How to maintain intellectual character in an era of fake news

“Truth Coming Out of Her Well” – Jean-Léon Gérôme (1896)

To speak of our own intellectual character requires a tremendous amount of humility and generosity. To speak broadly, intellectual character is all about embracing truth, criticism, and ideas in a way that’s justified, fair, and ethical. It’s very easy for many scholars and students to treat their own intellect in arrogant, bodacious ways that only serve to satisfy our selfish desires. In today’s era of fake news and post-truth, we find abundant examples of trying to win arguments out of sheer pride and vengeance or spreading misleading or false information to make one’s self appear better. To determine the ways these intellectual conflicts and conversations reflect our moral character means understanding what intellectual character is and how to maintain it in today’s society.

When we interpret information and draw conclusions from it, at the background of all the judgements we make is our intellectual character. If I choose to spread false information, does that make me a liar? Or, perhaps more subtly, if I choose to misrepresent information, what does that say about me? At what point do our accomplishments define who we are, and where do we draw the line about what determines our character?

Many people would rather live in ignorance of these truths and ideals. It’s much easier for us to call ourselves paragons of ideas and criticism without putting ourselves through the struggles and challenges to ourselves. Ask anyone who engages in serious reflection of their own life and their abilities to act in a manner that reflects those ideals they determine. As courageous as it is for an individual to bring their self to heed to moral values, it’s far more tempting for us to shun moral rules and guidelines and, instead, put our selfish goals first.

Fake news is at least partly created by the tactics used to distort facts and spread deliberately misleading information. The way we may choose to highlight certain ideas that suit our own agendas instead of representing them as they truly are introduces our subjective biases which twist our thoughts and ideas. In this sense, the transmission of fake news reflects an individual’s ability to behave as a moral human being and account for the responsibility they have as a person. However, it’s this very connection between discourse and moral character which fuels the fake news tactics to begin with.

On a psychological level, we find ourselves gauging the effectiveness of rhetoric, rather than its morality or justification. The “winner” of an argument would be deemed as the person who makes the other person look worse, instead of allowing a detachment between thoughts and the human themselves. The dimension of these actions is psychological as we naturally rather invest in ideological self-image and appearance rather than deep, careful understandings of themselves. The tactics employed become a self-defense mechanism for shunning ideas we find uncomfortable or dangerous to hear. Instead of creating appropriate justifications for difficult-to-digest and contradictory ideas, we engage in delusional habits that cause us to pretend. Fake news emerges from this. It’s very much in the guise of truth, yet acts in a way counter to everything we hold true and sacred about intellect itself.

In our efforts to get claims right (in a way that is truthful, justified, and honest), we have reasons that are instrumental and inherent. We may want statisticians to be as accurate as possible in prediction election outcomes for the sake of giving us a clear idea of the future, but we also may want authors to share a story for their true intentions and purposes so we may find aesthetic pleasure in its value. These methods of getting things right govern our behavior in the fake news era, and the way we construct priorities and moral rules shows how those meanings of “rightness” manifest themselves. On top of this, we care about who we are as people. For us to act as noble people, we should want to be noble people. But this puts us as odds with ourselves. We fail to recognize the negative, imperfect aspects of who we are and many people will go to great means to avoid and ignore these dire issues. Any reasonable person would react negative to the notion that they’re prejudiced or dishonest in what they’re saying. This paradoxical way of trying to be a good, moral human being while engaging in methods to ignore our darker sides is what reveals our true intellectual character. Being able to confront this confusion and represent truth no matter what becomes the most difficult moral endeavor for anyone.

Some further questions to ponder:

(1) Does intellectual virtue depend on our social environment? Or is it inherent within us?

(2) When is it appropriate to make any sort of claim about the character of a human being with regards to the information they communicate?

(3) How can we fight fake news at any level while respecting our own intellectual character?

Let’s put our own character on the stand and cross-examine it. That way we can fight fake news in all its forms.

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