Fighting the rise of nonsense

Fighting the rise of nonsense

Benito L. Teehankee

The View From Taft, BusinessWorld

December 8, 2016

I started teaching in the university in September 1983, shortly after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. People were just getting used to a life without Martial Law. The main challenge facing teachers then was how to help Philippine society advance by opening up students’ minds and training them to be critical thinkers. My constant reference was Neil Postman’s 1969 classic book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, in which he argued that the purpose of education was “to help all students develop built-in, shockproof nonsense detectors as basic equipment in their survival kits.” (Postman actually used a more colorful four-letter word for nonsense that I’d rather not use here.)

It’s been 32 years since I first faced a class, but the lack of critical thinking about the issues of the day has become even more challenging today. A democracy can function only in an atmosphere of critical and principled reason. Clear signs of an uncritical attitude are springing up everywhere, and nonsense has become the staple of the day.

The rise of nonsense stems from at least three unsound but commonly held ideas.

The end justifies the means. When I informally poll my MBA classes, a minority, but still worrisome number, of my students believe that we should put the country under Martial Law to promote order and national development. To these students, the best route to orderly progress is the use of military force on citizens. It isn’t even necessary to have the rebellion or invasion that the Constitution requires for the imposition of Martial Law. The principle used is that warrantless arrests and the curtailment of free speech are small sacrifices to make in the pursuit of orderliness. Of course, the principle breaks down as soon as one imagines being the target of such arrests or deprivation of free speech.

The more people say something, the truer it is. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, was the head spin doctor of Adolf Hitler. He spouted such nuggets of propaganda wisdom as, “If you tell the same lie enough times, people will believe it, and the bigger the lie, the better.”

Goebbels would have loved social media. Sharing a lie (or a half-truth) with thousands has never been easier. Manufacturing reality is now a full-blown cottage industry. Rappler’s Chay Hofileña reported that one fake Facebook account alone was connected to almost 3 million members of various overseas Filipino groups associated with a leading political figure. This same account has been used to post maligning photos and statements about the said political figure’s main opponent.

Numbers don’t lie. The Duterte administration likes to say that we have 3 to 4 million drug addicts in the country. Opponents of the administration like to say that the number of extrajudicial killings is increasing uncontrollably. However, I have yet to clearly learn from either side the bases for their number claims. The challenge is that these numbers do not refer to material objects such as the number of trees in a forest or the number of cars traversing a highway. These number claims are based on social definitions, which are subjective and, therefore, debatable. Unfortunately, many who use numbers to make an argument often do not disclose their definitions for reasoned debate or independent verification. Therefore, they can be used to push a political agenda on an uncritical audience.

The median age of Filipinos is below 25 years old, making ours among the upper-third youngest populations in the world. Not coincidentally, Filipinos are also among the top users of social media. Are these two conditions aggravating the rise of nonsense? I think so. Social media does not lend itself to reasoned, evidence-based discussion, which is essential to a functioning democracy. Worse, anonymity in social media is not a formula for responsible information-sharing.

We can counter propaganda by recognizing it for what it is – an attempt to control our beliefs against our wills. We can avoid being trapped into nonsensical thinking by finding out, through dialog, four things before we decide to believe any person’s claim. What definitions is the person using? How does the person know the truth of the claim? What principle is the person using to justify the claim? What are the person’s background and agenda? If the person is not forthcoming or clear in answering these questions, alarm bells should go off in our heads. We would be prudent to suspend belief.

Making the effort to answer these questions and thinking carefully about the answers is the first step to developing a built-in, shockproof nonsense detector.

Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is professor of management and organization at De La Salle University and vice-chair of the corporate social responsibility committee of the Management Association of the Philippines.