Fake news is so hot right now. Depending on who you ask, the term “FAKE NEWS” is either the weapon of the little people used to prod the media into being even handed or it’s akin to a racial slur for journalists. No matter which side you fall on, we can all admit that there are a lot of “alternative facts” flying around nowadays. But what should we do about it? How can we combat this fake news without compromising ourselves or infringing on The First Amendment? Thankfully, C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, provided us with a solution way back in 1945. I’ll do my best to lay out his argument and you can decide for yourself if it’s a tenable solution for today.
In the essay, “After Priggery- What?”, C.S. Lewis discusses methods to shut down “Cleon”, a wicked journalist, in a democratic way. Cleon is a catch all name for wicked journalists of his time, but it does seem like Lewis has a particular bloke in mind. Cleon is deemed wicked because he “disseminates for money falsehoods calculated to produce envy, hatred suspicion and confusion.” Is that not the definition of “fake news” today? Cleon is somewhat of a political hack, he’s sold his “intellectual virginity” to give his patrons a baser pleasure than a prostitute who sells her physical virginity to a John. Lewis boldly says that Cleon, “infects them with more dangerous diseases”. Did you catch that? C.S. Lewis said that fake news is worse than STDs! Whether you agree or not, the man’s boldness is admirable!
Why is Cleon so dangerous? So what if there is a little fake news here and there? Lewis explains, “If we remain a democracy they render impossible the formation of any public opinion. If – absit omen – the totalitarians threat is realized, they will be the cruelest and dirtiest tools of government.” So according to Lewis, fake news is dangerous in a democracy because all the contrary opinions and fake stats confuse the public and a consensus goes out the window. Furthermore, fake news can become dangerous propaganda, leading the people into a totalitarian regime and then continuing to control them through propagating fake news. Watch like any dystopian movie ever, or just study North Korea today.
C.S. Lewis was a kind man, even towards Cleon. He didn’t want to be a prig himself and condemn Cleon as being a lesser human or anything like that. He even gave possible reasons for why Cleon is such a liar, “We do not know by what stages he became the thing he is, nor how hard he may have struggled to be something better. Perhaps a bad heredity… unpopularity at school… complexes… a disgraceful record from the last war but one still nagging him on wakeful nights… a disastrous marriage. Who knows? Perhaps strong and sincere political convictions first bred intense desire that his side should prevail, and this first taught him to lie for what seemed a good cause and then, little by little, lying became his profession”. (In our day and age the last reason is most definitely the case!). But although Lewis did not want to condemn Cleon, his solution to Cleon’s fake news is to send him to Coventry.
Sending someone to Coventry means you give them the cold shoulder- you refuse to associate with them. This means unsubscribe from their Twitter account, cancelling your physical and online subscriptions, and not tuning in to their shows. Again, Lewis said that he is most likely no better than Cleon in every aspect of his life, but the one thing that he didn’t do was poison the whole nation with fake news. The best way to counteract Cleon’s lies is to tune him out. Don’t give that provocateur the attention they desperately crave. Lewis says, “to prevent the poisoning is an urgent necessity. It cannot be prevented by the law: partly because we do not wish the law to have too much power over freedom of speech, and partly, perhaps, for another reason. The only safe way of silencing Cleon is by discrediting him.” He summarized his argument by saying, “if no one but Cleon’s like read his paper, much less meet him on terms of social intercourse, his trade will soon be reduced to harmless proportions.”.
So at this point, if you’re anything like me, you’ll object to Lewis’ argument. “But C.S., one must keep up with the times, we have to know what is being said by the fake news in order to combat it!” Lewis called this objection a fallacy. “If we must find out what bad men are writing, and must therefore buy their papers, and therefore enable their papers to exist, who does not see that this supposed necessity of observing the evil is just what maintains the evil? It may in general be dangerous to ignore an evil; but not if the evil is one that perishes by being ignored.” We are falling into the fake news trap, all along we are the ones propping them up by giving them the attention, the clicks, and the money needed to keep them in all the daily discussions.
I love how Lewis addressed the appeasement argument. When I first think of ignoring evil my mind immediately goes to Hitler and how appeasement policies allowed him to grow and spread his evil. But Lewis said that not all evil behaves the same way. Some evil needs to be confronted head on and fought tooth and nail. But other forms of evil thrive on the light we give them. These trolley provocateurs can’t handle being ignored. Fake news dies without attention. If you want to salt the Cleon snail, ignore him.
Now here’s where Lewis’ whole argument might break down for us; Americans in 2017 do not have the same sensibilities as British folks in the 1940s. Another argument he addresses at the end of his essay is the argument that “even if we don’t read it, others will”. Lewis says that there aren’t enough rascals that don’t care about truth to keep Cleon and his ilk afloat. I’m afraid that today there are too many people who actually don’t care about the truth. We seem to care more about tarnishing the other side of the isle than appraising their arguments and finding truth. This whole “post truth” garbage could really be our downfall.
I don’t know if ignoring the trolls, provocateurs, and fake news outlets is going to work today, but it’s worth a shot.
*C.S. Lewis Essay Colection & Other Short Pieces HarperCollins Publishers, pages 348-351
Also check out After Priggery – What? Doodle to hear a proper Brit read this essay and entertain you with doodles.