Ears Wide Shut: Epistemological Populism, Argutainment and Canadian Conservative Talk Radio

From an academic paper in 2011:

* For many people, radio has a slightly anachronistic air about it. Perceived as technologically inferior to image-based media and less serious than textual media, radio is often ignored as a marginal and ephemeral medium
with little enduring political significance.

* we have examined the rhetorical strategies of Adler On Line (AOL), the pre-eminent commercial PTR program in Canada. While our analysis has revealed many interesting findings, in this article we have chosen to focus on two elements which we believe are both noteworthy and previously unexplored. The first section of this article argues that the program’s rhetorical practices establish a specific epistemological framework we call epistemological populism, since it employs a variety of populist rhetorical tropes to define certain types of individual experience as the only ground of valid and politically relevant knowledge. We suggest that this epistemology has significant political impacts insofar as its epistemic inclusions and exclusions make certain political positions appear self-evident and others incomprehensible and repugnant.

In the second section, we argue that the style of debate as performed and enforced by the host serves to privilege political speech which is passionate, simple and entertaining. More importantly, however, we show that this style, which we call argutainment, plays a key role in helping establishing the political preferences and views privileged by the program. The article closes with a speculative conclusion in which we identify some of the potential theoretical, political and normative implications of our findings. In particular, we argue that the most significant effect of AOL’s rhetorical strategies is the cultivation of an ideal of political deliberation that offers very narrow and problematic answers to certain fundamental questions about the public realm: questions about who has or shouldn’t have authority to speak, how and when we should or shouldn’t speak, and what type of knowledge should and shouldn’t be viewed as legitimate and worthy of our attention.

* Epistemology—theories about what legitimate knowledge is, how we acquire valid knowledge, what markers are reliable indicators of valid knowledge—is often assumed to be the exclusive domain of philosophers.

* What is the epistemology of AOL [Adler On Line, hosted by Charles Adler] and how does it function? Broadly, it is a perspective which we call epistemological populism since it borrows heavily from the rhetorical patterns of political discourses of populism to valorize the knowledge of “the common people,” which they possess by virtue of their proximity to everyday life, as distinguished from the rarefied knowledge of elites which reflects their alienation from everyday life and the common sense it produces. Epistemological populism is established through a variety of rhetorical techniques and assumptions: the assertion that individual opinions based upon firsthand experience are much more reliable as a form of knowledge than those generated by theories and academic studies; the valorization of specific types of experience as particularly reliable sources of legitimate knowledge and the extension of this knowledge authority to unrelated issues; the privileging of emotional intensity as an indicator of the reliability of opinions; the use of populist-inflected discourse to dismiss other types of knowledge as elitist and therefore illegitimate; and finally, the appeal to “common sense” as a discussion-ending trump card. Let’s examine how these parts fit together in concrete terms.

“Opinions that are armed with life experience, that’s what we’re looking for on this show.” One of the many promos that transitioned AOL into commercial breaks, this particular declaration offers an excellent entry point into our analysis of AOL’s epistemological populism as it deftly captures the program’s unequivocal preference for political sentiments which emerge directly from the crucible of both ordinary and extraordinary experience at the individual level. Such individual experience is what lies at the core of the common sense which is consistently celebrated on the program as a counterpoint to the excessively ideological, intellectual or idealistic politics of those who lack grounding in the “real world.”

“Opinions are great, I always say on this program. Opinions are wonderful.
But opinions armed with personal experience, knowledge. Man, those opinions are a whole lot better” (December 14, 1–2 p. m.) On this view, knowledge that grows out of an individual’s lived experience is knowledge one can trust. Indeed, knowledge and experience become virtually identical. An individual’s lived proximity to something becomes an index of their capacity to truly understand it, care about it, develop valid opinions about it and speak about it with authority. Conversely, the more abstract the form of knowledge and reasoning, the less rooted in concrete individual experiences, the more such knowledge is to be regarded with suspicion, especially when their conclusions contradict the wisdom of common sense and practical, everyday experience.

…the type of guests, callers and experiences through which the program legitimized
certain opinions and knowledge about crime rely on and reinforce epistemological
populism. There was virtually no discussion of statistical crime rates at all. Instead, evidence of the urgency of this issue largely took the form of guests and callers serving up a mix of anecdotal confirmation and common sense observations which themselves function as theoretical generalizations while simultaneously disavowing their theoretical status. Has violent crime become a major problem in Canadian cities? Has Canadian penal practice become a revolving door for violent offenders? The answer for Adler was clear. “If I opened up the lines and simply discussed situations that people are aware of,” he explained, “I mean, some people actually, you know, have scrapbooks on this stuff, of situations where people involved in heinous crimes are either those out on parole or have committed two, three, four, five, six other crimes and simply sit in the bucket for a year or two. We could do a show like that and go for twenty-four hours and still have phone calls to do” (January 6, 1–2 p.m.) As the anecdotes pile up in segment after segment, they not only immunize listeners against countervailing arguments and evidence about declining crime rates or the futility of law-and-order campaigns. Equally importantly, they valorize the accumulation of anecdotes as a viable form of populist knowledge making, enabling out-of-hand dismissal of contradictory arguments, reasoning or facts as untrue.

What is key here is how Adler’s affirmation of a mode of experiential political reasoning, which effortlessly shifts back and forth between personal experience (either one’s own or others) and broader social and political questions, invariably champions the former as providing answers to the latter. Broader trends or perspectives are never allowed to challenge the generalizability of certain individual experiences. But one of the challenges faced by such an experience-based epistemology is that not everyone’s experience is the same. Not all anecdotes fit the common sense conclusions served up by AOL. So how does Adler distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of individual knowledge, experience and common sense?

Part of the answer lies in a straightforward ideological filtering of guests which, for the most part, strains out those whose experiences, opinions and epistemological framework differ from Adler’s own. The epistemological filtering is particularly notable. Of the thirty guests that appeared on the show to discuss crime over the seven weeks, not a single one was a criminologist or social scientist specializing in these issues.

* Epistemological populism, however, goes well beyond opening up space for individual
experience as one type of valid knowledge that deserves its place alongside a variety of others. Rather, epistemological populism tends to elevate individual experience as the only legitimate form and extend that epistemological authority well beyond the realm where the person’s immediate experience itself might be seen as relevant.

* …police officials and correctional workers though not social workers were consistently positioned as having a monopoly on expert knowledge in this area.

* Adler’s introduction encourages the audience to accept the constable’s opinions as facts—as the objective truth—not on the basis of any evidence presented but rather because the constable’s “day to day level” experience as a police officer… grants him a special, automatic epistemological authority.

If the persuasive force of epistemological populism flows, in part, from its ability to activate and apply (at an epistemological level) the populist celebration of “the people” and common sense, it also uses the other side of the populist trope—the attack on elites—to dismiss contending forms of knowledge and political opinions. The laudable voices of the people are contrasted with the “elitist” views of academics, defence lawyers and political progressives who were condemned as representing the “special interests” of criminals and gangs.

* Dismissing contending epistemological accounts by explicitly attacking
them as elitist is a pattern that recurs frequently throughout AOL.

* we call the performative model embodied in AOL’s discourse argutainment and argue that this style has several defining characteristics. Self-consciously adopted and defended by means of a populist logic which defines itself as a utopian alternative to
mainstream models of journalism, argutainment justifies itself through its ability to speak to and represent the interests of “the people.” In defining what is good for the people, it moves effortlessly between political and market tropes in which commercial success and the public good are fused together. What people want in commercial terms (as evidenced by market share) and what people need in political terms (alternative perspectives which cut through the morass of mainstream media) is represented as ultimately the same thing: a provocative and entertaining style of debate, defined as highly emotional and passionate, strongly opinionated, simple and brief and very confrontational. Moreover, argutainment assumes that an aggressive and opinionated host is needed to filter out ideas and modes of speech which he… judges the audience does not want to hear…

Adler frequently uses populist tropes to implicitly and explicitly justify his style of discourse. He regularly celebrates his style as ushering in a “broadcast revolution” in which the antiquated conventions of journalism and the bland, empty rhetoric of public relations are swept aside in the interests of energizing political discussion and debate. He invites us to participate in a populist renewal of the public sphere in which public discussion and debate simulates what he imagines at kitchen tables and coffee shops of the nation, a frank, honest and confrontational exchange of opinion that is open to anyone who wants to join the conversation. Unsurprisingly, one of the most powerful rhetorical defenses offered for his style is the supposed contrast between it and the decayed elitist forms it seeks to replace. For Adler, mainstream media’s traditional commitment to balance, objectivity and politically correct speech—all of which tend to be lumped together—have led to an anemic (and boring) public sphere in which an unconditional respect for the views of others has emasculated our capacity and desire to make difficult but necessary political judgments. According to Adler, such norms have become the shelter of those whose claims could not otherwise withstand the scrutiny of common sense reasoning and experience. Calls for balance and objectivity merely encourage an apathetic public sphere and allow the political claims of vocal special interests to exercise disproportionate influence. In this context, a style that is confrontational, aggressive and highly passionate is politically valuable since it shakes people free from an elite-induced apathy and ignorance.

* For Adler, a pervasive elitist commitment to a polite, nonconfrontational,
politically correct style stands in the way of an open, honest and frank discussion of social problems and how they should be addressed. Complexity is stigmatized as little more than an excuse to avoid asking the tough questions and, conversely, a willingness to violate PC conventions of “cultural sensitivity” becomes, in and of itself, a sign of lucid and honest speech. In fact, it becomes a sign of moral courage.

* Adler often openly ruminates on the value of his style, congratulating himself for having the fortitude to challenge political correctness as an organic defender of the people’s interests and pointing to his ratings as the market share equivalent of a democratic vote of confidence in support of his approach. In the final days of the campaign, for example, Adler boasted that the show’s higher ratings were a tribute to his bold and aggressive style.

* The populist genius of talk radio may very well lie in its ability to portray the
logic of commercialism (treating political talk as an entertainment commodity)
as a politically virtuous invigoration of democracy. According to this logic, the discipline imposed by the need to entertain also keeps political speech honest, accessible and authentic and counteracts the mainstream media’s counterproductive pursuit of diversity, balance, objectivity, moderation. In this view, “giving the people what they want” does not lead to the decline of public discourse but instead to its invigoration and democratic rebirth by welcoming in the values and priorities of ordinary Canadians. Market logic, the logic of commercial culture, is recast as an instrument of political democratization, the means by which the people are put back in charge of the public sphere…

* Adler consistently reminds his audience that serving their needs and interests is his top priority and that all interventions he makes to discipline and shape political speech are designed to make the discussion more palatable to them.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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