Deconstructing the path to truth

October 7, 2012

Deconstruction is the brainchild of French postmodern philosopher, Jacques Derrida's 1967 work "Of Grammatology." A deep discussion of his complicated views is beyond the purview of this essay, but a simplified version of this concept of deconstruction plays a role in my work. In structural philosophical analysis, one encounters — in fact, requires — what are called "binary opposites," like "on/off," "right/wrong," "up/down" or "all/nothing." The human mind has a bias for binary opposites, and this can be seen in contemporary journalism as the false balance of what Jay Rosen calls "he said/she said" journalism. Derrida felt that binary opposites were treated far too gently by philosophers, when they are, in fact, what he called "violent hierarchies" that demand investigation by taking them apart. Hence, de-constructing them. This can produce a circular form of thinking, for which Derrida and postmodernism are often criticized, even though Derrida himself argued that some opposites are necessary in order to make sense out of things.

While Derrida would argue that deconstruction was not a method for determining truth and applies only to words or text, I find the idea intensely intriguing, especially as we attempt to understand our increasingly complex world. In my view, for example, the process by which the Web functions is vastly more important than anything found "on" the Web, for this process is an ongoing and relentlessly unending practice of deconstructionism.

In my pragmatic view of postmodernism, deconstruction is a valuable tool in understanding history, because history tends to ignore opposites in favor of a single, biased narrative. It's the old saw, "In war, the victor gets to write the history." This is seen throughout journalism, because history starts somewhere, and that is the here and now. When people write about current history — a.k.a. "the news" — they do so with their own biases. In an age when we're crying for seemingly simple terms like "truth" and "facts," for example, it's pertinent to understand the bias of such concepts in the context of history. Journalism is, after all, history's first draft, and history's truth is often, well, incomplete or false altogether. It depends on who won the war.

Just a few weeks out from the 2012 election, for example, President Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney can't both be telling the truth, right? Maybe yes; maybe no. There's Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous quote, which I've heard often in this campaign, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts." Are you entitled to your own facts? Maybe yes; maybe no.

In the early-to-mid 1970s, I ran the desk at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee. I bought a house in Shorewood just a couple of miles from the station, because I felt a responsibility to always be able to get to work. The house was on a one-way street that intersected with a fairly busy street onto which I needed to turn left in order to get to work. The problem was a "No Left Turn" sign at the intersection, which I regularly ignored, because it was 4:30 in the morning and rarely, if ever, was there even one car besides mine on the street.

One day, I got stopped by police and was given a ticket. I was infuriated, because the law at that intersection made no sense at 4:30 a.m., so I appeared before the Traffic Safety Commission as Joe Citizen and pleaded my case. The commission agreed to study the matter.

The following month, the item came up on the agenda, and the commission staff issued a report recommending that the sign be changed to read "No Left Turn, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m." But here's the interesting part: In researching the history of the sign, it turns out that left turns were barred at that intersection many years earlier, because some bozo had turned left into the setting sun and killed a woman and her baby who were crossing the street. Public outcry was loud, so the city made darned sure a repeat of the incident would NEVER happen again. Hence, the blanket "No Left Turn."

In "deconstructing" the history of that ruling, its emotional bias was uncovered, and a new truth revealed.

Here's another example that I've written about previously. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was the event that thrust America into World War II. I lived and worked on Oahu in Hawaii in 1989-90 and discovered that there are two different kinds of boat tours of the harbor. The islands were increasingly becoming a tourist haven for Japanese citizens, and their view of the bombing of Pearl Harbor is very different than ours. There were occasional stories of fights on the tour boats and just as many stories of reconciliation, but the point is that our "history" of that event includes a significant bias. Is the Japanese point-of-view valid? In the context of their history, it certainly is. Are both truth? I believe they are, and that's why the concept of "your own facts" is incredibly mushy.

In the Middle East, for another example, 1948 is either the return of the Jews to their homeland, thus ending the persecution of the Jews that led to the Holocaust, or it is the year of Al Nakba, the cataclysm, when the West stripped the Palestinian people of their homes and land to make room for Zionism. Are both facts? There's that "winner" thing again.

This is increasingly a source of conflict in our culture today for many reasons. One, in the history that's being made today, it's no longer easy to hide the bias of the moment, for a hyperconnected humanity is able to provide many points of view simultaneously. Two, for the same reason, it's harder to appropriate words in reframing events. The word "bully," for example, is a loaded, pejorative word, but today the term is bandied about inappropriately by those who simply wish to assume the moral high ground in their arguments. Three, a link on the Web points to something, but is that all-encompassing or biased, based on what the provider of the link wishes to state? These are issues we're all going to have to accept, although the task seems a daunting one.

In his brilliant 2003 essay "Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left," Peter Lurie writes that the process of finding information online — not the content we find itself — is what will change us.

Like reading or breathing, web browsing itself is agnostic with respect to politics and culture. Unlike reading or breathing, however, surfing mimics a postmodern, deconstructionist perspective by undermining the authority of texts. Anyone who has spent a lot of time online, particularly the very young, will find themselves thinking about content -- articles, texts, pictures -- in ways that would be familiar to any deconstructionist critic.

...HTML, hyperlinks, frames, and meta-tags are the essential building blocks of the web. They combine to create a highly associative, endlessly referential and contingent environment that provides an expanse of information at the same time that it subverts any claim to authority, since another view is just a click away.

This is exactly what's taking place today. Journalists are enjoying the associated links, and those who sit in positions of institutional authority are watching their power slowly slip away, because that authority is, in many ways, built upon self-serving biases. I believe this Presidential election will be the last where candidates can force falsehoods as truth and get away with it. We'll judge the context within which such statements are made, not just the statements themselves, and this will prove a lofty challenge for those wishing to get away with twisting reality. We say we want truth, but the issue is going to be "can we handle the truth?" Assuming the answer is yes, then if we practice deconstructionism in the news business, we'll right the ship about history and see the need for working together, perhaps even be forced into the need of working together.

I realize there's a certain degree of optimism or perhaps even naïveté in such a statement, because it sure seems right now that we'd rather tear each other apart than work together. But really, do we have any other choice, and besides, isn't that really just the fruit of institutional bias in the first place? Nothing — absolutely nothing — is actually "working" today, the hierarchical modern era having stripped away anything even resembling common sense or community. The postmodern era is the age of participation, and while the path from here to there isn't clear today, it's becoming increasingly obvious that it's necessary.

We either fix the gaps between us or we'll take up arms and destroy each other.