Monday, July 29, 2013

What's really being said in the FOX Reza Aslan interview

Yesterday, a video of a FOX interview with religious studies professor and author Reza Aslan went viral, being decried widely as FOX's most embarrassing interview yet (which really says something).

Aslan is being interviewed, ostensibly, about his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, but in typical FOX style, it appears to have an ulterior motive to it. In it, the interviewer, FOX anchor Lauren Green, continually needles Aslan about his religious identification as a Muslim, repeatedly ignoring Aslan's replies about being a religious studies scholar with multiple degrees, including a Ph.D., a profound interest in the character of Jesus, and over two decades of experience being a religious scholar, including in New Testament studies. It's almost as if the interviewer doesn't really care about Aslan's qualifications at all. See for yourself:

There is a valuable lesson in this very annoying "interview" of Aslan that I think isn't getting the attention it needs, and it is a loud and clear call for secularism. I want to give it some of that attention.

In the interview, Green repeatedly throws variants of "You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" at Aslan, despite his repeated assertions that he is a religious studies expert, whose job it is to study religions academically, one "who happens to be a Muslim." Green repeats this essential question over and over, clearly trying to undermine Aslan's credibility by indentifying him as a Muslim first, religious studies expert a distant second. Green knows exactly what she's doing.

I think it is prudent to assume that Green, and her programming directors, are highly intelligent people. They know what they're doing by going back to this probable non-issue (that is an ad hominem attack on Aslan instead of his work), and it is for this reason that people are calling the interview embarrassing and using it to deride FOX. But Green, et al., are teaching us something very important about religion here that we shouldn't miss.

We can see it by recognizing that they aren't stupid. Green knows her audience, and she is doing the interview for her audience more than for Aslan. Since the intended audience of FOX is not a generally unbiased group of well-informed people, she is not aiming the interview to cater to generally unbiased, well-informed people. The usual viewership of FOX is low-information, high-misinformation, conservatively biased people, but that's mostly irrelevant in this particular interview. Green knows her audience is mostly composed of sectarian-minded Christians, and her goal is to illicit distrust of Aslan and his work in that audience. 

Green's message is abundantly clear: "Aslan is different from you. Don't trust him. He's different. He's not one of you. His work can't be trusted. His results can be ignored. He's an enemy, so of course he would say things against your beliefs." This "he would say that" argument, in fact, is the main example of the valid applications of apparent ad hominem arguments.

The key word here is "sectarian," to be distinguished from "secular." Green's approach in this (embarrassing) interview works directly on a key feature that is inherent to sectarianism: sects are designed to overcome trust within the group, and this has the effect of decreasing trust of those outside the group. Other sects, here Muslims as compared to Christians, face a special sort of distrust because it is known that they hold a fundamentally different construction of the world, particularly morally. 

The Muslim worldview, however unknown and mysterious it may be to many FOX-viewing Christians, is not mysterious in the least in the regard that it is known to be not Christianity. Indeed, for black-and-white thinking among low-information viewers, Islam is almost taken to be anti-Christianity, and the trust among these people for Muslims could only be lower if they were atheists. Green is working that angle particularly hard to constantly remind her audience that Aslan, whatever his credentials and whatever he says, is not one of them and is therefore not to be trusted. It seems ridiculous that it would work in this globalizing era, but it works specifically because she knows her audience is sectarian in a sect with profound distrust for Muslims.

Surely, someone will be upset here that I haven't qualified for every kind of Christian. My claim, though, is that it is endemic to Christianity, as a sect, to engage in this kind of behavior, and only the secularization of Christianity has changed that for various Christian groups and individuals. Many Christians often accept secular values ahead of Christian sect-specific ones (and then reverse-engineer them to be "Christian values," but that's another story). Many Christians, then, have embraced secular values, and to the degree that they have secularized, they immunize themselves against the sectarian default of distrust of other groups.

Christians, then, are tolerant and accepting of Muslims to the degree that they are secularized, and FOX's and Green's intended audience are not highly secularized Christians. Indeed, because they are sectarian Christians, whether well-informed or not, they are low-trust viewers when it comes to outsiders. This propensity to distrust is being manipulated effectively and clearly.

Of all the things we can take away from this interview, this is perhaps the most important. It's hardly news that FOX is driving a conservative agenda or attempting to propagandize to its target audience. It's hardly news that they publicly embarrass themselves to everyone else when they do it. It is worthwhile, however, to understand how they're doing it. In this case, it is clear: they are using sect identification specifically to sow distrust for Aslan, his work, and particularly anything like the results of his work, and that distrust clearly must outweigh the damage to their reputation caused by doing such an obvious hatchet-job of an interview. 

These people, FOX, are not visible because they're stupid. They're visible because they are smart enough to know exactly how much stupid they can get away with while increasing their reputation within their viewer base.

FOX engages in this sort of interview because it works with their low-trust viewing base. The reason FOX's propaganda works in this case is sectarianism. Sectarianism is the problem. In a fully secularized society with people who, in the very wide majority, embrace secular values over sectarian ones, whatever their religious identifications, this FOX interview would be too embarrassing to air. The cost to FOX's reputation would be too high to dare do it. Because there is so much adherence to sectarianism, particularly in their viewing base, though, not only can they get away with it, they can get rich and shockingly influential with it.

The demand we have, then, is for the rise of a properly secular age. Sectarianism is inherently divisive, or at least can be driven to be so easily, and that cannot serve as the basis for a strong, healthy nation nor the emergence of a peaceful global society.

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