The Golden Mean

When the history of our era is written, there is much that will be said about the failures of traditional, mainstream media organizations. One of the most disappointing is the media’s ritualized exaltation of “balance”, which in practice means giving equal time and attention to both sides of a debate regardless of whether one side’s views are more in agreement with the facts. I wrote about the harmful effects of this ignorant and lazy practice last year, in “The Illusion of Balance“.

There’s an equally pernicious corollary to this which the media also frequently puts on display. This corollary is to believe that when there’s a debate, the actual truth is always somewhere in the middle – as if the correct position on any topic could always be found by taking the average of the two most extreme positions. The media too often acts as if “moderation” and “centrism” are always better than passion and strongly held opinions – as though a person’s being “extremist” is a good reason to reject their views, regardless of whether those views are rational or correct. As Glenn Greenwald puts it in his usual brilliant style:

Not only do they believe in nothing, they think that a Belief in Nothing is a mark of sophistication and wisdom. Those who believe in things too much — who display political passion or who take their convictions and ideals seriously… are either naive or, worse, are the crazy, irrational, loudmouth masses and radicals who disrupt the elevated, measured world of the high-level, dispassionate Beltway sophisticates…. They are interested in, even obsessed with, every aspect of the political process except for deeply held political beliefs — the only part that really matters or that has any real worth.

(A good example of this tendency in a slightly different context is the Guardian’s Mark Vernon, who writes on Comment is Free that we should shun debates between theists and atheists because those debates “forc[e] people to take sides”. Heaven forbid!)

As a counter to this insipid relativism, it can be observed that moderation and compromise are not always the correct course of action. Sometimes, there is a debate and the extremists are right. Consider these examples:

When Great Britain’s colonies in the New World were struggling with the oppression of a distant, dictatorial ruler and a burdensome tax scheme, who was right – the dangerous, zealous extremists who argued that the colonists should rebel completely against King George and create a completely new republic, or the sober, responsible moderates who felt that we should reconcile with the king, accept his divine authority and just ask him nicely to treat us better?

“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”

—Thomas Paine, Common Sense, an influential 1776 pamphlet arguing that the American colonies should declare independence

When slavery divided the United States and the country was burning on the brink of civil war, who was right – the wild-eyed abolitionist fanatics who thought that slavery should be ended completely and all slaves should be set free, or the cool-headed, wise statesmen who felt that the best compromise was to ensure an equal number of free states and states that permitted the slavery of human beings?

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

—William Lloyd Garrison, inaugural editorial in the anti-slavery journal The Liberator, 1 January 1831

When Jim Crow laws and de jure segregation divided American citizens into two classes of people, and people of African descent were fighting for liberty, who was right – the irrational, hysterical partisans like Martin Luther King Jr. who felt that acts of civil disobedience would startle the nation out of its apathy, or the sober, responsible religious leaders who felt that breaking the law, even if done peacefully, was an extreme and irresponsible course of action that would reflect poorly on the entire movement?

“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

—Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963

And more recently: When George W. Bush and the Republican Party was advocating preemptive war against Iraq based on the threat of its supposed WMD programs, who was right – the extremist, cut-and-run liberals who said there was no good evidence of such a program and preemptive war was a dangerous, irresponsible policy, or the moderate, mainstream statesmen who advocated full-scale war based on a series of speculations and suppositions, just to be safe?

“While bipartisanship is a worthy goal, and symbols have their value, this resolution sacrifices far too much in the name of symbolism and compromise. As long as this president goes unchecked by Congress, our troops will remain needlessly at risk, and our national security will be compromised. This resolution fails to check the president, or to change his disastrous Iraq policy. It essentially authorizes the failed strategy that the American people rejected in November. For the sake of our troops, and for our national security, Congress should take real, binding steps to challenge the president’s policy and bring our troops out of Iraq.”

—Senator Russ Feingold on an anti-war “compromise” resolution, 2 February 2007

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    That William Lloyd Garrison quote is just wonderful. Breath taking. I read it about 12 times.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    That William Lloyd Garrison quote is just wonderful. Breath taking. I read it about 12 times.

  • The Vicar

    Ah, once again, someone who believes that news outlets are businesses run to tell the truth to their customers, the readers/viewers/listeners. Sorry, not true. News outlets are businesses run to attract readers/viewers/listeners for their true customers, the advertisers. (Even in the case of PBS, most of the cash comes from corporate sponsorship, which has demanded — and received — advertising time.) These days, some of the advertisers even cut out the middleman and buy the news outlets directly.

    Thus the obsession with avoiding decisions: a middle position, however ludicrous in practice, will pacify most of the audience and keep them around for the advertising pitches which actually make money. Don’t like it? Find a viable economic model for an alternative.

  • Entomologista

    I just found your blog and I love it. I’m often criticized for being too outspoken about atheism :)

  • Alex Weaver

    If half of Americans were cannibals and half not, the media would be for moderate cannibalism.

    -Rack Jite

    More later.

  • Alex Weaver

    If half of Americans were cannibals and half not, the media would be for moderate cannibalism.

    -Rack Jite

    More later.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Don’t like it? Find a viable economic model for an alternative.

    We have an alternative, one that dates back at least to the earliest days of the American republic: pamphleteering. Instead of trying to form a handful of massive media conglomerates that appeal to everyone, and inevitably watering down their operations to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of that goal, let’s have thousands of independent voices. Let’s have smaller groups of people boldly expressing their opinions without external restraint and appealing to those who think similarly to them. Let’s trust that the truth will emerge from debate, rather than hoping that the few people who control the media will permit both sides to be heard.

    We used to have something very like this, and blogs are a welcome step back towards it. We can do more.

  • The Vicar

    @Ebonmuse:

    (Yes, I said I wouldn’t post for a while. I just can’t resist this topic.)

    Right, right. Deliberately encourage everyone, no matter how ignorant, to say whatever they want and call it news. Just what the world needs.

    Consider this: there is something like a 98% consensus among scientists that global warming is real, caused by humans, and bad for the longterm viability of the human species. Under the current system, where there is at least some small respect for expertise, an appalling number of people are still under the impression that the issue is under serious debate, largely because of the huge popularity of media which reinforce what is comfortable to their audiences. (Guess what? People don’t like to be told there’s a crisis brewing whose cause is their own comfort.) And that’s with news shows which have to take expert opinions into account or lose credibility. Can you imagine the situation if the average person’s main source of news was Joe Shmoe, amateur pamphleteer? A majority of people wouldn’t even have heard of global warming, because it’s outside their comfort zone.

    For that matter, I strongly suspect that a world with pamphleteers is unstable and would collapse back into major media again. Serious news coverage requires multiple reporters capable of dropping everything to cover a story, which in turn requires them to do it as a profession (i.e. get paid to do it instead of just as a hobby). That means there has to be a substantial source of money, and it has to either be paid by subscribers — one hundred dollars a year might just about manage to support a two-person operation after production costs and taxes — or by advertisers. For stability, it would have to be both, which leads to a constant drive for more subscribers in order to obtain more advertising as well as to ensure stability if there is a sudden loss of subscriptions… I can’t prove it, but I think in the end, competition would kill off the small- and mid-size outlets, leaving us with hobbyists and large-scale businesses.

    I’ll be happy to try a utopian experiment, but first I want to see some evidence that it won’t automatically collapse back into the status quo. Stability is not a virtue on its own, but without it other virtues are useless.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Under the current system, where there is at least some small respect for expertise, an appalling number of people are still under the impression that the issue is under serious debate, largely because of the huge popularity of media which reinforce what is comfortable to their audiences.

    The level of scientific knowledge among the general public in America is abysmal. Almost half the population believes the Earth is 6,000 years old. Similar pluralities believe in psychic powers or astrology. Even among basic, non-controversial scientific facts where ideology does not come into play, the level of scientific literacy is appallingly low. Similarly atrocious levels of ignorance can be seen in politics. For example, in the run-up to war with Iraq, the news organizations stood idly by and let the White House disseminate all manner of patent falsehoods, resulting in significant majorities of Americans believing the absolutely false claims that Saddam Hussein was in bed with al-Qaeda or that he had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.

    By any rational measure, traditional media has failed and failed utterly in its obligation to educate and inform the public. If these are the fruits of the current system, then I say we find an alternative. What do we have to lose? How much worse could we possibly do?

    In any case, the trend I described is already happening. That’s why TV and newspaper circulation is suffering while people increasingly flock to propaganda outlets like Fox. You worry that people will only seek out material that supports their own viewpoints, but they’re doing that now. The presence of traditional media is hardly going to stop anyone who wants to do that. I say, let’s finish what’s already been started. Push it all the way over, and let the system find a new equilibrium point.

    Yes, independent media sources may mix fact with opinion. But they have certain advantages as well. For one thing, traditional media organizations are rich and powerful, and want to stay that way; as a result, they are beholden to the powers that be and all too easily cajoled or intimidated into not publishing stories that would be damaging to their corporate or political benefactors. On the other hand, it would be practically impossible to achieve the same level of censorship when there are hundreds of voices making themselves heard. What one silences, another will publish. And independent media groups don’t have so much to lose that they’ll be easily leaned on and persuaded to self-censor.

    And that’s with news shows which have to take expert opinions into account or lose credibility.

    You’re kidding, right?

    I can’t even begin to count how many shows – and not daytime talk shows or other tabloid fodder, but news shows presented as serious journalism – have given credulous, pandering coverage to all manner of religious hucksters, snake-oil salesmen, and phony psychic pretenders. If we’re lucky, a skeptic like James Randi or Michael Shermer will show up and be allowed to give a two-second blanket dismissal, and then it’s back to the latest bout of breathless hyperventilation over Sylvia Browne, or Deepak Chopra, or The Secret (or whatever other fad of the week is currently making rounds among the true believers).

    Again, the independent media model has advantages here. Traditional media organizations, bound by demands of limited space and “fairness”, almost inevitably present information in thirty-second soundbites shorn of context and substance and never put a real scientist on the TV and give him time to talk without putting him next to a yammering ignoramus who has to be given “equal time”. They’re practically bound to discuss whatever’s most popular because it’s popular, and because news has become more of a way to attract eyeballs and advertiser dollars than to fulfill the sacred trust of informing the public. Under such circumstances, people who know what they’re talking about tend to be displaced by people who look good on camera. (As usual, The Onion gets it right.) Again, with more platforms out there, there are more opportunities for real experts to distinguish themselves – by merit, not just by popularity – and we’re almost guaranteed the presentation of a dissenting voice.

    Serious news coverage requires multiple reporters capable of dropping everything to cover a story, which in turn requires them to do it as a profession (i.e. get paid to do it instead of just as a hobby).

    I’m not saying there will no longer be any role for career reporters in my ideal world. If anything, the proliferation of new platforms will give them more opportunities to ply their trade as freelancers. What I’m suggesting is that we should have a larger number of small to mid-size journalism outlets, rather than the handful of behemoths we currently enjoy. I think the market can support that, especially given the greater attention such a system could pay to niche topics and local news that lumbering media giants can’t adequately cover.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Under the current system, where there is at least some small respect for expertise, an appalling number of people are still under the impression that the issue is under serious debate, largely because of the huge popularity of media which reinforce what is comfortable to their audiences.

    The level of scientific knowledge among the general public in America is abysmal. Almost half the population believes the Earth is 6,000 years old. Similar pluralities believe in psychic powers or astrology. Even among basic, non-controversial scientific facts where ideology does not come into play, the level of scientific literacy is appallingly low. Similarly atrocious levels of ignorance can be seen in politics. For example, in the run-up to war with Iraq, the news organizations stood idly by and let the White House disseminate all manner of patent falsehoods, resulting in significant majorities of Americans believing the absolutely false claims that Saddam Hussein was in bed with al-Qaeda or that he had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.

    By any rational measure, traditional media has failed and failed utterly in its obligation to educate and inform the public. If these are the fruits of the current system, then I say we find an alternative. What do we have to lose? How much worse could we possibly do?

    In any case, the trend I described is already happening. That’s why TV and newspaper circulation is suffering while people increasingly flock to propaganda outlets like Fox. You worry that people will only seek out material that supports their own viewpoints, but they’re doing that now. The presence of traditional media is hardly going to stop anyone who wants to do that. I say, let’s finish what’s already been started. Push it all the way over, and let the system find a new equilibrium point.

    Yes, independent media sources may mix fact with opinion. But they have certain advantages as well. For one thing, traditional media organizations are rich and powerful, and want to stay that way; as a result, they are beholden to the powers that be and all too easily cajoled or intimidated into not publishing stories that would be damaging to their corporate or political benefactors. On the other hand, it would be practically impossible to achieve the same level of censorship when there are hundreds of voices making themselves heard. What one silences, another will publish. And independent media groups don’t have so much to lose that they’ll be easily leaned on and persuaded to self-censor.

    And that’s with news shows which have to take expert opinions into account or lose credibility.

    You’re kidding, right?

    I can’t even begin to count how many shows – and not daytime talk shows or other tabloid fodder, but news shows presented as serious journalism – have given credulous, pandering coverage to all manner of religious hucksters, snake-oil salesmen, and phony psychic pretenders. If we’re lucky, a skeptic like James Randi or Michael Shermer will show up and be allowed to give a two-second blanket dismissal, and then it’s back to the latest bout of breathless hyperventilation over Sylvia Browne, or Deepak Chopra, or The Secret (or whatever other fad of the week is currently making rounds among the true believers).

    Again, the independent media model has advantages here. Traditional media organizations, bound by demands of limited space and “fairness”, almost inevitably present information in thirty-second soundbites shorn of context and substance and never put a real scientist on the TV and give him time to talk without putting him next to a yammering ignoramus who has to be given “equal time”. They’re practically bound to discuss whatever’s most popular because it’s popular, and because news has become more of a way to attract eyeballs and advertiser dollars than to fulfill the sacred trust of informing the public. Under such circumstances, people who know what they’re talking about tend to be displaced by people who look good on camera. (As usual, The Onion gets it right.) Again, with more platforms out there, there are more opportunities for real experts to distinguish themselves – by merit, not just by popularity – and we’re almost guaranteed the presentation of a dissenting voice.

    Serious news coverage requires multiple reporters capable of dropping everything to cover a story, which in turn requires them to do it as a profession (i.e. get paid to do it instead of just as a hobby).

    I’m not saying there will no longer be any role for career reporters in my ideal world. If anything, the proliferation of new platforms will give them more opportunities to ply their trade as freelancers. What I’m suggesting is that we should have a larger number of small to mid-size journalism outlets, rather than the handful of behemoths we currently enjoy. I think the market can support that, especially given the greater attention such a system could pay to niche topics and local news that lumbering media giants can’t adequately cover.

  • The Vicar

    The level of scientific knowledge among the general public in America is abysmal. Almost half the population believes the Earth is 6,000 years old. Similar pluralities believe in psychic powers or astrology. Even among basic, non-controversial scientific facts where ideology does not come into play, the level of scientific literacy is appallingly low. Similarly atrocious levels of ignorance can be seen in politics. For example, in the run-up to war with Iraq, the news organizations stood idly by and let the White House disseminate all manner of patent falsehoods, resulting in significant majorities of Americans believing the absolutely false claims that Saddam Hussein was in bed with al-Qaeda or that he had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.

    By any rational measure, traditional media has failed and failed utterly in its obligation to educate and inform the public. If these are the fruits of the current system, then I say we find an alternative. What do we have to lose? How much worse could we possibly do?

    Not to sound flip or anything, but given your statistics we could do a little over 50% worse.

    You are accepting the proposition that smaller news sources are necessarily more truthful, and that competition will lead to better reporting, and that pamphleteers are more reliable than professional journalists. You are undoubtedly being influenced by Thomas Paine and others of his ilk — very inspiring, but not actually representative of the mainstream of history.

    In truth, early journalism (in the pamphlet period and early newspaper period) was terribly unreliable. Benjamin Franklin alone created a large number of false stories (most of them never officially retracted). One may admire some of the principles behind these stories (say, for example, the imaginary Polly Baker) but if you allow one lie, there is no logical ground for opposing others. There’s the reports of life on the moon by the Sun, circa 1835, Edgar Allen Poe’s Balloon Hoax, Mallison and Howard’s Gold Hoax, the New York Herald’s Zoo Escape, the Denver Great Wall of China Hoax, and so very many more less famous ones (Chicago Tribune’s killer hawk, for example). (And yes, I took these examples from

  • The Vicar

    Drat. Hit a wrong key while editing, and killed half my post. Continuation coming shortly.

  • The Vicar

    Drat. Hit a wrong key while editing, and killed half my post. Continuation coming shortly.

  • The Vicar

    Continued:

    (And yes, I took these examples from The Big Book of Hoaxes, because I had a copy around. I used to have a book that listed many more, and the editor commented that he had selected from a much larger number.)

    As for pamphlets, I am less well-versed, but the ones I know of do not make me feel any better — Drelincourt published 262 “groundless hypotheses” on the causes of gender, which isn’t such a big deal until you realize that he added a “correct” hypothesis to the end, which turned out to be groundless as well. (And his most famous critic, who pointed this out, was proved to also be wrong.) Then there’s “The Full and True Account of a Most Horrible and Bloody Battle between Madame Faustina and Madame Cuzzoni”, circa 1727 — we have Jerry Springer (and worse) in our time, so perhaps we can’t point fingers, but that pamphlet seems to have had a far better reception (and greater fame) than any others published about Handel or his music. And, of course, there’s a little pamphlet (initially, at least, although it has been printed in book form) known in English as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — I hope you aren’t going to claim that was either true or admirable.

    There are undeniable downsides to news conglomeration — just to take a random example: have you noticed that your local big newspaper probably doesn’t have a local movie reviewer any more? It’s cheaper to buy ‘em from a syndicate so that the cost is spread out over all the newspapers which carry the review than to pay a local to see the movies and write ‘em up, and screw local context. But consider, also, the alternatives: there already exist “Christian” news sources which fit your model of “everyone reads what they see fit” quite well. A child brought up in a household which uses one of these would probably never even realize there were other religions, let alone atheism. That’s what a world of small-time news outlets looks like: unconfronted prejudice — people who don’t even know there’s a theory called “evolution”, let alone “global warming” or “women’s liberation” because they take the news sources which reinforce their values. Think current news outlets report popular news because it’s popular? It could be a lot worse.

    The current situation is no great shakes, but at least the big news outlets are forced to acknowledge the existence of opposition. Small-time news outlets can always afford to ignore them, because they are small-time. If your readership is only ten thousand dedicated readers who all believe the same things as you anyway, who cares if your stories are loaded with bias? (Until, of course, somebody notices that there are a thousand small outlets like yours with around ten thousand readers, the same advertisers, and the same axe to grind…)

    I suggest that the timeline of your utopian experiment would run something like this:

    • Major news outlets “broken up” to begin utopian experiment. (Let’s just assume it happens without significant challenge, somehow.) Same people who currently own news outlets (and who are rich) still control at least portions of former structures.
    • Many small outlets start up.
    • Substantial number of small outlets shut down quickly on realization that production is harder than it seems.
    • Former large outlet owners start funding selected small outlets.
    • Said owners begin unifying systems in order to streamline and cut costs.
    • Legality is challenged. Court finds that news businesses are private property and not subject to restrictions beyond libel/slander laws.
    • In order to improve profitability, and with the encouragement of court ruling, small outlets are explicitly absorbed into larger ones.
    • Situation returns approximately to where it is now, except that news outlets are, since the breakup, less regulated than they were, and no longer are expected to give time to minority opinions.

    A far better option would be to come up with stricter — and careful — regulations, put them into effect, and then (the tricky part) enforce them. Enforcement is always the key to national-level issues; the current flap in the U.S. over immigration simply could not exist in its present form if the existing immigration laws were actually enforced. (I am not saying the current laws are good or bad, just that they are not enforced and that the state of affairs being criticized or defended by various politicians would be replaced with another, different one. It’s pointless to replace one set of unenforced laws with another set of unenforced laws.) For example, one could pass laws requiring coverage of certain types of stories to be at least some minimum length, or enforce existing anti-trust legislation, etc. etc. etc. This would require more intellectual effort than announcing a utopian experiment and turning everyone loose, but I suggest it would be more likely to succeed in improving the news.

    And I’m shutting up again. Even if you discount an accidental tab and space (why does my browser think that the space bar should click a selected button in a web form?) I have still made one heck of a long post, after saying I’d shut up for a while. Goodnight, all. ;)

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Good points, Vicar. I’d say mainstream media still has a part to play. Still, I, too, hope that blogs will to some extent help to solve problems with regard to lack of information. I hope that they can at least provide rallying points for those interested in a more informed viewpoint — enough to force the mainstream media to take note. Perhaps this is mere wishful thinking, but the current situation in America (as seen from outside, admittedly) does not look good.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Good points, Vicar. I’d say mainstream media still has a part to play. Still, I, too, hope that blogs will to some extent help to solve problems with regard to lack of information. I hope that they can at least provide rallying points for those interested in a more informed viewpoint — enough to force the mainstream media to take note. Perhaps this is mere wishful thinking, but the current situation in America (as seen from outside, admittedly) does not look good.

  • Jim Baerg

    I recall reading the novel _Earth_ by David Brin ( c 1990 set ca. 2040), one point in the background of the story was a requirement that each individuals computer link him to some random website daily to expose him to a viewpoint that didn’t reinforce his existing views.

    Another possibility for web based media: I notice that Talk Origins (a pro-evolution site) http://talkorigins.org/ has an extensive links page including a long list of anti-evolution websites. I don’t see any links page on Answers in Genesis http://www.answersingenesis.org/

    Perhaps a regulation that any website must have a page in which visitors can place links to websites giving opposing views would be worthwhile.

  • Jim Baerg

    I recall reading the novel _Earth_ by David Brin ( c 1990 set ca. 2040), one point in the background of the story was a requirement that each individuals computer link him to some random website daily to expose him to a viewpoint that didn’t reinforce his existing views.

    Another possibility for web based media: I notice that Talk Origins (a pro-evolution site) http://talkorigins.org/ has an extensive links page including a long list of anti-evolution websites. I don’t see any links page on Answers in Genesis http://www.answersingenesis.org/

    Perhaps a regulation that any website must have a page in which visitors can place links to websites giving opposing views would be worthwhile.

  • Andrew

    I have been reading your site for quite some time, and I am continually impressed with your thought process and writing ability. To discover a site that articulates and expands upon many of my own thoughts regarding atheism has been fantastic! Keep up the good work!

    To date, I have been content to passively absorb all of the wonderful and thought provoking content on both ebonmuse and this site. However, I do feel compelled to comment upon this post. You stated “When Great Britain’s colonies in the New World were struggling with the oppression of a distant, dictatorial ruler and a burdensome tax scheme, who was right – the dangerous, zealous extremists who argued that the colonists should rebel completely against King George and create a completely new republic, or the sober, responsible moderates who felt that we should reconcile with the king, accept his divine authority and just ask him nicely to treat us better?”

    Speaking as a Canadian, I would consider that in this case, the better path was the moderate approach. Further to that, I am not sure that advocating violent rebellion is EVER the right approach. Just look at Gandhi and his non-violent transformation of colonial India. I would think that you yourself would be more inclined to lean towards a dialogue to affect change, rather than supporting rebellion. Consider the logic you have used applied to the current American political landscape…

  • Freeyourmind

    Wonderful analogies which I also think can be used in response to your previous post about people like Dawkins and Harris.

    Who’s right in this debate? Should we follow the lead of Dawkins and Harris and speak loudly about our concerns on the dangers of religious dogmatism? Or should we be diplomatic and agree that science and religion can live peacefully together?

    As Sam Harris would say – science and religion CANNOT live together.

  • Freeyourmind

    Wonderful analogies which I also think can be used in response to your previous post about people like Dawkins and Harris.

    Who’s right in this debate? Should we follow the lead of Dawkins and Harris and speak loudly about our concerns on the dangers of religious dogmatism? Or should we be diplomatic and agree that science and religion can live peacefully together?

    As Sam Harris would say – science and religion CANNOT live together.

  • Freeyourmind

    To quote from “The End of Faith”:

    “Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who REALLY believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world-to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish-is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.”

  • Archi Medez

    Media is to some extent a reflection of the society which produces and consumes it. There are strong unscientific and in some cases anti-scientific attitudes widespread among the general population. (And this is the West I’m talking about; elsewhere these trends are much worse). These attitudes, which appear to be based on a mix of…

    -religiosity,
    -moral and cultural relativism,
    -tribalism,
    -excessive catering to naive juvenile level of interests,
    -basic human attraction to superficial entertainment (voyeuristic sex and violence),
    -superficial cosmetic concerns of pathological narcissistic proportions,
    -a host of other cognitive biases,
    -and strong vested political and economic interests,

    …continually compromise the general public’s capacity to use reasoning and science in understanding the world around them.

    Part of the solution is to improve education in science and reasoning among the general public. Also, the media itself–whether it be the giants such as CNN and BBC or the small bloggers on the net–must have it’s methodology changed to match more closely that of science. We need proper peer review of media articles. (E.g., a certain percentage of articles could be audited at random and checked exhaustively for factual accuracy and validity. This would be in addition to a general improvement in the baseline level of fact checking used routinely on all articles). Scientific standards need to be enforced.

    As to the subject matter of the stories which become the media’s focus–or these days, obsession–this is more of a moral question than a purely scientific one. Moral reasoning, including moral prioritizing, should be taught as a standard part of a young person’s education. Only when the general public en masse starts to tune out the bread-and-circuses and tune in the important information (e.g., scientific, health, political, social, and economic issues) will we be able to begin to improve the media in a free society.

    One improvement I’ve noticed among the internet news media, from the giants to the small bloggers, is the establishment of “long-term-memory/knowledge” for specific stories and issues. Thus, many sites will put together articles relevant to a specific story as it develops over time, plus more in-depth background articles about that story or its subject.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Speaking as a Canadian, I would consider that in this case, the better path was the moderate approach. Further to that, I am not sure that advocating violent rebellion is EVER the right approach.

    As an American, I disagree. :) Moderation and diplomacy can work, but only when you’re faced with a party who’s willing to make compromises (or, in the case of Gandhi, one who can be shamed). A monarch who considers his authority absolute and derived from God is not likely to make such concessions. I believe there are many times when violent revolution is the appropriate option, just as there are times when violence is appropriate in individual self-defense.

  • AJS

    In the UK we at least have the BBC, which is funded by TV licence payers and answerable to neither advertisers (the BBC do not carry advertisements for anything except their own forthcoming programmes, books and recordings) nor (in theory) the government (since the licence fee is gathered by a private company now separate from the BBC). (In practice, the BBC appear in recent years to have caved in to the government somewhat, though not exactly rolled over and played dead, and the quality of their science documentaries is slipping. It is to be hoped that this phenomenon is temporary.)

  • AJS

    In the UK we at least have the BBC, which is funded by TV licence payers and answerable to neither advertisers (the BBC do not carry advertisements for anything except their own forthcoming programmes, books and recordings) nor (in theory) the government (since the licence fee is gathered by a private company now separate from the BBC). (In practice, the BBC appear in recent years to have caved in to the government somewhat, though not exactly rolled over and played dead, and the quality of their science documentaries is slipping. It is to be hoped that this phenomenon is temporary.)

  • Alex Weaver

    Speaking as a Canadian, I would consider that in this case, the better path was the moderate approach. Further to that, I am not sure that advocating violent rebellion is EVER the right approach. Just look at Gandhi and his non-violent transformation of colonial India. I would think that you yourself would be more inclined to lean towards a dialogue to affect change, rather than supporting rebellion. Consider the logic you have used applied to the current American political landscape…

    Had there been provisions by which the King could be impeached, and/or had there been a legislature with jurisdiction over his actions in which the colonies were even theoretically represented, I am sure the colonists by and large would have preferred pursuing those options.

  • Andrew

    I don’t propose to know how exactly the American Revolution could have been achieved without the use of violence, but I still maintain that violent societal change is never justified or justifiable.

    Again, to use the Canadian example, we were in very similar situation, and yet we achieved the same end result, without resorting to violence and bloodshed. The process may take longer, but it can be accomplished.

    In regards to self-defense, we should always strive to say that no violence is acceptable. I say this because I know full well that people will always react violently in defense of their own lives, regardless of what we say. But by attempting to define boundaries of acceptance, we unwittingly condone it’s use.

    Consider how I explain this to my children. I say that it is NEVER acceptable to hit or to hit back. When confronted, run away and seek authority. I leave the self-defense part unsaid, as they will know at an instinctual level when flight is not possible, or authority is late in coming, such as if they have been pinned and are getting beaten. Their innate survival instincts will take over, and they will retaliate.

    The other side of that coin is the eye-for-an-eye approach I see other parents taking. When confronted with a violent situation, people, and to an even greater degree children, quickly resort to operating on instincts. When you have programmed your children that hitting is OK (even in self-defense), which instinct are you reinforcing?

  • Alex Weaver

    The problem with your arguments is this: it presumes that violence and conflict are wrong in and of themselves, as an inherent property of the categories of “violence” and “conflict.” The reason violence can be said to be wrong or harmful is because in the overwhelming majority of cases it results in needless and severe suffering. In cases where avoiding conflict creates more suffering than the conflict itself, then the conflict ceases to be wrong.

    As for your children, you’re really screwing them over. Bullies only respond to strength, and running away and seeking authority will mark the child as weak and fearful, inviting additional bullying and making the child’s life a complete misery. I should know.

  • Alex Weaver

    The problem with your arguments is this: it presumes that violence and conflict are wrong in and of themselves, as an inherent property of the categories of “violence” and “conflict.” The reason violence can be said to be wrong or harmful is because in the overwhelming majority of cases it results in needless and severe suffering. In cases where avoiding conflict creates more suffering than the conflict itself, then the conflict ceases to be wrong.

    As for your children, you’re really screwing them over. Bullies only respond to strength, and running away and seeking authority will mark the child as weak and fearful, inviting additional bullying and making the child’s life a complete misery. I should know.

  • Ray M

    …or the moderate, mainstream statesmen…

    As a child of the Churchillian era, I believe that one of the major problems of American politics today is the utter lack of anyone worthy of the title ‘Statesman’. Instead we are ruled by the pretty, the well-groomed, the expert sound-biters, the fawners. I understand, of course, that in today’s environment it is just such people who are perceived as being electable, and it was with huge dismay that I heard comments in the last presidential campaign that Kerry was too much of an intellectual for people to fee comfortable with, whereas Bush was just a regular guy. Who wants a ‘regular guy’ in the White House? Not anyone with a minimally-functioning brain, I would have thought.

    Oh, I just discovered this blog, and really like it. Thank you.

  • Doug Purdie

    Can I assume, then, that you are against the so called “Fairness Doctrine” – a House bill sponsered By Dennis Kucinich? The Bill would require media organizations to present both viewpoints on any issue (as though there are always only two viewpoints to any issue) rather than let the reading/listening/viewing audiences choose which biased viewpoints they prefer.

  • Alex Weaver

    There’s no logical reason why presenting all viewpoints with any significant following needs to mean giving each viewpoint the same amount of screen time and pretending that all viewpoints are equally well-supported and logically consistent.

  • Alex Weaver

    There’s no logical reason why presenting all viewpoints with any significant following needs to mean giving each viewpoint the same amount of screen time and pretending that all viewpoints are equally well-supported and logically consistent.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    We no longer live in a world where we need to maintain the myth of “media objectivity.” The yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst was based on large media empires — now that we have so many more choices (the internet, dozens of cable competing cable TV channels) we can lay to rest the mandated “objective” fairness that leads to misleading “balance.” Human beings are naturally opinionated. Asking them to be “objective” is like asking them to walk on their hands instead of their feet.

    Take The Economist. They wear their political ideology on their sleeve. They are also completely upfront in their opinions. Sure, they strive to present a balanced view of the facts, but they always let the reader know which side they are on. And, like me, they are ‘passionate extremists’ in the service of — not relativism, not moderation, not blind, uncritical tolerance — but political pluralism above all things.

  • http://asthewormturns.com dpoyesac

    We no longer live in a world where we need to maintain the myth of “media objectivity.” The yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst was based on large media empires — now that we have so many more choices (the internet, dozens of cable competing cable TV channels) we can lay to rest the mandated “objective” fairness that leads to misleading “balance.” Human beings are naturally opinionated. Asking them to be “objective” is like asking them to walk on their hands instead of their feet.

    Take The Economist. They wear their political ideology on their sleeve. They are also completely upfront in their opinions. Sure, they strive to present a balanced view of the facts, but they always let the reader know which side they are on. And, like me, they are ‘passionate extremists’ in the service of — not relativism, not moderation, not blind, uncritical tolerance — but political pluralism above all things.

  • http://snewpy.com/ Jerry A. Pipes

    In this same vein, Barry Goldwater said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” And, of course, Ayn Rand said, “There can be no compromise between food and poison.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Two excellent quotes, Jerry. Thanks!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Two excellent quotes, Jerry. Thanks!

  • Barius

    While I agree that the truth is rarely ‘between two extremes’, I don’t think you’re assertion that the media is ‘too balanced’ is necessarily correct. It is not the responsibility of the media to determine the truth of anything. The purpose of the media is simply to put a light to controversy. Regardless of whether a controversy is inherently wise or ridiculous doesn’t matter. The media should treat all controversy with reserved non-judgement. In a perfect world, there would be no reporters just cameras and televisions allowing anyone to freely express themselves without others creating bias.

  • Barius

    While I agree that the truth is rarely ‘between two extremes’, I don’t think you’re assertion that the media is ‘too balanced’ is necessarily correct. It is not the responsibility of the media to determine the truth of anything. The purpose of the media is simply to put a light to controversy. Regardless of whether a controversy is inherently wise or ridiculous doesn’t matter. The media should treat all controversy with reserved non-judgement. In a perfect world, there would be no reporters just cameras and televisions allowing anyone to freely express themselves without others creating bias.

  • http://pensiveastronomer.blogspot.com Patrick Craig

    If an ‘extreme’ position is one that, without exception, accepts the moral nonbeliever equally with the believer, then I am an extremist. If an ‘extreme’ position is one that challenges attempts to re-impose religious control in the public schools thruogh the dishonest warping of science, then I am most certainly an extremist. But please don’t ever ask me to join in a call for the complete downfall of religion in society. So long as any single individual desires to express a belief in the supernatural influence of their choice, they should have that right. Irrational beliefs do not always lead people to act stupidly.

  • theistscientist

    call me polyanna, but relatively speaking, i think western civilization has been relatively well served by its political,religious,economic, cultural, and yes, even its free thinking institutions. To quote “Cold Mountain”‘everyone has their job to do’

  • theistscientist

    call me polyanna, but relatively speaking, i think western civilization has been relatively well served by its political,religious,economic, cultural, and yes, even its free thinking institutions. To quote “Cold Mountain”‘everyone has their job to do’

  • 2-D Man

    Interestingly enough, there’s an experiment running at the University of British Columbia called Voter Funded Media. Which will, hopefully, reduce this corruption of the media (and corporations in general) without resorting to the chaos of pamphleteering.To weigh in on the American & Canadian independence, I don’t think it’s as simple as to say that the Americans could have had a revolution without violence. In the case of Canada, the British were willing to make concessions because they didn’t want to fight another revolutionary war, particularly because the Americans would have “liberated” Canada or Canada would have joined the United States. But in the case of the American revolution, there was no such option and Britain couldn’t conceive of anyone defeating their military, so they stonewalled the requests for justice.

  • shifty

    In a perfect world, there would be no reporters just cameras and televisions allowing anyone to freely express themselves without others creating bias.

    There is always personal bias, whether written or photographed. There is just as much editorializing in deciding what is and what is not shot, and which shots make it to air/published as there is in the written word. It would be far more effective to educate people so as to become sensitive to where they obtain their information, how it is gathered, who gathers it and how it is distributed. And to check as many sources as possible.

  • shifty

    In a perfect world, there would be no reporters just cameras and televisions allowing anyone to freely express themselves without others creating bias.

    There is always personal bias, whether written or photographed. There is just as much editorializing in deciding what is and what is not shot, and which shots make it to air/published as there is in the written word. It would be far more effective to educate people so as to become sensitive to where they obtain their information, how it is gathered, who gathers it and how it is distributed. And to check as many sources as possible.

  • http://www.sirthinkalot.wordpress.com Sir-Think-A-Lot

    I think that a lot of the problem isnt with the media per se, but with the way that we as a society have polarized the political systems. We call people ‘extremists’ who actually hold nuinced beliefs simply because part of that nuince is in disagreement with us. I’v been called ‘pro-life’ because I want to overturn Roe V. Wade. Actually I’m pro-choice, but I also dont think a Federal stance on abortion is necessary or desireable. One major concept of the Constitution that we in modern America seem to have forgotton is Federalism, that the states have certain powers granted to them, including the power to make and enforce their own laws. I think Roe V. Wade should be overturned and indvidual states allowed to decide how they will handle the issue of abortion. If my state choose to ban abortion, I will fight to change it in my state. But theres no need for an issue like that to go to the federal level.

    We also tend to put lables like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservitive’ based on one aspect of their beliefs. I’v known people who think it’s odd that I support the death penelty and oppose affermitive action, but support socalized medicine and the legalization of marajuana.

    Maybe a large part of this problem will go away when we stop making every debate black-or white. But I suppose that probably wont be until we get a media that doesnt report in ‘sound bytes’ but thats a whole nother rant.

  • jemand

    Love the examples and quotes!

    One I use is fictional, but suppose two children are hungry and there’s a banana. One kid is selfish and insists on it all, the other says, “no, it’s fair to give us both half.” What would you think of a parent who gave the selfish kid 3 quarters?

  • jemand

    Love the examples and quotes!

    One I use is fictional, but suppose two children are hungry and there’s a banana. One kid is selfish and insists on it all, the other says, “no, it’s fair to give us both half.” What would you think of a parent who gave the selfish kid 3 quarters?

  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/U612575 Timothy (TRiG)

    Here’s an excellent and funny video on spurious balance (the “Golden Mean”) and Homoeopathy, from the Irish comedian Dara O’Brian.

    TRiG.

  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/U612575 Timothy (TRiG)

    Here’s an excellent and funny video on spurious balance (the “Golden Mean”) and Homoeopathy, from the Irish comedian Dara O’Brian.

    TRiG.

  • A. Smith

    I must admit I don’t think the last point about the Iraq war fits in the topic: after all, the opposition to the Iraq war was expressing caution and the advocates expressing action. It doesn’t detract from the argument, because it is a case of absent evidence rather than a moral revolution, but it does seem out of place compared to the rest of the evidence.

  • addicted

    The idea of using Gandhi as an example of a “moderate” is laughable, at best. He invented the idea of civil-disobedience which MLK used. In fact, the Indian National Congress, before Gandhi was a prime example of moderates, who resisted Gandhi’s civil disobedience methods.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Indian_National_Congress#The_Battle_for_the_soul

    Gandhi’s one major compromise was when he agreed to Partition (which he was adamantly against). He thought of it as the lesser evil that had to be accepted to achieve the greater good (Independence). 60+ years, many wars, and terrorists later, we can see the effects of going with the “moderate”.

  • addicted

    The idea of using Gandhi as an example of a “moderate” is laughable, at best. He invented the idea of civil-disobedience which MLK used. In fact, the Indian National Congress, before Gandhi was a prime example of moderates, who resisted Gandhi’s civil disobedience methods.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Indian_National_Congress#The_Battle_for_the_soul

    Gandhi’s one major compromise was when he agreed to Partition (which he was adamantly against). He thought of it as the lesser evil that had to be accepted to achieve the greater good (Independence). 60+ years, many wars, and terrorists later, we can see the effects of going with the “moderate”.

  • lpetrich

    Doug Purdie, can you dig up the bill number? I don’t want to go on a wild bill chase in thomas.loc.gov

    It looks as if Rep. Kucinich wants to restore the Fairness Doctrine, some regulation that had existed before 1982 or thereabouts. Right-wingers used to support it as a counterbalance to the “liberal media”, but when they started getting lots of talk shows, they started to feel wronged by it. I sometimes marvel at how right-wingers follow twisting and turning party lines as loyally as Communists.

  • lpetrich

    Doug Purdie, can you dig up the bill number? I don’t want to go on a wild bill chase in thomas.loc.gov

    It looks as if Rep. Kucinich wants to restore the Fairness Doctrine, some regulation that had existed before 1982 or thereabouts. Right-wingers used to support it as a counterbalance to the “liberal media”, but when they started getting lots of talk shows, they started to feel wronged by it. I sometimes marvel at how right-wingers follow twisting and turning party lines as loyally as Communists.

  • http://theinfinityprogram.com Kevin

    Hi, Mr. Lee.

    I remember saying somewhere that your essay inspired me in my own for English 101 called “Extremism and the Golden Mean.” On the off chance that you may be interested in taking a look, I reprinted it on my personal website: http://theinfinityprogram.com/index.php?threads/extremism-and-the-golden-mean.4269/

    Thanks again for the eye-opening read.


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