The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time

I’ve been an avid listener to On the Media for several years. I listened whenever I could when it was only on the radio, and it was among the first podcasts I subscribed to. And, right now, I consider it more essential than ever. Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are brilliant at putting the news in context, looking at what media coverage is getting right and where it’s falling short. So when I saw Brooke Gladstone was writing a new book about “our current moment,” I had to request an e-galley.

The Trouble with Reality is short—the print version is only 97 pages—and it’s not a work of hard-hitting journalism. It is exactly what it says in the subtitle a “rumination.” Gladstone looks at our “brave new world” of “alternative facts” and “fake news” and considers how we got here. When did facts become debatable? How did blatant lies become acceptable?

One point that she makes early on is that truth has always been up for debate. She writes,

Part of the problem stems from the fact that facts, even a lot of facts, do not constitute reality. Reality is what forms after we filter, arrange and prioritize those facts and marinate them in our values and traditions.

Everyone has a bias, and our bias determines how we interpret facts. And facts that contradict our worldview cause stress. One study found that when voters saw their preferred candidate lying, the brain registered danger and immediately started looking for ways to resolve the conflict, even if that meant lying to themselves about what they saw. People believe what already fits their worldview.

This isn’t just a right-wing phenomena. I was reminded of this idea just today, when I read this Vox article by Zack Beauchamp about conspiracy theories on the left. The article describes a study in which people were given a math problem supposedly related to gun control. Whether people got the problem right depended on whether the solution aligned with their views.

Gladstone delves into writings from the past, citing William James, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Neal Postman, Hannah Arendt, Masha Gessen, Jonathan Swift, and others and exploring how their writings shed light on our time. I was especially interested in her discussion of Postman’s comparison of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. A recent bonus episode of On the Media included some of this discussion. I’ve shifted back and forth over which I think is more resonant, and right now, I think the problem is that we have a toxic combination—the constant stream of information too vast to sort through and the deliberate promotion of misinformation.

The Gessen discussion of Putin and Trump’s lies was also interesting. I’ve found myself bewildered at how quickly Trump’s supporters, some of them smart people, dismiss his lies as irrelevant or not lies at all. And I’ve felt a little off-kilter myself because my habit of looking for the kindest interpretation of people’s words is causing me to question what I’ve seen and heard myself. Gessen says that Putin and Trump use lies “to assert power over truth itself.” That seems about right.

Gladstone offers some general advice toward the end of the book, but this is mostly analysis of the problem. To me, it felt like a long version of the kind of commentary she sometimes does on the show. I’m happy for more On the Media, in whatever format I can get it.

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7 Responses to The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time

  1. realthog says:

    This looks absolutely and completely up my street — I’m in the (extremely!) early stages of developing a book project called Faking History, which is planned to have an extensive “fake news” section, so the book could hardly be more germane. Many thanks for the info and the links.

    Now, of course, all I have to do is work out how to get hold of a copy of the damn’ thing! Something else to add to my impenetrably interminable Amazon wishlist!

  2. Bewildered and off-kilter are good ways to describe the way I’ve felt since the election. (To put it mildly!) I’m going to have to check this out.

    • Teresa says:

      Whenever I think I have a handle on our new reality, something else happens! This is a good book for putting it in context (and it does so in a way that’s not alarmist, which I appreciate).

  3. aartichapati says:

    I heard the podcast extra and thought immediately of you! So glad you have this book so quickly :-) I have it on my library queue!

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