Thursday, August 17, 2017

NPR Adopts Simplistic "Good People"/"Bad People" Dichotomy

The use of terms like 'good guys' and 'bad guys' in political discourse has increased over the years.  That oversimplification of terms is reminiscent of Hollywood's white and black cowboy hats and the religious dichotomy of good and evil.  

Life isn't that simple.  First of all, people are either good or bad.  Most are a mix of morally positive and negative behaviors.  In Born A Crime, Trevor Noah writes about his step-father Abel who gets nasty when he's drunk.  
"The Abel who was likable and charming never went away.  He had a drinking problem, but he was a nice guy.  We had a family.  Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love.  It's a strange feeling.  You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that's not how people are."
Lots of intercommunications experts (for example) tell people to talk about behaviors rather than to talk about their character.

So it's depressing to hear hear this sort of language on NPR, where they like to think of themselves as having a somewhat higher standard of reporting.  Their code of ethics talks about their guiding principles:
"Our journalism is as accurate, fair and complete as possible. Our journalists conduct their work with honesty and respect, and they strive to be both independent and impartial in their efforts. Our methods are transparent and we will be accountable for all we do."
Those principles include Impartiality:
"We have opinions, like all people. But the public deserves factual reporting and informed analysis without our opinions influencing what they hear or see. So we strive to report and produce stories that transcend our biases and treat all views fairly. We aggressively challenge our own perspectives and pursue a diverse range of others, aiming always to present the truth as completely as we can tell it."

Yes NPR too slips into the simplistic and dichotomous thinking of 'good people' and 'bad people' too.
[An abbreviated excerpt from the audio interview.]
Rachel Martin:  The president said there were good people on both sides, did you see them?
UVA Professor  and 'presidential historian' Michele Hemmer:  The people who came on behalf of the white nationalists were not good people. . .  Among the counter protesters there were plenty of good people, but not among the white nationalists.  
I realize they were working off of things Trump said.  (Though I could find 'very fine people' in his recent discussion rather than 'good people.')  But rather than fall into the trap of adopting this good/bad dichotomy themselves, it would be better to step back and point out how simplistic and misleading it is.  Thinking about Trevor's step-father, I'm wondering about the 'plenty of good people' among the counter protesters.  Are they good because they are against racism?  Are they being labeled 'good people' because of what they are doing on that day?  Do any of them get drunk and beat their spouses and children?  Would that disqualify them form being 'good people'?

Not only are they simplifying human complexity, they are also dropping their impartiality to make a judgment call about the morality of the marchers and counter-marchers.  Not about the morality of their actions, but whether they are 'good' or 'bad' people.

What I want to know is why these men have adopted white supremacy as their guiding principle.  Do they believe it?  Do they do this simply because it makes others angry?  Do they feel so isolated and unloved in their lives that espousing white supremacy is a way to justify why people don't like them?   Not only is that a much more nuanced way of thinking about the neo-nazi marchers, but it's the only way we, as a society, can start to figure out how to locate people who are vulnerable to this path and how to rescue them before they swallow this poison.

OK, I know these terms are a short hand.  Radio news formats allow a limited amount of time to tell the story.  But the more we use this short hand, the more we also think it.  And as soon as we put someone in the 'bad person' category, we're less concerned about what happens to them.  That's why we allow terrible things to happen in prisons.  It also inoculates 'good people' from harm when they do terrible things.

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