Truth falls victim to the sparkling stone

Finkelstein is German/Yiddish for sparkling stone or gemstone. He seems to think he's one

TELL the truth. Speak truth to power. These phrases are so familiar that we rarely stop to understand them. But in a coming age of censorship heralded by political phenomena such as hate speech legislation and the Finkelstein inquiry, humanity's relationship with truth is at breaking point.

Universities are partly to blame for events such as the Finkelstein inquiry. There is a veritable canon stretching from Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals to Paul Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals, which documents the fate of academics from the Left and Right who dared to tell unpalatable truths. Many were exiled or resigned their university posts on pain of ostracism.

Australian academics' latent refusal to have their intellectual activity monitored by the new sector regulator, the Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Agency, breathed life into the idea of intellectual freedom. But it doesn't appear to have vivified the liberty of the press.

The Finkelstein recommendations may do to the media in the 21st century what was done to higher education in the 20th.

Finkelstein, with his panel of lawyers and academics, proposes meta-regulation of the press under the lunatic pretext that gagging freedom of speech will expand democracy. They commend a progressive silencing of the press as beneficial to the public interest because "often readers are not in a position to make an appropriately informed judgment about the news". I beg your pardon?

Almost 100 pages later, we are told why we readers are apparently so witless: "Because of information asymmetry, readers are seldom in a position to judge the quality of news stories."

Information asymmetry sounds very much like the obfuscating language introduced into the higher education humanities by postmodernists in the 1980s and 1990s.

It was inevitably accompanied by the claim that there was no such thing as objective truth, the acceptance of which was supposedly prerequisite to social justice. Fret not, fellow witless reader; I never understood it either.

In fact, the culture of contemporary censorship makes little sense until you read the finest analysis of political phenomena such as the Finkelstein inquiry by philosopher John Ralston Saul: "The idea of governments invoking the public interest, as a justification for taking unjust or illegal action, has been with us since the French satirist Mathurin Regnier coined the phrase in 1609. Now raison d'etat is being turned into a blanket principle: the technocrat knows best."

On the 20th anniversary of Voltaire's Bastards, Ralston Saul has never looked more prescient. The technocrats became cultivated in their craft at leading universities that, by the 1970s, had come to resemble management schools.

What technocrats don't understand is the nature of truth; how to search for it, how to prove or disprove it and what to do with it. Their lack of knowledge about truth proves a significant impediment to the formation of public policy based on principle, rather than partisan political ideology.

The Finkelstein review's great undoing is that is has not established truth. It is deeply methodologically flawed, with statements of fact that lack supporting evidence, a line of causative argument without established cause and effect, and recommendations, however persuasively put, that consequently lack credibility.

A major claim of the report is that the Australian media is failing the public interest. There are five examples of malicious media action provided late in the report and reference to the News of the World phone hacking scandal as the origin of the inquiry. But the core evidence provided for the apparent failure of the media and subsequent recommendation for meta-regulation of the free press is a series of opinion surveys.

As Plato, Socrates and Galileo would tell us, opinion, however popular, is not truth. Nor is perception proof. The statement "I don't trust the media", which appears in the surveys, tells us nothing about the state of the media. It tells us simply that someone doesn't trust it. Public mistrust may very well be the result of a newspaper fulfilling its duty to tell the truth. Imagine a 17th-century newspaper running a series of articles on Galileo's discovery that the world was round. The Finkelstein inquiry proposes that the news media should be regulated for perceived bias and balance. So what would Galileo's reporters do -- report that the world was round-ish?

The pursuit of truth, once the common ground of journalists and academics, was sustained as an intellectual tradition by classical liberal arts universities that taught formal logic as a method of deducing fact. Formal logic was devised by Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, championed by the Enlightenment freethinkers and revived by 20th- and 21st-century philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Hannah Arendt and A.C. Grayling. The willingness to seek truth, the ability to deduce it and the courage to publish it are what make a citizen truly free. The philosophical and legal recognition of citizen freedoms, tempered by John Stuart Mill's principle of not causing harm to another, is what makes a state democratic. Regulating the free press in the manner recommended by the Finkelstein inquiry violates these principles.

Jacob Mchangama, a lecturer in international human rights at the University of Copenhagen, wrote that "respect for freedom of expression is the hallmark of free societies and the first right to be circumscribed by illiberal states". Eleanor Roosevelt, that great democrat who drafted the UN Declaration of Human Rights, might have agreed with him. Roosevelt warned humanity about the suppression of freedom under the guise of protecting citizens against hostile speech. She was concerned in particular with Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been used successfully to lobby for anti-vilification laws in Australia and other Western countries.

In combination with hate speech laws, the proposed media meta-regulation recommended by the Finkelstein inquiry transforms the future of 21st-century journalism. In the new media landscape, journalists will be allowed to create their sentences from a pre-approved vocabulary, draw their own inferences from a sanctioned pool of populism and publish their own conclusions within the parameters of state ideology. It's freedom y'all. Wake up and smell the doublespeak.


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