Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) is a national media watch group “offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship.” I’d once looked at their site on a regular basis but it somehow had slipped off my radar. I recalled the site today and went in to see what was new. I read one article, “Democracy Dies in Obfuscation (9/4/202).” Gee, was I disappointed.
Dorothee Benz has critiqued a WaPo article titled “US Political Divide Becomes Increasingly Violent, Rattling Activists and Police” (8/27/20). The author remarks that a high school English teacher would have taken a red pen to the title.
The specific critique leveled by Benz is that political divides “cannot be violent, only people can.” This is surely picking a hair off the salon floor, or more technically falling into a category mistake. The Pew Research think tank, which I suppose according to Benz cannot be a think tank but which must be the people in it, speaks of “America’s Political Divide,” which they point out since 1994 has become more polarized, meaning I suppose for Benz there is no political divide that can become polarized because it is only the people who can be polarized. Benz is after what philosophers would call natural kinds. Natural kinds reflect a structure of the world, rather than the actions and interests of humans. Benz critiques is the use of the generalized concept “political divide” to represent the natural kinds that make it up, i.e. each individual with a polarized political viewpoint.
The WaPo headline is a sort of shorthand for: The political divide in the United States, as defined by each and every one of the people who comprise the sets of people with polarized vested political interestes and who undertake various actions including violence, are seen as becoming increasingly more violent than they were in the past (no timeline given, according to someone not stated), which in turn rattles (some generalized unspecified group of) activists and police.
Benz wants to deny the classification of a group, the individuals in abstracto. Thus, following such rules, we cannot say the Civil War in 1863 became more violent, at characterized by the battles of Gettysburg and Chickamauga that had the most casualties of all Civil War battles. Following Benz’s rules, a war cannot become more violent, only the people in it can. To push farther, a war cannot be a war, it is only the people in it fighting each other. In fact, I’m not sure Gettysburg exists in this sense either, it’s a designator for a place where people live or congregate or fight.
A few paragraphs later the author falls into using exactly the issue being critiqued. Benz writes that the WaPo piece describes “an armed right-wing attack on a voter registration rally.” According to the author’s rule, an armed right-wing can’t attack anything, It would be right-wing leaning people who have arms. And likewise, a rally cannot be attacked, rather it’s the people in the rally who would be attacked. Even near her conclusion Benz writes of the “United States,” in which by the same rule there is no such entity, rather whatever the concept “United States” is said to designate, maybe each person or each person’s concept. Thus, the United States cannot teeter, as Benz writes. Likewise, democracy as an abstract concept cannot literally die. The Washington Post, cannot shrug nor can it turn off the lights, again as Benz writes.
This is silliness. Many words and phrases are shorthand descriptions. “Cat” is shorthand for a thing with four legs, furry, with two ears, that has some black and gold patches, and so on. The country of Austria is shorthand for boundaries, people, activities, and so forth. What Benz rails against is the use of general classificatory concepts, that arises out of specifying natural kinds and their properties. But we rely upon these classificatory concepts in order to use language in an efficacious manner
We can more clearly see the problem using an example of philosopher Gilbert Ryle: a child witnessing the march-past by a division of soldiers. The battalions, batteries, squadrons, etc., are pointed out and the child asks when the division is going to appear. As Ryle writes, “The march-past was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division” [Italics in original]. This illustrated what Ryle called a category mistake. True a political divide cannot in and of itself undertake actions but we can speak of it in this manner, which is what we do all the time with general classificatory concepts. IIT-Indore Teaches…(Hindustani Times, Universities do not teach only people teach); Greece to boost…(The Globe and Mail, Countries do not boost, only people boost); WHO supports stronger regulations of infant foods…(Xinhua, the WHO cannot support, only the people in it can). And so on. A benefit of language is that it provides a shorthand for positing premises that can build to a conclusion, that saves us the unwieldy necessity to articulate in full each step of the proof. If you want to see a fun but extreme example of this, look up The Principia Mathematica by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in which they offer proof that 1+1=2.
I don’t work for FAIR and I have no mandate to report on journalism bias with any level of objectivity. But you’d think that those who work for FAIR would strive for journalistic neutrality in criticizing the bias of other reporters. I won’t dive into what I view as the author’s sheer partisanship, the uncritical acceptance of claims, the cherry picking of examples, I’d be here on this all day and I want to get back to working on my latest novel. So I will just leave it with this thought: the author’s relatively extreme partisanship severely undermines the credibility of the analysis. If I were writing the article, I’d at least say something like” I’m going to critique a tiny aspect of the WaPo story while trying hard to align and bolster their hyper partisan viewpoint.”
I expected more from FAIR, by which I mean the individual people called writers and editors who work there.