Socrates, accepting the poison.

Is the history of philosophy different from the history of the press? Journalists mourn the loss of their credibility — yet a similar and much older complaint also haunts philosophers. Both are concerned with truth — and so, there is room to read our modern media distrust as an extension of a longer rejection of philosophy. How have philosophers led to their own banishment from the famed Agora… and how can we bring back trust in the word / world?

Ancient Greece, or the Infancy of Distrust

‘Plato as the first journalist’ — a bold hypothesis, yet the philosopher did report on the trial of Socrates. The execution of the master also prompted the student to write, and writing at all, philosophically speaking, is a big deal because thereafter, it is read, believed, or contested. Distrust between teacher and pupil starts there: for Plato, contemplation was all-important; for Aristotle, investigation.

For Hannah Arendt, such a disaccord does not constitute a crisis. The notion of ‘philosophical spectatorship’ among the Ancient Greeks, according to her, maintained a strong relationship between contemplating and investigating, between me and the world. Similarly, Lou Andreas-Salomé, from a psychoanalytical perspective, compared the first metaphysicians with children: both complained less about a rift between the self and the external. This period of infancy is an ideal attitude for journalism… there would be no obsession in editorial submissions guidelines with questions of relevance (editor: ‘my American readers might not be interested in your research on medieval Albanian culture’) — if there is no gap between subject and object, any article is worth reading because it speaks something about itself, and therefore about me as well. A first, long-term solution to media distrust must lie there… to locate what makes children lose their easily fascinated perception, and promote its preservation. Such attitude is no paradise lost… since the old revives it.

Reports identified the elderly as the most vulnerable group to believe fake news — yet no one has yet pointed to the possibility that their passive acceptance comes less from gullibility than from a retained form of ancient wisdom. What strikes me most about my own grandmother’s digital behaviour, for example, is that she has no preferred interest in what she encounters — every headline that slips into her timeline, she welcomes it with loving arms, and that may be because, at such an advanced age, in a most Ancient Greek ethos, everything becomes (again) relevant for her.

Roman and Christian Culture, or Community in Journalism

For Arendt, philosophical spectatorship disappears under the Romans. She quotes Lucretius: “What joy it is, when out at sea the stormwinds are lashing the waters, to gaze from the shore at the heavy stress some other man is enduring! Not that anyone’s afflictions are in themselves a source of delight; but to realize from what troubles you yourself are free is joy indeed.” Here, we sense the earlier roots of what journalists now call ‘compassion fatigue’ — the ship in trouble for Lucretius is the war in Yemen.

Simone Weil understood well the reason that the Romans dismissed externalities — the notion of ‘grandeur’ is born at their hands, and such a (new) self and its inner inflation, as the Empire expanded onto new terrains, has to preserve an independence from the lives of others. A few centuries after Lucretius, we find in St. Augustine the completion of such a process: “I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving, and I hated security and a smooth way, free from snares.” Journalists look for stories that readers will ‘love’ and ‘share’ — and yet we must understand that such a precondition is not an eternal premise but a historical development that coincides with the new feeling of homelessness characteristic of man, so well described in St. Augustine.

The Garden of Eden from which Christianity is to ban Adam and Eve must be read as a spatial displacement, not merely a moral one. Indeed, when proponents of fake news sites flock to Reddit to establish ‘their own communities’ — we must understand their pain as similar to St. Augustine’s search for something to love; and here, love is viewed in terms of privation; as something we do not yet possess; not as Eros, which, according to Herbert Marcuse, is a different kind of love, so common in Ancient Greece, so typical among children, for whom the stories of others are considered ‘mine’ too. A second solution to media distrust must therefore aim to alleviate, rather than dismiss, the pain of (spatial) homelessness so acute among those who rejoice in polarized media communities, through offering them spaces that are not shrinking but ever larger — so large that these outcasts, ambitious at heart, might ultimately find a value (quantitative at first, but later qualitative) to engage with content and opinions outside of their media boxes.

Premodern Times, or Belief and Faith in Journalism

The omnipresence of the Abrahamic religions come the medieval age foreshadows the beginnings of the so-called rivalry between faith and reason. Today, we call some news outlets ‘conservative’ — a curious designation that mirrors our belief that religion and denial of facts come together. For Ibn Rushd, however, there is room to be Aristotelian and Abrahamic; investigator and believer. To prove that even believers must doubt, the Arabic philosopher quotes the Quran, “Thus, be warned O people who have eyes,” and he repeats the Prophet’s saying: “when the judge makes a personal judgement and makes a right decision, he will have a double reward; and if he makes a wrong decision he will have a single reward.”

A misunderstanding in today’s secular journalism is that a reader should not ‘believe’ what he reads (otherwise, propaganda!) and instead, audiences are invited to judge about media content correctly — editors, in this regard, curate articles so that these do not ‘mislead’ readers. Yet for Ibn Rushd, to judge at all is an incredible feat, since even in the wrong, it still deserves a reward. Shakespeare, a few centuries after the Arab, finds that the question is to be or not be: what we praise in Hamlet is his acceptance of the burden of commitment. That a character commits for good or evil is a secondary consideration — and Macbeth’s real crime, in the same vein, is his failure to really judge himself a criminal. In modern journalism, we are following neither the Prophet’s dictum, nor Shakespeare’s: we prevent readers from making wrong judgements via the glorification of ‘cohesion’ in curation (editor: ‘I understand what you mean, but readers might get the wrong idea’) and we promote in a culture of agonistic Op-Eds and the famous tagline ‘such views are the writer’s own’ an opposite devise, ‘to be and not to be’ — that is; because the press abstains from responsibility, it leaves its readers without the need for commitment. One can read two opposing Op-Eds and never make up their own mind about who to ‘believe’… and thus clearly a third solution to media distrust in a post-religious society must encourage newsrooms to learn that the enemy of reason is not belief but reason itself, especially when it is used to curate (and therefore sedate) reality, rather than leave it at the raw stage necessary for readers to grasp it, believe it naively, or contest it fiercely.

Early Modern Times, or Images and Distrust

Nietzsche didn’t kill God — already in the Renaissance, when we said that God made us in his image, we were truly preparing ourselves to inherit the divine throne. Today, media distrust is blamed on a journalist’s reliance on visuals, and to justify himself, the journalist blames the new generation for its supposed shrinking attention span and image cravings. That said, from Shakespeare’s “what’s in a name?” to the invention of ‘the artist’s signature’ in Raphael, the early modern period is already booming with a cult of icons, with an obsession for a luring authorial stamp, and the delusional adventures of Don Quixote, read as a response to Gutenberg’s revolution, show that worries over ‘technology’ and ‘the new generation’ are quite old. The ubiquity of images alone does not instill distrust or cause laziness among readers — George Sand candidly admits in her autobiography that as a child, she preferred books with images; and Goethe’s own childhood memories also attest that he preferred paintings over writings.

There is a fatalistic tone about the condition of reading among today’s youth that is historically and conceptually inaccurate — reading is a burden, it is a ‘temps perdu’ that we sacrifice as spatial, moving beings, and for the most part, we all read because there is no other alternative closer to our reality. In looking for reasons behind media distrust, journalists might accuse readers to prefer articles about the Avengers than the Celtic Warriors — yet while their concern is between fact and fiction, a more important (and much older) distinction should be between mythos and logos. These notions from Ancient Greece, which the Renaissance imitated, regulated the speech in the Agora into two types: either it is linked to the authority of a wisdom figure (mythos) and thus understood right away or it is a discourse that must first penetrate the logical faculty to be grasped.

The humanism of early modern times is filled with a discursive balance between mythos and logos — image and word, the baroque and the classical, lived side-by-side, in spite of their rivalry, and the gargantuan tales of Rabelais of the 1500s, leading up to Moliere’s ‘entertain but instruct’ devise in the 1600s, are models for discourse whose fantastic outside shell is an invitation onto the core, not a full stop. Modern journalism works in reverse: it feels it has an obligation to make the shell sacred, to ‘say everything’ in the contours — as a result, the centre, and the reader’s agency, is emptied. A fourth solution to media distrust must therefore be the renouncement of what Mazarine Pingeot rightly calls the dictatorship of transparency — when the news preserves a dignified mystery about its treasures, passive distrust makes room for active (re)search.

Modern period

Passive and active — those are modern terms, intimately connected to the industrial revolution and the boom of capitalism, and issues of distrust, ultimately, might be rooted in notions of functionality and technicity. George Eliot’s character, in Middlemarch, tells us about her desire to “make her life greatly effective” — this modern frustration might unmask distrust as an equally modern mechanism that is bound to new ideas about efficacy, labour, and the relationship between the self and the outside world. We romanticize the 19th century as the golden age of the press, seeing in it a rise of loyal readership across Europe and America — but we forget that such popularity is also due to the fact that at the time, there was still hope for readers to also be writers; for news consumers to also be news creators; for someone to be actively not passively useful.

That Marx particularly resonated with the French working class at the time might be explained through the often ignored fact that these men also aspired to be the next Victor Hugo, and wrote poems at home on their own — and that is a regression from today’s standpoint, when creative writing has become associated with expensive and elitist MFA programs. Class is not the chief problem for distrust — it is power, and whether, following Marx, it allows those excluded from the creative machine to have a fair share of its operations. A fifth and final solution: to promote trust, the press must entrust. We must multiply self-publishing outlets and above all legitimize them: because of how we institutionalize and label human activities starting from the 1900s, as Foucault well chronicled, the term ‘self-published’ writer is synonymous with ‘secondary’ writer. Throughout the 1800s, Balzac in its beginning, and Péguy at its end, writers used to open their own publishing houses to publish their own works — today, these treasures, because of the self-published connotation, would not even be eligible for literary and journalistic awards.

Isn’t it this hierarchical systemization that banished the philosophers from the Agora? Since Plato, philosophers have wrongly assumed that philosophical thinking must amount to a superior system. Similarly, the press has abandoned its former spontaneity and sought to distinguish and professionalize itself. But before Plato, there was Socrates. Socrates held no conviction of his own, no presumptions and no superficial appeal — he was but a midwife, carrying the Agora with him, and bringing thoughts to life in those who cared listening to him. Should the press not also be Socratic?

Rayyan Dabbous is a Lebanese author. His recent books include DIY Creative Activism: A Handbook (2019) and Psychoanalysis of a Teenage Novelist (2020).