A lengthy segment on The Rachel Maddow Show (I am a huge fan) last Thursday focused on the creation of "truth" through simply repeating falsehoods espoused by others and using those other sources as evidence of the facts asserted. Naturally, Fox News and the internet play large roles in the story.
The segment made me think of a phenomenon first identified by the sociologist Judith Stacey in a 1994 article in Social Text and later more fully described in her 1996 book, In the Name of the Family. The early 1990's saw the emergence of opposition to gay and lesbian families, single mothers, and any childrearing outside life-long heterosexual marriage based not on arguments about God and morality (that was so 1980's) but rather based on social science. Social scientists, historians, and other advocates who claimed they were centrists asserted that children needed to be raised in two-parent mother/father families. Deviation from that family structure, they argued, spelled doom for the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of those children and concommitantly for the well-being of society.
Through carefully tracing who was citing whom (in those pre-Google days), Stacey described the practice of reciprocal citation. "Through the sheer force of categorical assertion, repetition, and cross-citation of each other's publications," she wrote, "these social scientists seem to have convinced most of the media, the literate public, and Clinton himself that a fault-free bedrock of social science research validates the particular family values that they and most American claim to favor, but fail to practice."
After documenting the practice with numerous examples, Stacey concluded: "It is not often that social construction, or more precisely here, the political construction of knowledge is quite so visible or incestuous as in the reciprocal citation practices of these cultural crusaders."
Rachel Maddow could give us a video montage, while Judith Stacey could only provide words on the page. The visual images are both horrifying and depressing. But even without today's tools of cable news and the internet, the force of reciprocal citation did great harm. It gave us, among other things, "welfare reform" and the Defense of Marriage Act.