Today is the second day of University Press Week, and this year’s theme is “#LookItUP: Knowledge Matters.” The Association of American University Presses (AAUP) designated November 6-11, 2017 as a week for celebrating university presses as well as the value of knowledge and expertise.
As part of UP Week 2017, we invited Shanna Wilbur, Director of Marketing and Communications at UK Libraries, to be a guest blogger for us. Below, she provides her thoughts on today’s UP Week Blog Tour topic, “Selling the Facts.”
Vox’s David Roberts wrote last week about his concern that the US is currently experiencing an epistemic breach, “a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know—what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.” He went on to argue that the conservative movement’s rejection of mainstream institutions (journalism, science, the academy)—society’s appointed arbiters of factual dispute—is a primary source for this breach and has led to what he calls a “’tribal epistemology’—the systematic conflation of what is true with what is good for the tribe.”
The fracturing of the media landscape and the upending of mainstream institutions has been building steadily over decades, aided by advances in information technology and exacerbated by the profit motive. The publishing industry, as one of these institutional gatekeepers, has long felt similar pressures. With increased competition from large-scale retailers like Amazon, the relative ease of self-publishing, and a seeming need to counter long-standing claims of liberal bias, establishing imprints dedicated to producing conservative books makes sense economically especially in light of the sustained success of Regnery. And every major commercial publishing house has benefited monetarily from these conservative imprints since their conception even if it meant that we readers got further separated and compartmentalized.
With Donald Trump’s election cementing conservative control over all three branches of government and a majority of state houses, we are seeing new/alt-right-wing voices emerge emboldened by a president who was so handsomely rewarded for flaunting traditional norms as well as a growing self-described resistance—consumers all. Each of us entrenched in our corners with our own sources of media ready and willing to affirm whatever it is we already believe. This is not to equate the “resistance” with the “alt-right.” Their messages are not comparable in perniciousness or consequence, but set up as they are in opposition to one another each is vulnerable to entrenched thinking. The inability to discern the difference in the scale of problem afflicting each of them may in fact be a precursor to Roberts’ “tribal epistemology”—if both sides are wrong, then nobody is right, and if nobody is right, then everybody is right, and all that matters is me and what I think.
Surely some ideas are better than others, yes? Not that the better ones should never be challenged but not by previously discarded bad ideas, right? Tribalism rarely results in better ideas, but there is money in publishing to be had in exploiting it. At what greater cost to society, however? Although not divorced from the realities of balance sheets, as non-profits university presses may have more leeway in maintaining a steady voice of reason and openness in these hyperbolic times. For instance, the University Press of Kentucky has a number of forthcoming titles that provide insights on some of today’s most divisive topics: the legacy of the civil war (Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for Research by Paul D. Escott), the effects of globalism on rural/small town communities (Appalachia in Regional Context: Place Matters edited by Dwight B. Billings and Ann Kingsolver); the threat of nuclear war (Harold Stassen: Eisenhower, the Cold War, and the Pursuit of Nuclear Disarmament by Lawrence S. Kaplan); the continued struggle for civil rights (An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee edited by Aram Goudsouzian and Charles McKinney); and the environmental impact of humanity (Frog Pond Philosophy: Essays on the Relationship Between Humans and Nature). This long-form published content is undoubtedly a harder sell in this age of distraction and hyper partisanship, but it is also the perfect antidote.