Belief has waned in a lot of things in recent years: Christianity, table manners, the Republic of Ireland’s men’s football team. But one type of disbelief has had a more profound effect than any other: loss of faith in objective truth.
Objectivity was once synonymous with honest inquiry. The idea was simple and seemingly incontrovertible: “We are small creatures in a big world of which we have only very partial understanding, and ... how things seem to us depends both on the world and on our constitution,” as philosopher Thomas Nagel put it.
But in recent years the idea that you get closer to the truth by suppressing your personal biases and giving a fair hearing to ideological opponents has come under fire.
Philosophy is partly responsible, particularly the movement known as postmodernism. This propagates the notion that all knowledge is tainted by power. Building on legitimate criticism of “male, pale” gatekeepers of information, postmodernism is a correction against complacency but has also been linked to both post-truth politics and illiberal strands of progressivism.
Cultural and technological change have played their part too. Social media is subjectivity on steroids.
In journalism, the influence of such forces can be seen in a report published earlier this year by two veteran American reporters-turned-university-professors Leonard Downie and Andrew Heyward. Gathering the views of 75 prominent figures in print and broadcast media in the United States, they found journalists increasingly “believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading ‘bothsideism’ in covering stories”, while also negating many of their own identities and life experiences.
Among those interviewed was Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, who said: “The consensus among younger journalists is that we got it all wrong ... Objectivity has got to go.”
Much of the negative comment about objectivity is based on the assumption that it is equivalent to neutrality or a lack of feeling.
But this is a misconception, Nagel explains in his classic book The View from Nowhere.
“Objectivity allows us to transcend our particular viewpoint and develop an expanded consciousness that takes in the world more fully.”
A simple way of understanding objectivity is through the Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant. The first man handles the trunk and says “an elephant is like a snake”, the next handles an ear and says “no, it’s like a fan”, a third handles the tail and says “no, it’s like a rope”, and so on. Crucially, the elephant exists objectively, and all our perceptions of it are partially correct but also partially wrong.
In a world where subjectivity reigns, there is no elephant. Instead we all have our own individual elephants which we are noisily describing to one another. The possibility of shared, or absolute, truth disappears.
We have had an example of this in the past week as people give subjective interpretations of what happened in Dublin on the evening of November 23rd. Depending on your view: (a) a bunch of lunatics were rioting; (b) disenfranchised citizens were letting off steam; (c) racists were venting hate or (d) [insert your own interpretation here].
If subjectivity is the only legitimate form of inquiry then we’re stuck in a situation where everyone is simply shouting their “truth” at one another.
Objectivity means weighing up the merits of each perspective while recognising none is entirely complete.
Within journalism, a shift away from objectivity could be seen in the US and UK where partisan reporting, and a blurring of the lines between facts and opinion, characterised coverage of the Trump presidency and Brexit respectively. There are signs, however, professional media outlets have learned lessons from these episodes.
Publishers are giving more attention to fact-checking and debunking myths – RTÉ is the latest broadcaster to announce plans for a disinformation correspondent. Firewalls are being restored between news and opinion – the BBC is more willing to censure presenters like Gary Lineker for straying into party political commentary. And, having felt compelled to act like social media would wish them to, journalists are no longer charging on to Twitter/X with their latest hot take on current affairs.
More work needs to be done, especially on improving diversity within the profession, which is still very male, pale and middle-class in Ireland, and also on facilitating open but responsible exploration of emotive topics such as immigration.
Naturally, journalists and media organisations will not always get it right. But they should be judged by their commitment to objectivity over time rather than by individual lapses.
While news reporters have a special duty to be objective, it is something every citizen should reflect on. Abandoning objectivity means we lose sight of universal moral truths. It means there is no escape from “pick-a-side-ism” on issues such as Israel-Palestine.
Of course, no one can be 100 per cent objective. However, the glib and cynical response to that reality is to believe we can’t rise above subjectivity.
Objectivity is all about trying, Nagel says. It is “trying to climb outside of our own minds ... It means in particular not abandoning the pursuit of truth, even though if you want the truth rather than merely something to say, you will have a good deal less to say”.