Sunday, February 16, 2014

"You can't give evidence if you're stuck with concision"

In an interview in the 1992 film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, Noam Chomsky says in an interview:
The U.S. media are alone in that you must meet the condition of "concision" -- you've got to say things between two commercials or in 600 words. And that's a very important fact, because the beauty of concision -- you know, saying a couple of sentences between 2 commercials -- the beauty of that is you can only repeat conventional thoughts. Suppose I get up on Nightline, I'm given whatever it is, two minutes, and I say Qaddafi is a terrorist and Khomeini is a murderer, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, all this sort of stuff -- I don't need any evidence, everybody just nods. On the other hand, suppose you say something that just isn't repeating conventional pieties. Suppose you say something that's the least bit unexpected or controversial. Suppose you say,
At this point the film cuts from one place to another, a series of different statements Chomsky made in different contexts:
  • "The biggest international terror operations that are known are the ones that are run out of Washington."
  • "What happened in the 1980s is the U.S. government was driven underground."
  • "The United States is invading South Vietnam".
  • "The best political leaders are the ones who are lazy and corrupt."
  • "If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American President would have been hanged."
  • "The Bible is probably the most genocidal book in our total canon."
  • "Education is a system of imposed ignorance."
  • "There's no more morality in world affairs, fundamentally, than there was at the time of Ghengis Kahn, there are just different factors to be concerned with."
Then the cutting stops, and the interview goes on:
You know, people will quite reasonably expect to know what you mean. Why did you say that? I never heard that before. If you said that you better have a reason, you better have some evidence, and in fact you better have a lot of evidence, because that's a pretty startling comment. You can't give evidence if you're stuck with concision. That's the genius of this structural constraint.
(Film transcript from here.)

Similarly, you can't give reasoning if you're stuck with concision; you can't give nuance if you're stuck with concision.

I don't believe it's only the US media that does this — at least, not any more, if it ever was.  Importantly, today, it is true of most social media, certainly big ones like facebook and twitter.  Now, there's an important difference, that on facebook & twitter you get microclimates of conventional opinion, which means outrageous statements (to some people) are treated as banalities (to others).  But nevertheless I think the basic problem — "You can't give evidence if you're stuck with concision" — remains: and we are left either nodding our heads at what we agree with (perhaps a particularly nice formulation, perhaps a new instance of a familiar phenomenon or new instantiation of it — this isn't useless at all, but fleshing out what you believe is different from changing your beliefs), or dismissing something as rubbish without giving it a genuine hearing.  Often the same claim will produce both reactions, from different audiences.

It's something other than conversation.  Personally, I find it deeply frustrating.  And to the extent that we are, in fact, more divided than before (an issue I am not sure what I think about), I think this is one of the structural causes.

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

Of course, Prof. Chomsky is not limited to brief segments on TV talk shows. He can expound his notions as far out on a branch as he wishes in books, lectures, and so forth. What cramps his style is not "concision", but disagreement. He doesn't have to open mail from readers of his books, and his lectures are attended by like-minded admirers. But a TV appearance exposes him to people who would not ordinarily encounter him and his "dissent". It isn't that they don't get a fair dose of his attitudes that sets them off--it's that they hear them in their reified essence.

The late Sydney Hook had him pegged some decades back:

"Although there was much to criticize in American domestic and foreign policy, what struck me was the one-sidedness, unfairness, and
systematic use of the double standard in the attacks against the United States and South Vietnam. ... He called upon the United States "to denazify itself," but not North Vietnam or China. What practices in the United States, compared to the barbarous practices of Cuba or
of China or of North Vietnam, warrant such a characterization? In those countries how long would one survive who whispered the kind of criticisms Chomsky was perfectly free to broadcast in the United States and be rewarded for it?"
-- Sydney Hook, _Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the Twentieth
Century_, 1987

"The United States was taxed with following a policy whose logic was "genocide" for helping South Vietnam deal with "a peasant-based insurrection led by Communists" while the genuinely genocidal practices of North Vietnam in liquidating whole categories of the population were not mentioned. On his visit to Hanoi, Chomsky
publicly held North Vietnam up to the world as a model of social
justice and freedom.

"Whenever Chomsky and those who repeated some of his absurd views were challenged, they often cited as their authority someone else who had uttered similar absurdities, as if this vindicated the point they were making."
-- ibid

"The grim consequences of ... Hanoi's victory are now [in the 1980s incontestable. The record of the last decade has brought a
realization to some, who had been of the same view as Chomsky, of what they helped to bring into being in Vietnam. Protests have been organized against the continued existence of concentration and re-education camps, and the systematic barbarities practiced against
dissenters. But Chomsky is still unrepentant. He has refused to join any protest, on the ground that it would serve the interests of the United States. In short, he has followed the double standard to the last, for he never hesitated to utter the most extravagant criticism of the United States on the ground that it would serve the interests of the Soviet Union."
-- ibid

Desperate countries produce desperate radicals. Rich, self-satisfied countries produce rich, self-satisfied radicals.