Neil Postman’s essay titled ‘Defending the Indefensible’ appears in his seminal book ‘Conscientious Objections’, in which he critiques aspects of our culture that we’ve taken for granted. The essays in the book address quality of life issues related to advancing technology, new media and declining education standards. Defending the Indefensible pertains itself to one facet of our society that is particularly problematic, namely, the education system. Postman reckons that the education system should cultivate the faculty of ‘critical intelligence’ in pupils. This would enable them to question cultural and social norms and find rational alternatives for flawed practices. But unfortunately, the prevailing education system only seems to make students subservient to existing norms.
Postman suggests a list of seven intellectual tools through which students can decode the implications and hidden assumptions in the language presented to them. According to Postman, a refined understanding of the importance of language is necessary in order to critically evaluate its message. The following seven tools will help the student to avoid getting manipulated: “definition, questions, simplicity of words, metaphors, reification, style and tone, and the non-neutrality of media”.
With respect to definitions, Postman points out that their purpose is only to aid understanding and not to impede it. Hence, it is imperative on part of the student to identify and eliminate the authorial bias in the construction of the definition. A good example of this bias is found in the word ‘Organic’. Literally, the word indicates the presence of carbon in the content. Yet, in its modern usage, it represents absence of extraneous chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, preservatives, etc. The word ‘organic’ is also used as a health benchmark, which is quite misleading. Hence, it is the duty of the consumer of information to question underlying approximations and false assumptions behind the words.
The second principle recommended by Neil Postman is the ‘art of questioning conventional wisdom’. Since questions are the foundations upon which knowledge is built, our education system should encourage students to develop this tendency. Also, in order to elicit appropriate answers, questions will have to be framed effectively. The third principle stated by Postman is ‘simplicity of words’, which elucidates about the deceptiveness of many commonplace words. In a similar vein, Neil Postman goes on to articulate his principles concerning metaphors, reification, style and tone, and the non-neutrality of media.
The central theme of Postman’s essay is to caution and create awareness about some common pitfalls in information consumption. Unless the reader is wary of these pitfalls, he/she will not learn necessary skills to negotiate and re-interpret the messages received through text-books, lectures and media outlets. More importantly, by acquiring these skills, the student can then constructively and critically engage with customs and norms that are taken for granted. And this capability is of utmost importance if society is to progress in the future.
Hence, overall, Neil Postman makes several valid points in his essay. His essay is a well-researched and logically assembled piece of scholarship that helps expose institutional factors behind media content generation. He earnestly implores the youth to develop necessary critical faculties for dealing with false and propagandist information offered him/her.
Defending Against the Indefensible, extracted from Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education, Published by Vintage Books, 1992, pp.224, ISBN-10: 067973421X