Media literacy for the Trump era

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I have compiled and explained a list of four five common fallacies that I have noticed while consuming news media in the age of Trump. These aren’t new since Trump was made president, but I feel like they are exacerbated by the current administration. They’re meant to be taken in the spirit of the “laws of the internet” that dictate “if you can imagine it, there’s porn of it,” or “any sufficiently long internet argument will eventually invoke Hitler,” etc.

The law of imputed 12 dimensional chess

No matter how demonstrably stupid Trump’s action, it will always be depicted by some as a part of an inscrutable master plan.

Every time Trump does or says something bad, it will be followed up by a series of hot takes, tweets or op-ed pieces in which we all try to guess what his real goal is. E.g. “He’s banned Muslims from entering the United States. But what is his endgame here? What is he trying to distract us from?”

Muslims being banned is the real crisis. Just because us white people aren’t directly affected doesn’t mean that the real evil is coming later. It’s not a feint to make us look the wrong way. That was it. This is not a drill. Real people are being hurt.

I think there’s a few reasons that this fallacy occurs so often. It’s hard to admit, but Trump isn’t a genius who beat the political system by being some calculating mastermind. That would be easier to take in some ways. (He’s profoundly stupid,1 but he’s wealthy and the system is just not set up to protect us from people like him.) As best I can guess, the “12 dimensional chess” theories are appealing due to: 1. simple self-centredness and latent racism (i.e. “It’s bad, but it doesn’t affect me, so the badness must be something else”), 2. a desire to avoid admitting that the left was beaten by an idiot or 3. a McCarthy-like impulse to cast the villain as omnipotent.2 Take your pick.

The law of sacrificing marginalised communities

Marginalised communities will be the ones most negatively affected by Trump’s policies, but they will also be the ones blamed for it, directly or indirectly.

Here is an example of what I mean: The February 2017 cover of The Economist3 features the profiles of Trump and Putin facing each other. Trump is wearing lipstick and there’s a kiss mark on Putin’s cheek. The implication is that Trump and Putin are gay.

The LGBTQ+ community has been betrayed by Trump’s recent executive order that rolled back protections for trans people.4 Gay men are now being turned back at the US border after being interrogated and humiliated over the private contents of their phones.5 Things are bad and I don’t know if they’re going to get better.

But of course, the joke that’s currently in vogue is that Trump is gay. (Ooh! Burn!)

Now, I get it. I’ve made jokes like this in the past, but I’ve had a change of heart on the subject. It would certainly bruise the egos of Trump and Putin to be called gay, but then they’re not going to be reading my Twitter feed. Other people will read my messages though, and they will be getting the message that it’s okay to use “gay” as an insult, or to throw marginalised communities under the bus to make a cheap shot at a world leader who honestly doesn’t care.

This is just one example of a marginalised community that’s being indirectly blamed for their own oppression, but I guarantee you that for every similar issue that comes up, there will be self-styled “centrists” or “moderates” who tell the more progressive elements of society that it’s “their own damn fault” for getting uppity and demanding something that the mainstream has had all along. You’ll often see this happen along with the phrase “This is why Trump won,” blaming progressives, women, LGBTQ+, whatever for the rise of Trump.

Watch for it. Any protest or statement with a progressive bent will be met by an opportunistic “centrist” who wants to shut you up by telling you that they agree with your general goal, but that you must be nicer about it and accept a glacially slow pace of progress, and that anything other than that “is why Trump won.”

The law of conservative victimhood

No matter how empowered conservatives become, they will always find a way to make their own victimhood the focus.

This is also an impulse I can sympathise with. I grew up in a super-conservative community, and so I was taught from a young age to believe that it is Christians and conservative Christians especially who are a marginalised minority in Canada. I was taught—and I fully believed—that Christianity was persecuted, and indeed if you define Christian orthodoxy narrowly enough, one can certainly maintain that delusion for quite some time. So I understand where they’re coming from.

But it’s still stupid.

Conservatives always have the upper hand. They aren’t a persecuted minority. That’s just what conservatism is—it’s the political inclination to support the status quo. It’s the people who have power working to support the institutions that got them there. The highest office in the United States has just been awarded to a conservative. The House and the Senate both have Republican majorities. Conservatives are not victims. Not in any sense. In fact, they hold a disproportionately large amount of power over the machinery of government.

And yet, conservatives will defend their victimhood as if that were their very essence.

If there comes a day when there is a shortage of foreign workers to pick the vegetables that Americans want to eat, the tragic hero of the story when it is told will be the poor hard-working American who can’t afford how expensive vegetables have become, and not the foreign workers who were deported. Count on it. Or if a queer person is beaten, the biggest controversy will be whether or not it’s fair to label the aggressor as “homophobic.” And we’re already seeing the beginning of what I expect will be a steady stream of op-ed pieces about how people who supported Trump are the real victims of liberals who are being big meanies about the fact that their choice for President is a fascist.6

It shouldn’t have to be said, but if you supported a fascist by voting for him, and that fascist’s policies mean that your friend is the victim of hate somehow, you should have the perspective to understand that you are not the victim in this situation. You are closer to being the aggressor.

This dynamic is probably strongest along racial lines, but you also see it along the queer-straight axis as well. (E.g. “They excluded police officers from Pride? That’s the greatest injustice in the history of the queer rights struggle!”)

C.f. The “Liberal bubble”

The law of false centrism

No matter how far the political centre is pulled to the right by extremists, anyone who questions “centrism” by advocating policies to the left of where the new political centre has been pulled will be dismissed as insane.

To make a facetious example, if Trump is saying that we need death camps for Muslims at every border crossing and his opponents are saying we shouldn’t have any, the fallacy of centrism would be to say that we only need death camps at certain major border crossings.

This one makes me worried for the future because the main message of the Democratic party from 2016 seems to have been, “If you’re politically to the left of Clinton, we don’t want or need your votes, you dirty Bernie bro. You’re just as bad as Trump.” This message only leads to political victories if everyone is really, really excited about being a political moderate. And only if they’re also okay with the political “centre” being shifted to the right.

From a Canadian perspective, it’s very easy to see how the American political spectrum is shifted. The policies of the centre-right party in Canada (The Liberal Party) would be considered so far left wing in America as to be absolutely unthinkable.

The law of imperfect protests

No matter how despicable the thing that is being protested, if the protest can be criticized—in any way—”moderates” will focus on that.

This mostly goes for student protests, but you see it in other contexts. I’ve seen it a dozen times if I’ve seen it once, and sometimes from people that I would otherwise consider to be very intelligent. Usually you see it shortly after a protest, and often it starts with a somewhat strained observation that the protest is “so ironic.”

E.g. “It’s so ironic,” said the moderate, “They claim to be against death camps, and yet there’s a small amount of litter left after the protest”

This example is really exaggerated, although who knows, we may get there. The fallacy I’m trying to point out is that the violence of white nationalism or fascism or being an outright peodphile apologist is nowhere near the level of violence of a stupid student protester who breaks a window or something while protesting against it. These are absolutely not equivalent, and a protest that doesn’t go 100% perfectly shouldn’t be a reason to throw up one’s hands and say, “Well, I can’t support these protesters because they broke a window. Their position looks just as violent as the white nationalists’.”

“Moderates” love to point out The Irony of this situation, and they also love to ring their hands over how the poor fascist just wanted to speak, and how this protest has somehow damaged Free Expression itself (as if protests weren’t also speech as well).

Like the other fallacies, this is not particular to the Trump era, but it seems much worse now. Watch for it and the others, as well as their themes and variations.

Edit (2017 March 6: Added “The law of imperfect protests”)

References

  1. https://twitter.com/Kris_Sacrebleu/status/832325609132953604
  2. https://theintercept.com/2017/02/23/the-increasingly-unhinged-russia-rhetoric-comes-from-a-long-standing-u-s-playbook/
  3. http://www.economist.com/printedition/covers/2017-02-09/ap-e-eu-la-me-na-uk
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/us/politics/devos-sessions-transgender-students-rights.html
  5. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/02/22/canadian-man-customs-gay-app_n_14928858.html
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/18/opinion/sunday/are-liberals-helping-trump.html

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2017-4823,
    title = {Media literacy for the Trump era},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2017-02-27,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/02/27/media-literacy-for-the-trump-era/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Media literacy for the Trump era" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 27 Feb 2017. Web. 21 Sep 2017. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/02/27/media-literacy-for-the-trump-era/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2017, Feb 27). Media literacy for the Trump era [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/02/27/media-literacy-for-the-trump-era/


3 responses to “Media literacy for the Trump era”

  1. Morty says:

    This is a great post.

    I propose an addition: “The law of the refused handshake” – wherein the media makes it seem like the worst thing about Donald Trump is that he’s rude. Of course being rude is bad and you’d always prefer not-rude over rude, all other things being equal. But of course not all other things are equal and we should put ‘rudeness’ at the bottom of the list of the worst things about Trump.

    As for the 12 dimensional chess, I would agree in terms of policy, but when it comes to public relations and campaigning I do believe he knows exactly what he’s doing.

  2. Thanks!

    Yeah, I’ve definitely seen what you’re describing as well. I feel like there’s a corollary or a parallel that can be drawn from when he gave his speech to Congress. The speech wasn’t just an unhinged rant like we all expected, and the press practically hailed him as a philosopher-king. Something about the primacy of him just being polite, regardless of the substance of his actions.

  3. Vince says:

    “The law of false centrism”

    See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

    The same happened in Hungary. Slowly, slowly the far right pushed the window of the acceptable so far to the right that now nobody even flinches if a journalist writes an openly antisemitic or homophobic rant in an editorial of a huge newspaper. Or if a neo-nazi in Parlament asks for the registration of all Hungarian Jews. It´s normal, what´s your problem, dude?

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