This video describes Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and how it relates to his theories of government and his Theory of Forms. It’s also a video with TED Talk branding that doesn’t have a twentysomething single hipster telling you that you should quit your day job and follow your dreams because it worked for him, which is odd, but I digress.
Plato’s Cave can also be used as a metaphor for a debate that has gripped our nation for years: media bias. We’ve been discussing media bias for decades, but the debate has taken on a sense of urgency in recent months, for obvious reasons.
We’re all chained to the ceiling of a cave. In most cases this cave is self-imposed. We limit ourselves to the things we want to see. If you’re reading this from what most of us call “the Western World” you have a variety of choices in news and entertainment and what you chose is based on a combination of convenience and taste.
None of these choices are perfect. The first step in media savviness is realizing that everyone is their own unreliable narrator. All media have some degree of “bias” based on ownership, editorial staff (which is chosen by the owner(s) of course,) and who the news is written for. (Again, decided by the ownership, but many owners are more than happy to sell something they would never personally choose.)
So we’re chained in the caves we choose. Perhaps a cave with a cable tv host that is careful to only rant about stories we want to hear, or with a website that only has stories critical of one President or complimentary to another, or a Facebook timeline that tunes itself to keep us just angry enough to keep scrolling.
One of the things that makes “the Western World” the western world is government staying largely out of these choices. Americans like to think our First Amendment makes us special, but it doesn’t. Freedom of Speech, which means a free media, is a part of every functioning democracy. Each nation has different wrinkles, like Britain’s less media-friendly libel laws, Germany’s restrictions on some parties, and the U.S’s silly puritanical streak, but a free media is always there in some form.
For the first time in a long while the U.S. has a government that actively and visibly has its collective fingers on the media scale. Politicians always play favorites and always have an influence on media by deciding where, when, and who to talk to, but what we see now is different. We’re seeing open hostility to any venue that reports unwanted news, combined with a concerted effort to game the system via changing the way press briefings work, who is permitted to attend them and, of course, “going around” the media.
This strategy is possible because a significant number (but not a majority) of Americans are already hanging in caves that are amenable to telling only what they want to hear. Their caves have shadows cast by media that are friendly to the new government and outright hostile to media that disagree.
I’m a bit of an optimist. I think this whole mess is going to collapse eventually, maybe even soon. But I am also enough of a realist to recognize that while the people hanging in government-friendly caves at the moment are not a majority, a majority of people are still living in caves of their own. When people resist now, is it because they don’t want the government to interfere with a free press, or because they hear things that conflict with the shadows on their walls?
I’m often afraid of what the real answer is. It’s easy to assume that the other guy is stupid, especially when he’s in a different cave.