"Just asking questions" and uncomfortable art

posted by Jeff | Friday, February 4, 2022, 4:15 PM | comments: 0

There are two topics in the news right now that seem to be related, but upon closer inspection, they're actually not. As has been often the case in the last decade in particular, I think a lot of folks are anxious to draw some false moral equivalence between two things that they believe unfairly targets them or what they believe. I believe most of this is rooted in the idea that opinions are somehow the same as objective truth.

I'm talking of course about the Joe Rogan Covid misinformation blowback, and the strange and growing concern over banned books in school libraries. These sound like they're both censorship, but that's not exactly what's going on. The two situations are different in a more than nuanced way.

Joe Rogan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tucker Carlson all have something in common. They're all selling their brands with the insistence that they're "just asking questions," and wanting to "have a conversation." On the surface, this sounds like the right, intellectually correct thing to do. The problem arises when you're willing to give equal weight to that which is observably true or right, and that which is merely opinion, or not right. This is like asking a guy who believes the earth is flat for their view. It doesn't matter, because we can use critical thinking to see that he's wrong. This isn't "having a conversation," it's giving weight to bullshit.

"Do your own research" doesn't yield correct results if you're only looking to confirm what you want to be true, and you ignore experts in the process. These folks say they seek truth, but that's not what they're doing when they accept and redistribute things that are objectively false. That's the opposite of critical thinking. Opinions don't hold the same weight as facts that can be objectively verified.

Selling snake oil is lucrative. Worse, it's presented as this self-righteous effort to share enlightenment and gain knowledge. It isn't that at all.

So what do you do with the people who oppose the content? In this case, what you distribute has stakeholders that directly affect your bottom line, and for Spotify, this is subscribers and advertisers. Together, these groups will influence what you provide because they're the ones influencing that bottom line. It just so happens that these groups mostly expect that misinformation, things objectively not true, are harmful. They reject the "just asking questions" angle for all the reasons above. There is no equivalence between objective truth and bullshit.

(There's a big sidebar here, too. When you take gobs of money from a platform like Spotify, whatever freedom you had as a podcaster goes away. Just as any TV network is responsible for what it airs, so too is Spotify now. Rogan has to be a special kind of stupid to be naïve enough to think otherwise. But surrendering to content platforms is a post for another day.)

Meanwhile, in school districts all over the place, parents are pressuring school boards to ban certain books. For the most part, these books, whether fiction or not, involve people of color, minorities, LGBTQ people, or other people or situations that make some people feel uncomfortable. It's not just classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, as it includes more recent books like All Boys Aren't Blue. There are two strange things going on here, starting with the (frankly ignorant) notion that any of this influences who you are. That's as silly as the 80's notion that metal music made you worship Satan or whatever. The other thing is this white fragility phenomenon, where apparently some white folks want to be protected from feeling uncomfortable about the fact that racism is still a thing.

In a historical context, banning books is best equated with fascism. In more benign terms, I call this the "Footloose phenomenon," where Kevin Bacon's rock music could lead to dancing, and we don't want that! Joking aside though, the Nazis were pretty famous for burning books, and I think we can generally agree that the Nazis were not good people. This whole thing where for some reason people think that kids need to be protected from knowing that Kendrick has two moms, or that white people perpetuated discrimination, none of that prepares kids for the reality of the people that will be a part of their communities for life. But also, fascism is bad, and it's intended to stifle conversations about deep cultural issues that need to be discussed.

So, how are these situations different? In Rogan's case, he's playing a part in disseminating misinformation that is objectively wrong, and that has wider consequences. His critics also happen to be stakeholders in the platform from which he operates, and money talks. Rogan isn't being oppressed. He has to put on his big boy pants and realize that words have consequences. In contrast, the book banning is most certainly about oppressing art that makes some people uncomfortable. To make it even more straightforward, Rogan is getting called out for conversations about things that aren't true, the book banning prevents important cultural discussions from happening at all. These are not morally equivalent phenomenon.


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