A few days ago Twins Geek made an interesting post about paradigms. To summarize, paradigms are the lenses through which we view the world. Through our paradigms, some aspects of our environment are drawn into sharper focus while others are obscured. The larger point is that the reality behind the paradigm does not change: a paradigm-free perspective would perceive an unfiltered reality, whereas a paradigm-generated perspective shades things.
So far so good. But now we toe contested ground. Some would have it that there is no such thing as a paradigm-free perspective. For instance, those who allege a "liberal bias" in the mainstream media claim that media members’ liberal paradigms inform everything they report, including what issues they choose to cover. Stepping outside of those paradigms and reporting objectively is not possible, the claim contends. Others believe that we can step outside of our paradigms long enough to view and process reality objectively.
As an old philosophy major I'm aware that the above was a gloss on a controversy loaded with complexity. Nevertheless, I think the positions at stake are clear enough. I also believe that the paradigm-centric assumption has a profoundly negative effect on our discourse. Not only does the position discourage people from attempting to stake out objective perspectives on issues; its prevailing status as conventional wisdom discourages us from criticizing those who broadcast ostensibly "objective", but evidently agenda-driven, points of view. Why challenge the intellectually dishonest if all argumentation is paradigm driven and thus biased in some way?
I do believe that we have the ability to mostly shed our paradigms and consider the world from a mostly objective point of view. I don't believe that to do so is easy. A paradigm simplifies the world by setting reality into a pre-configured mold. In addition, paradigms allow for a community of paradigm-sharers to find solace in the company of others who have predictably similar perspective on things. To step outside of one's paradigms is to step away from the security of those paradigms and to face a world full of frustrating nuance and complexity.
But with what values, one might ask. Shed the paradigms and don’t you shed the value systems that are the product of them?
Not entirely. Leave behind the paradigms and one is left with a commitment to taking the world as it is without “spinning” it so that it will fit into a paradigm. The paradigm-free make a virtue of intellectual honesty.
For reasons I won’t get into so as not to make a long post longer, I do think the world would be a better place if we were quick to brand the intellectually dishonest with a Scarlet D. And I think more would be inclined to think critically and with a healthy independence if we celebrated the intellectual honesty of those who attempt to process the world paradigm-free. Which brings me to former Star Tribune sports columnist and current KFAN radio personality Dan Barreiro.
As a columnist, Barreiro's contrarian spirit and his willingness to savage the eminently savagable raised faint echoes of H.L. Mencken. That echo has grown even louder as his radio personality has evolved over the years. Barreiro doesn't suffer fools lightly, and his willingness to take a hatchet to purveyors of ignorance, intolerance, and fraudulence rivals Mencken’s own motivations in tone and tenor if not in the quality of the resulting criticism. When I listen to Barreiro, I am greeted with the same thought that visits me when I read Mencken: here is someone who both values and practices intellectual honesty, who desires nothing more (and nothing less) than to view the world objectively.
I believe his body of work supports this interpretation. As exhibit A I’d point to the befuddlement with which a certain segment of his listenership greets his program. The frequency with which his callers and e-mailers accuse him of being, alternately, liberal and conservative, is both laughable and distressing. Laughable because the accusations see-saw as conclusions arrived at without the assistance of a paradigm driven-agenda take on an alternatively liberal or conservative hue. Distressing because the comments demonstrate that some accustomed to paradigm-driven, intellectually dishonest talk radio don't know what to make of someone who is intellectually honest. These listeners seem troubled that you cannot approach Barreiro’s show with the same confidence you can approach so many shows up and down the AM dial. In fact it is not possible to predict how Barreiro will respond to any given subject by holding that subject up against an agenda. After fifteen years listening I still don't know exactly where his politics lay. I offer that as a form of tribute.
Before you suggest he and I get a room, I’ll mention here that I don’t believe that Barreiro is above criticism. His fondness for creating, and then destroying, argumentative straw men can make his criticism gratuitous at times. His “Done as a Society” segment, for instance, which features bizarre or troubling news items, is related with an incredulity that suggests he believes he is the last sane man in America. Likewise, on the subject of local sports, his tendency to find a cloud behind every silver lining draws him perilously close to paradigmatic-blinkered thinking: at times Barreiro seems programmed to see the negative to the exclusion of the positive.
Still, even these tendencies can make for colorful, entertaining radio. And I don’t believe they detract from his accomplishment, which has been to carve out in the competitive drive time slot a radio program that has managed to remain intelligent, eclectic, and above all, intellectually honest. Barreiro may not be another H.L. Mencken. He’s the closest we have to him in this market however. For that I believe he has earned our respect.