Complaints about partisan news are everywhere. German sociologist Max Weber’s understanding of society can stop partisanship from dividing society and create a more level-headed debate.
Who was Max Weber & why is he important?
Max Weber was one of the most important thinkers who analyzed the challenges of the modern world and provided solutions. A German sociologist that lived in the later 19th and early 20th century, Weber’s concepts also help us understand the problem with the current media landscape.
Weber never directly wrote about the media, but he characterized one of the fundamental problems of our modern world: we all try to live by certain fixed guidelines, but the complexity of the world makes it impossible to adapt one coherent set of values to all circumstances. For example, our interactions with family and friends might be driven by kindness and love, while our actions as business people are driven by the desire to maximize profit – which can be terribly unkind.
Weber explained this problem by defining different value spheres. The economic sphere is driven by profits and losses, its medium is money. There is no room for morality. That is not to say that the economic system is anti-moral – it is neither good nor bad – it is simply unconcerned with moral considerations.
Rightness and justness are the relevant values of ethics, beauty the relevant value of art. Science, including political science and sociology, are concerned with providing accurate descriptions of reality. Each value sphere has its own values – there is no longer a unity of goodness. When we measure one value sphere by values that are foreign to it, we will be puzzled.
If Weber was still alive today, he would probably argue that the media has become its own value sphere. Its relevant value is ratings, or, more accurately, advertising sales. The media will do whatever serves this value, all other values pale in comparison.
We often make the mistake of analyzing the media through the lens of science or ethics, expecting it to provide accurate descriptions of reality or to do the right thing. When reality fails to live up to our expectations, we grow confused and angry with the media.
These emotions are the results of our own Don Quixote-style fight against windmills. The media is not to blame. Its value sphere is exclusively concerned with advertising sales, and as long as it benefits this value to provide a distorted picture of reality or do the wrong thing, the media will always do it.
Value spheres can change, but these changes take time and have to originate from the people. For example, in ancient Greece, art was expected to help people lead better lives, prepare them for tragedy, and foster their resilience. Through fundamental cultural, ethical, and religious changes, the value sphere changed. Today, art is primarily concerned with beauty.
It is impossible to force a value sphere to change. We can only help to start the process by understanding the value spheres with which we deal and correctly interpreting their intentions. We have the power to change value spheres by changing how we react to them – but these changes have to be preceded by deep cultural changes that take time to develop.
This truth is irreversible. All attempts to force alien values on the value sphere of the media are doomed to fail. The media will never live by the values of right and wrong or true and false; it will always live by the values of high and low ratings – this includes the network news.
What can we do to overcome the current division?
Currently, Americans divide into three factions.
- The fake news haters. This group gets their news from Fox News, Breitbart and other conservative or right-wing outlets. They condemn other news networks as fake news or liberal propaganda.
- The Fox News haters. This group gets their news from the big networks or late night shows. They condemn Fox News, Breitbart, and similar networks as fascist right-wing propaganda.
- The all news haters. This group considers all news biased. They have lost faith in all outlets.
The current trend seems to be that the first two groups are intensifying their hatred for one another, which motivates more and more people to join the third group. This is a problem for society. A functioning democracy needs a well-informed public and people that can tolerate different opinions. The current trend destroys both.
Media-fueled division in society is the result of wrong expectations. When we expect the media, a value sphere that is only concerned with advertising revenues, to give us truth and honesty, we mislead ourselves. We adapt values from one sphere to another where they fail to apply. Consequently, we view the world through the wrong lens, and make bad decisions.
This realization is tragic but liberating. There is no evil empire forcing us to turn on each other, we make the mistake. If the mistake is ours, we can fix it. And that is the great insight Weber’s theory provides.
There is no sense in hoping that the media will suddenly change its values. Some people hope for Fox News to stop supporting Trump, others hope for CNN and Stephen Colbert to be less critical of conservative values. Neither approach has any chance of succeeding, but both foster division by assuming that our side is driven by the pursuit of honesty and goodness and their side by the pursuit of higher ratings.
The truth is that both sides are elements of the same value sphere and both are driven by the pursuit of higher ratings. When we accept this, we can reduce the dogmatism of our own ideas. We understand that the problem isn’t them. There is no them, there is only us, and we are all dealing with the same value spheres.
We must prevent the media’s pursuit of higher ratings to stop us from applying the values of goodness and understanding to the values spheres in which they apply. They remain the only important values of ethics. When we allow sensationalism and prejudice to take their place, we make bad decisions and act unethically. These tools help the media in its pursuit of higher ratings, but we must keep them out of our daily actions – and our voting decisions.
The Theory of Moral Duality provides the tools we need to achieve this goal. To create constructive societies, the two most important political values are accepting everyone’s right to life and allowing all people equal access to society. We must protect these values in ourselves. Regardless of what the news reports, we can never allow ourselves to surrender them, or the price we pay will be much higher than whatever we are trying to avoid.
When we respect these boundaries, we can make good political decisions – regardless of what the news reports. We will avoid division and create more harmonious societies.
- The media has become its own value sphere. Its values are high and low ratings – and nothing else. This also applies to the news media. The media only pursues truth and goodness so long as it leads to more revenue.
- When we expect the media to abide by values from different spheres, we fool ourselves. The pursuits of goodness and truth are the values of ethics and science, respectively. The media does not and will not abide by these values, at least not in the foreseeable future.
- To avoid misleading ourselves, we should analyze every value sphere by the right values. There is no reason to expect the media to provide values that fit our ethics. To act ethically, we have to recognize that there is no connection between the two spheres.