The current American habit of automatically accepting whatever information comes through a “friendly” news source, while automatically rejecting any information from an “unfriendly” news source has resulted in a society at odds within itself. We cannot achieve unity of purpose if we are unable to agree on even basic truths and if we are unable to treat other viewpoints with even a modicum of respect.
“Fake news” is today’s big code word; however, the meaning is a bit different from the traditional meaning of “code” word. Traditionally, a code word is a word that has a specific meaning within a group context – words that produce visualizations that are deeper than the dictionary meaning of the word. “Code words are ‘trigger’ words that evoke ideas of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and promote the idea that certain people are in a different ‘camp’ than we are, that they think differently and act differently.”1
“Fake news” originally referred to stories of disinformation and hoaxes, conjured for political purposes. As such, the original “fake news” story was designed to produce a specific reaction in both readers of a sympathetic viewpoint and those opposed politically. In an ironic twist, however, adherents of both conservative and liberal viewpoints now use the term in the same fashion. All factions of American society now have the same definition of the term – a definition which means “what I believe is real news and what I don’t believe is fake news.” Whether a news item is considered “real news” or “fake news” is, therefore, not dependent upon the authenticity of the report, but purely on the source of the report – if the item is reported by a media outlet favored by the reader/viewer, it is considered “real” news but if it is reported by a media outlet which is viewed as having a different political viewpoint, it is considered “fake” news.
The danger of words
Judging through such a narrow and parochial lens is called “selective perception.” It refers to the human tendency to “pre-screen” stimuli and information and only “admit” that information and stimuli which agree with our preconceived ideas. While humans have always tended to have “blinders” with regard to certain uncomfortable knowledge, selective perception is extremely prevalent in today’s political climate and is an actual danger to the continuation of our democratic experiment.
“Cultural conditioning teaches us what to perceive and what to ignore: people from different cultures can be presented with exactly the same situation and perceive it differently…. Your culture is one of the key factors that focuses your attention.”2 Selective perception builds on cultural conditioning and, today, goes beyond it.
The French difference
A heightened sense of selective perception is particularly evident in contemporary US society, which may account for the difference between the recent national US elections and the recent national French election. In both circumstances, there was evidence of outside attempts to skew perceptions of the voters but, while those attempts garnered great media attention in the US, similar attempts in France did not attract the same intensity there. Obviously, the culture of the United States is different from the culture of France and we may be able to learn important lessons from an examination and comparison of those cultures.
The French people are enmeshed in a culture which is, obviously, older than the American culture, which may account for more scrutiny (even skepticism) on the part of the French voter. Both countries boast a society of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, which diversity has created both deep tensions and deep richness. One major point of difference could be the expectation of future security and the history of past insecurity. The French people have a more varied experience than the American people, particularly involving war and occupation. Although the American Civil War was horrifically divisive and devastating from both human and economic perspectives, there has been no major armed conflict on American soil since that time.
(Lists of “wars on US soil” agree on four major conflicts – the American Revolution, the French-Indian War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. There have obviously been specific battles of more general conflicts which took place on American soil and we must not forget the lengthy warfare against native tribes indigenous to the US which took place on this continent. Nevertheless, for purposes of this discussion, we consider only those nation-vs-nation conflicts which caused actual or threatened individual violence against American citizens and towns. By limiting our discussion to conflicts between nation-states, we are also not including “terrorist” actions, which, by definition, involve individuals and collections of individuals, rather than nation-states.)
As an American, I have no personal or family memory of uniformed armies marching through my hometown, with the power of a foreign nation behind them. Since the Civil War, we have no personal or family memory of our homes being confiscated for use by occupation forces or of a “new” or “foreign” government violently supplanting the government we voted into office. The French people, sadly, have vivid memories of foreign armies and governments and foreign occupation. Does that experience create a more cynical approach to events or a tendency to demand concrete evidence of news items? Perhaps…in any event, our current method of perception could result in destruction of the civic discourse necessary to the American experiment.
A parting suggestion…
So, I repeat — we cannot achieve unity of purpose if we are unable to agree on even basic truths and if we are unable to treat other viewpoints with even a modicum of respect. A small suggestion: the next time you read a news article or see a posting on Facebook and automatically discount it as “fake news” and unworthy of belief, stop and examine your inner mind – is it “fake new” or might you be reviewing it through the lens of selective perception?
1 A quote from journalist Lewis Diuguid – see the article “Code Words – Shortcut or Roadblock?” elsewhere in this blog at https://culturalcrossroadskc.wordpress.com/2017/03/06/cultural-conversations/#more-100.
2 From Cultural Intelligence: Living and Working Globally” by David C. Thomas and Kerr Inkson, part of The Human Spirit multicultural/multifaith library collection created by Cultural Crossroads. Housed at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Library System, the books of the collection are available directly and through inter-library loan. Look for reviews of a sampling from this collection in future blog posts.