“What’s an American Muslim to say to Herman Cain?” Dilshad D. Ali asks, struggling with how best to respond to the nasty anti-Muslim rants of the Republican presidential candidate.
What makes this debate even trickier is that even though many American Muslims feel compelled to provide a sane, intelligent response when faced with anti-Islamic rhetoric, Cain and others like him are not interested in conversing with Muslims at all. They aren’t talking to us. They’re just talking about us, and if we talk back, they won’t listen.
… Are we left completely outside of the conversation about us?
Ali points to Sheila Musaji’s post, “Herman Cain Needs to Read the Constitution of the U.S.,” which includes a compilation of some of Cain’s more appalling statements.
Just as bad as Cain’s litany of bigoted ignorance there is this, from Christianity Today’s Trevor Persaud: “Is there anything else you’d like to say?”
That is the entirety of Persaud’s follow-up to Cain’s previous statement, which was this:
Based upon the little knowledge that I have of the Muslim religion, you know, they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them.
Based upon the little knowledge that I have of Herman Cain’s knowledge of the Muslim religion, I’d say the man has no idea what he’s talking about. But CT didn’t feel the need either to correct Cain’s false assertions, or to press him further to force him to defend them.
Journalism 101: Allowing falsehoods to go unchallenged and uncorrected is not morally, ethically or professionally distinct from telling such falsehoods yourself.
At A Few Things Illconsidered, Coby Beck points to a recent study that helps explain why the above principle is such an important journalistic rule — albeit an often-violated one:
An article titled “Setting the record straight almost impossible” describes a new study from the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review by Ullrich Ecker and colleagues from the University of Western Australia that shows just how insidiously difficult it is to remove misinformation once it is planted in the mind.
From the abstract of the study:
Information that is presumed to be true at encoding but later on turns out to be false (i.e., misinformation) often continues to influence memory and reasoning. In the present study, we investigated how the strength of encoding and the strength of a later retraction of the misinformation affect this continued influence effect. … Results suggest that stronger retractions are effective in reducing the continued influence effects associated with strong misinformation encoding, but that even strong retractions fail to eliminate continued influence effects associated with relatively weak encoding.
Reacting to the finding that even a strong retraction will “fail to eliminate continued influence effects,” Beck says, “I don’t know if I have ever seen a strong retraction!”
In 10 years at a daily newspaper, I only saw one. An article on a local philanthropist reported her age. The article reported her age accurately, but the paper still issued a strong retraction and an apology. Flowers were sent. (No, really, our editor sent flowers.)
Beck also notes this, from the article, as grounds for some meager hope:
The researchers explain that this effect has implications for a number of real-world scenarios, such as the avoidance of MMR vaccine due to fears over autism, or when jurors are called upon to discount the last witness testimony or disregard evidence.
“If you make them [jurors] suspicious of why that information was presented in the first place, such as by saying it was a deliberate attempt to mislead you, then they can more readily dismiss it,” says Ecker.
“Also, if you explain to people that corrected misinformation will continue to influence their thinking to a larger extent than most of us are aware of, that can also help to reduce the effects of the misinformation.”
One other factor that seems to have been beyond the scope of this study is the effect of relationship and personal contact. When the source of an “encoded” bit of misinformation is an impersonal and abstract authority, but the source of the correction is someone you know, I would guess that the correction proves to be much more effective in countering those “continued influence effects” of the misinformation.
And that brings us back to a point Ali makes, that it is dangerous and destructive to talk about others without also talking with those others — without allowing them to be part of the conversation and thus to cease to be “those others.”
That’s another ingredient in the “recipe for perpetual ignorance” we discussed recently. “Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge,” that recipe said.
And, we could add, “Don’t ever listen to the people you’re talking about.”