An Antidote to Truth Decay

While Neil Postman’s critique of image-based and entertainment- focused culture dates to the middle of the 1980s, his warning about the dominance of the electronically-mediated image (which we watch) over the word (which we read) should still challenge us today, especially since the dangers he exposed are more potent today given the explosion of internet media.

My book on postmodernism, Truth Decay, assessed both the philosophy of postmodernism (nonrealism) and how cultural factors contributed to the postmodern view of truth as relative, negotiable, and constructed. Although we now hear less about postmodernism as a philosophy, it has taken root in the common mind and mood. I have found no better social critic to explain “truth decay” than social critic and media theorist, Neil Postman (1931–2003). By the term “truth decay,” I mean “a cultural condition in which the very idea of absolute, objective, and universal truth is considered implausible, held in open contempt, or not even seriously considered.”[1] I wrote that in 2000, but the situation has gotten far worse in the age of social media, influencers without knowledge or credibility, fake news, AI simulations (especially “deep fakes”), and more.

Nevertheless, one antidote to truth decay is an awareness of the potentially deceptive power of images and the need for spoken and written discourse to discern truth and find knowledge (justified true belief) through the evaluation of evidence and through reason. To that end, I will excerpt from and expand on sections from Truth Decay that address this issue of addressing reality aright, with frequent reference to Neil Postman’s, seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, as well as his work Technopoly.

Information, Reading, and Watching

Postman describes the general problem of information overload, which is, paradoxically, tied to ignorance of reality.

The tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.[2]

We often do not know how to assess information for reliability, how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thus, most Americans are well-informed, hyperactive ignoramuses. They are information-rich, information-ravenous, and knowledge-deprived. To use biblical language, they are “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).

Moreover, most of this information is presented as entertainment or in entertainment-oriented form, usually dominated by alluring moving images. Hence the title of Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to DeathAmuse literally means not to think (or muse). While Postman’s work was written pre-internet and focused on the rise and dominance of television, his essential insight is that the production and distribution of images made possible by television—and now overwhelmingly more so by the internet—debases our public discourse about religion, politics, education, and everything else.

Sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912–94) observes that the “visionary reality of connected images cannot tolerate critical discourse, explanation, duplication, or reflection”—all rational activities required for separating truth from error. Cognitive pursuits “presuppose a certain distance and withdrawal from the action, whereas images require that I continually be involved in the action.” The images must keep the word in check, keep it humiliated, since “the word produces disenchantment with the image; the word strips it of its hypnotic and magical power.”[3] Words can expose an image age as false or misleading, as when we read in a magazine that a television program “re-created” an event that never occurred.

When the image overwhelms and subjugates the word, the ability to think, write, and communicate in a linear and logical fashion is undermined. Television’s images have their immediate effect on us, but that effect is seldom to cause us to pursue their truth or falsity. Television’s images are usually shorn of their overall context and meaning and are reduced to factoids (at best). Ideas located within a historical and logical setting are replaced by impressions, emotions, and stimulations. While images communicate narrative stories and quantitative information well (such as graphs and charts), words are required for more linear and logical communication.

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