Sunday, August 05, 2007

neutral and objective (part 1)

In the recent interview of Ephraim Loy by TOC (very interesting in its own right), this comment by Sarek_home drew my attention:

“An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.” Mahatma Ghandi

Fighting “Partisan” organisations with “Partisan” organisations will blind the society collectively with partisan also. We need to set an example and evolve beyond partisan politic.

Readers who distaste MSM biased reporting at one end of the spectrum do not want another online biased reporting at the other end of the spectrum.

The best way to defeat and balance off MSM biased reporting is to be neutral and objective.

Well I do not disagree in the general spirit of her comment, her last 3 words got me thinking about these questions: What do we mean by being "neutral" and "objective"? What does being "partisan" or "non-partisan" got to do with being "neutral and objective"?

Part 1: Non-Partisanship as an Indicator of Neutrality

In the context of the Singaporean plogosphere, whether a blogger is partisan or not simply refers to the whether or not a blogger is affiliated with any political party. [I guess it may not be so straight forward for an ex-member; is Goh Meng Seng (ex-WP member) partisan or non-partisan?] What beef do we have with partisan bloggers? Are they in some way inferior to non-partisan bloggers?

The concern, it seems, has got to do with neutrality. Perhaps one might think: a blogger who is affiliated with the PAP may very likely blog something which is "pro-PAP", and hence is "not neutral". Conversely, a blogger affiliated to WP is likely not to be neutral, because he is likely to blog something "pro-WP". Before I go on to talk about what is wrong with this line of thinking, it is worth noting that many partisan bloggers seem to blog about views which disagree with the views of their affiliated party. Read the interview with Ephraim, as well as this P65 article by Baey Yam Keng (both on Section 377A). I have previously noted examples in the Young PAP blog as well.

If we choose to define "a neutral blogger" to be "not affiliated with any political party", then partisan bloggers are, by definition, not neutral. In other words, the follow 6 statements are all tautologies (grammatically correct, but have no meaning):

1. A partisan blogger is not a neutral blogger.
2. A non-partisan blogger is a neutral blogger.
3. A neutral blogger is a neutral blogger.
4. A non-neutral blogger is not a neutral blogger.
5. A partisan blogger is a partisan blogger.
6. A non-partisan blogger is not a partisan blogger.

I believe most people will claim that the first two sentences are not tautologies, i.e. they are more meaningful than sentences 3-6. If you believe so, then the definition that "neutrality = non-partisan " cannot work. Here is an alternative definition of neutral: "free from influence from any political party". This makes sense to some people, because it is linked to the idea of biasness. If you are influenced by something, that makes you more biased.

However, ask yourself, have you ever listened to the views of politicians? Were you ever influenced by them? If say, you agreed with a certain view of Low Thia Kiang's, does this not mean you were influenced by him? Does that then make you not neutral? Maybe you heard or read from source A, which was influenced by source B, which was influenced by source C, which in turn was influenced by a politician. Does not that make you also (indirectly) influenced by the politician? Does that mean you are not neutral? With such a narrow definition of "neutral", it is hard to imagine any blogger being able to fit the description of "neutral", regardless if partisan or not.

I have a third proposition for the definition of neutral. A neutral blogger is a blogger that honestly blogs his or her own personal views, and not just the representative views of his or her affiliated political party. By this definition, all non-partisan bloggers must be neutral, since they do not have an affiliated political party. But now begs the question: how do we tell if a partisan blogger is being neutral (i.e. personally honest and not just being party's mouthpiece), or not?

One might say: just see what he/she blogs, and if it looks just like the political party's official stand, then it is not neutral. Perhaps so, but this begs another question. How do we know what is the political party's stand? Do we know what is a party's stand by what their politicians say? If so then consider this:

1) Politician ABC says Statement X.
2) Therefore Statement X is the party's stand.
3) Politician ABC is also a blogger (i.e. Partisan Blogger ABC)
4) Partisan Blogger ABC blogs Statement X.
5) Since Statement X is the party's stand (2), and since Partisan Blogger blogs Statement X (4), then Partisan Blogger ABC is not neutral.

This is of course circular reasoning, or another tautology at best. The example becomes even more ridiculous if you allow "what ABC blogs" = "what ABC says". In which it will become:

1) ABC blogs Statement X.
2) Therefore Statement X is the party's stand.
3) Since Statement X is the party's stand, and since ABC blogs Statement X, ABC is not neutral.

In reality, it is hard to see anyone falling for such obvious circular logic. Nevertheless, it does highlight a certain problem when it comes to judging neutrality: it is not that straight forward to decipher whether a partisan blogger is "being a mouthpiece" or really saying what he/she feels. After all, it is very likely that the individual happens to believe in the political party's views, which could be precisely why he or she choose to be affiliated with the party in the first place. What the party's views are may very well coincide with the individual's personal views as well. When your personal views coincides with your party's, does that make you non-neutral?

I think among most of us (especially those who are bloggers ourselves), we have developed a sense of when someone is blogging in a "forced manner" or someone is blogging "naturally". I personally find this the best way to tell if some blog is a "mouthpiece" or not. Nevertheless, this mode of discernment is more of an art than a science, and a blogger with a really good command of English may still fool many a reader.

Even among non-partisan bloggers, we often classify ourselves as "pro-establishment" and "anti-establishment". Many have objected to such a sweeping classification. Nevertheless, if you openly identify yourself to be "pro-PAP" or "pro-opposition", even if you are non-partisan, does it seem that you are neutral? Can you be "pro-opposition" and "neutral" at the same time? I think our intuitions differ on this question.

I only have one point to make here. When we use the word "neutral" (or rather "not neutral") to criticize one blogger or another, it can mean one out of many meanings, and not all of us may mean the same thing when we say the same word. Some meanings, as seen by the tautologies, totally don't work. Whatever the case, it appears to me that using non-partisanship as an indicator of "neutrality" seems sketchy at best. I am also not convinced if "neutrality" is really a virtue for a social-political blogger.

Part 2 (forthcoming): The Problem of Objectivity

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