Comments Shared with my Colleagues on the Responsibility of the Intellectual
P.L. Thomas, Professor, Education, Furman University
The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.
Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible
Since this is a voluntary gathering of concerned faculty, I am going to risk assuming we are here mostly in solidarity.
None the less, I recognize I am offering at least two controversial points and asking that you afford them your immense breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your patience.
First, while it is now popular in this time of Trump for pundits and the media to wring their collective hands about post-truth and fake news, my opening controversial claim is that despite that attention, neither of these is something manufactured by Trump, and fake news is not the primary problem.
Please consider this Twitter exchange between me and Juana Summers, a well-respected journalist at NPR in 2014, the time of the exchange., and now with CNN:
Summers represents here a tradition that journalists and educators, including professors, assume a neutral pose, honoring a call that they remain apolitical.
In that context, let me ask you next to consider an article published in the New York Times just a week before Trump’s inauguration: In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.
The headline and the article itself are mainstream media, not fake news; yet, what that distinction reveals is that our day-to-day public discourse is often indistinguishable from the click bait and false content we are lamenting in fake news.
O’Connors article cites a study from the USDA, which along with this being in the NYT, appears to be credible and compelling.
However, Joe Soss, writing in Jacobin and professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, has exposed that O’Connor’s article badly misrepresents the USDA study and expresses instead ugly stereotypes about people in poverty, what many in the public believe about people depending on food stamps.
So my first controversial claim, which leads into the second, is that public discourse has crossed the Bigfoot line. While there is a spectrum from fake news (entirely false and created to generate clicks online and thus revenue) to mainstream journalism, virtually all of that fails policy and the public because of traditional and misguided commitments to neutrality, objectivity.
There was a time when the National Enquirer depended on a facile commitment to report without unpacking the credibility of the person making a claim; thus, “Hiker has close encounter with Bigfoot!”
Might we imagine that journalist deflecting: “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the hiker is credible”?
In that era, mainstream media mostly refused to cross that Bigfoot line. But today, major media outlets are debating if journalists should report “Trump makes claim X” or “Trump makes false claim X”—or even more astounding “Trump lies.”
So I want to end with my second controversial claim.
If you google “fake news,” you are likely to read about a Davidson College graduate, and for us, this may trigger our own Yik-Yak founders.
I think this is not a trivial connection as we gather in our concern as university faculty, intellectuals, serving the liberal arts and our disciplines.
Across our campus, across our disciplines, the liberal arts is an argument that each of our fields is one way of coming to know the human condition. From biology to religion, from economics to philosophy, from psychology to education, and everything in between, we are carefully considering not only what knowledge exists, but what knowledge matters.
Our collective knowledge, or collective pursuit of knowledge, is more likely to serve us well than any one alone.
And then, there is the whole world beyond our beautiful fountains.
Therefore, when Donald Trump says torture works, or when his final TV ad in SC blatantly falsified data on the employment and crime rates, I think about fake news, hot new smartphone Apps, and the failures of mainstream media—each of which fails us if we resist looking at this world informed, if we pretend we can be apolitical, if we close our eyes to larger questions of ethics and morality.
The responsibility of the intellectual—and that includes us—is not about taking a neutral pose, but about speaking beyond those fountains, about modeling what it means to be well informed, to honor the truth, as difficult as at that is to attain, and to model for everyone what it looks like to work in the service of humanity, and not simply to say what you are paid to say, not simply to advocate for your own self-interest.
The responsibility of the intellectual is inescapably political, even as we pledge rightfully to be non-partisan.
Now, I end by appealing as an old English teacher, a writer, must—through metaphor.
Activist historian Howard Zinn’s memoir argues that the human condition is a moving train, and any of us who choose to sit quietly are in effect endorsing where that train is heading.
And thus, as Zinn believed and practiced, ours is always a political act—whether in our passivity or our action.
The responsibility of the intellectual?
For me, it is acknowledging that you cannot be neutral on a moving train, and I must add, you must not be neutral on a disaster-bound train—so I urge that we express our concern as action, informed and ethical.