed one of Benda's main points is philosophical in this way: that what Read sees as two distinct phenomena are simply different forms of the same lamentable failure: a loss of faith in the “transcendental.”

The book's epigraph, attributed to one Renouvier, makes this explicit: “The world is suffering from lack of faith in a transcendental truth.” We might wonder how to take this. Is it a defense of supernatural religion? Or of a metaphysical realm of real abstractions? Or the idea of objective truth itself? Or perhaps a particular truth? The ambiguity, if that's what it is, is resolved by the book itself: for Benda, these are all the same thing. In abandoning Platonism, we turn away from the divine, which is the source and essence of truth. In effect, all other views are propaganda by their very nature.

You can see the appeal of this view for Platonists (if not religious people generally, who are of course all over the map philosophically), as well as for cultural conservatives of a certain stripe. If in simply setting up the problem you can identify your own view with truth itself, you ensure yourself a pretty hefty rhetorical advantage. (However, ironically enough, that formulation makes it difficult to evaluate the view objectively.) Again, this is reminiscent of contemporary rejections of postmodern relativism, which Platonists such as Allan Bloom held to be fatally self-undermining.

But there's an interesting difference. The opposite of relativism (and its supposed fellow-travelers: pragmatism, idealism, etc.) is a robust realism, whether or not coupled, as in Sokal, with the scientific method as our means to figuring out what reality is really like. But for Benda, “realism” is the bad guy, to be equated with “pragmatism,” and “idealism” is the good guy. The former terms imply (as in non-philosophical contexts) an expedient compromise with the facts on the ground, while the latter connotes a steadfast dedication to principle come what may. This becomes even more clear when a further target comes into view: materialism. Here Benda elides the philosophical conviction that matter is the ultimate or sole reality, and material things real and “transcendent” abstractions merely useful (if that), with the cynical idea that since this life is all there is, “spiritual” values are for chumps.

This may seem like a lot to pin on the idea that one must not “exalt the particular at the expense of the universal,” but it is a commonplace in the literature of this kind that, philosophically speaking, it has been all downhill since the high point in the 13th century, the first and fatal slip being due to medieval nominalist critics of Aquinas. On this view, the Enlightenment emphasis on empirical science is simply an outgrowth of that medieval fall, and postmodernism the vile, (now overtly) meaningless squawks of those same nihilistic chickens come home to roost. We must return to the transcendent source of truth if we are to preserve objectivity at all.

Naturally, this sounds nuts to modern defenders of objectivity, who think of it as virtually identical with empiricism and the scientific method. Yet there is more than a hint of Nietzschean resistance to a facile empiricism in Gladstone's forceful rejection of the idea of “fairness bias.” (For more on Nietzsche's nuanced views in this area, see last month's 3QD post.) Just as Platonism would, the empiricist ideal of objectivity requires us to recuse ourselves (that is, our selves) from judgment, subordinating it to an impersonal method. Naturally this method has its place, most obviously in science (and indeed in the research phase of journalism). But for Gladstone, the most “objective” journalism, in the sense of dedication to the truth, is that which challenges our complacent acceptance of the conventional bounds of journalistic propriety. She gives a number of examples, but perhaps the most striking is the 1909 case of Missouri Senator W. J. Stone, who was accused of striking a Negro waiter in a Pullman dining car. As Gladstone reports, the New York Times rebuked the Senator, but only in the conventionally acceptable way:

“'Everyone who travels much, and uses the dining cars, can sympathize with the Senator. The service is frequently bad. [However, no] provocation justifies loss of control in a United States Senator…' […] Let's stipulate that in the twenty-first century, hitting a waiter who is late with you lunch is inexcusable, actionable behavior — a view that fits squarely in the donut hole of consensus. In 1909, it falls into the sphere of legitimate controversy. So the Times 'objectively' examines the case and concludes that, all things considered, the racist Senator has dishonored himself and his office. What falls into the sphere of deviance? The waiter's perspective. It's irrelevant. In fact, even to consider his side of the story, or the grievances of Pullman waiters generally, would smack of unseemly advocacy. The legitimate debate extends only to the damage done to the dignity of the Senate.”

This defense of advocacy – and social change – as iself a dedication to objectivity is diametrically opposed to Benda's, and perhaps Yeats's, suspicion of modernity as nihilistic. So was she right about The Second Coming after all? We report, you decide.