On the side of Jorge da Burgos (or “on information and the awareness of not knowing”)

I overheard people laughing at ridiculous things and reminded them of one of the principles of our rule. And as the psalmist says, if the monk must abstain from good speech because of his vow of silence, all the more reason why he must avoid lousy speech. And as there are bad speeches, there are bad images. And these are those that lie about the form of creation and show the world in the opposite of what it should be, has always been and will always be forever and ever until the consummation of time. by Andrea Monti – Initially published in Italian on Strategikon – an Italian Tech blog

This is the beginning of the lengthy accusation, in which Jorge of Burgos, the librarian of the monastery in which the events narrated in The Name of the Rose take place, confronts William of Baskerville, the Franciscan inquisitor tasked with discovering the author of a mysterious death that occurred a short time earlier.

Jorge wants absolute knowledge, and William practices doubt. Jorge leaves it to the authority of fathers and doctors to establish the truth; William uses reason. Jorge condemns laughter because it leads away from the law; William sees it as a manifestation of rationality. In the taxonomy of characters in Umberto Eco’s book, Jorge is the bad guy, and William is the good guy.

But is this really the case?

In public debates on issues that are crucial for the country (but also on disputes of various kinds and lesser importance), the shift from criticism of an idea to the judgement of the person occurs systematically and with increasingly alarming frequency. Not only social networks – which we should now exclusively call social media – but above all, radio and television news programmes are characterised by systematic recourse to the argumentum ad personam (‘you are a -ist!!!’). The strength and extraordinary effectiveness of character assassination (discrediting the individual to take away the value of what they say and regardless of what they say) lay in this technique not needing knowledge to work. Nothing else is required once the infamous label has been ‘stuck’ on the contradictor. The public – conveniently reduced to the level of supporters – can choose which corner to sit on without the necessity of knowing or understanding.

Added to this is many hosts more or less explicit ‘inobjectivity’. Some discreetly insert themselves into the rhythm of the discussions to make their own opinion stand out. Others direct the debate in a blatantly one-sided manner. Very few are able to manage a discussion by declaring ‘which side they are on’ while maintaining rigour, objectivity and method (which are the distinctive factors of those who provide information as opposed to those who, for the most diverse reasons ‘support a thesis’).

We are facing a change in the way professionals in the sector operate, which has been underway for some time. They are no longer information makers – intermediaries between events and the public – but opinion tellers (yes, tellers, not makers), i.e. people who express their opinion and impose it as the key to ‘explaining’ events without having the title, knowledge or authority to do so.

This is evident when one of the ‘experts on duty’ questions their certainties, causing embarrassment and attempting to ‘re-establish the truth’ using apodictic tones. Instead of respecting knowledge – and admitting they lack it – the prevailing attitude is to resort to buzzwords, to jumbled up concepts put together by listening here and there, to the arrogance of wanting to talk about everything and anything. From the pandemic to the Constitution, from geopolitics to war.

Maybe it was caused by the need to be always on-air and online (with too little time to study). Maybe the economic necessities of an industrialised model of information required lowering the quality of its operators to the point of no longer distinguishing roles and skills.

Be that as it may, the result is the worrying narrowing of the boundary that separates information from opinion. Blind partisanship (i.e. propaganda) prevails over the exercise of critical thought, also if ideologically aligned. Instead, those who should represent a barrier to this drift become an active part of it.

If this is indeed the case, one wonders whether Jorge da Burgos was right when he claimed the role of fathers and doctors as guarantors of knowledge. One should ask himself if – at least among those who “make” information – it would be necessary to show that Timor Domini, the Psalms consider initium sapientiae. Finally, it would worth remembering, when faced with questions beyond one’s own knowledge, Apelles’ admonition to the cobbler, and answer, simply and first of all to oneself, ‘I do not know’.

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