Get a cup of coffee, this is gonna be a discussion of another long, complex subject. And I mean a real long one. (No lie, I mean it’s REALLY long.)
I always enjoy pointing folks to a study done at Emory University. People — who identified themselves as either liberals or conservatives — were put into an MRI machine and asked political questions.
During the question part of the experiment, both ‘groups’ displayed the same patterns of biased, skewed and illogical thought. (Keep that last part in mind, we’ll come back to it.) For example, if the opponent’s candidate did something ‘wrong,’ the reaction was an immediate, “Lynch the SOB!” Conversely, when their own candidate did the same thing … “Well, you know he had his reasons for that” and “I know what he did was wrong, but he’s done so much good,” etc., etc.
In other words, it was wrong, evil and horrible when the other side did it, But OK, understandable and forgivable when their side did the same thing. Along those same lines, the other side was chock full of idiots and malicious greedy bastards, who were out to destroy all that was good in the world. Whereas, their side was right, noble and pure of heart. Those same biases were inherent in both group’s verbal answers.
There’s another part of this study, though — the mechanical one. I said earlier to keep ‘illogical thought’ in mind. That’s because, as they were questioned, the MRI was aimed at their brains. The scans showed what parts of their brains were physically active while they were being asked and were answering the questions. The parts that were firing in both groups were once again the same.
Except for one little thing. The parts of their brains that were active controlled emotions, not logic. But — and here is where the MRI came in handy — everyone swore they were being rational and logical about their answers. Nope, sorry, wrong. There’s the physical proof.
Those glowing hot spots on the MRI and the steadfast belief they were being logical are the foundations for the statement: The hardest bias to spot is your own.
It’s easy to get cranky when someone is pissing on some cause or ideal you support. After all, it’s something you believe is right, true and obvious. And that bastard is attacking your ideals. It’s lots harder to spot when you’re being manipulated along those same lines — especially when that manipulation reconfirms your biases. The booger about this is the same techniques that infuriate you when they piss all over your beliefs seem perfectly logical and reasonable when they’re pissing on other people’s beliefs.
That’s what we’re going to talk about today, how to spot those techniques. This is especially important when you agree with the slant given to information. That’s when it’s hardest to see. But, before we go there, there are a few more foundational issues that need to be addressed.
Humans are by nature tribal. You can get all kinds of cultural anthropological, evolutionary psychological and historical about it. Or you can look at how, even among those of our own nation, we divide ourselves into smaller, more tribal political parties, religious denominations, socioeconomic levels, ethnic and even football team allegiances. Gone are the days of raiding and warfare against our neighbors. But we basically still play the same game as back when we charged over the hill while waving spears. We’re just more intellectual and civilized about it. Because, after all, we’re all part of the same nation and are educated and civilized. Spears? No. Verbal slings and arrows, oh yeah.
A lot of other stuff comes with these groupings. We use the ideals, standards, mythology and — we can go so far as to say — dogma of our subgroups to identify who we are. “I’m a (fill in the blank),” “We believe (fill in the blank).” That basically means we buy into an ‘us vs. them’ mindset. Then we tell ourselves why we are better, smarter, more (fill in the blank) than the other group. Those horrible, ignorant ‘them.’
Tribalism is a huge subject by itself, but how it relates here is it corrupts what we accept as ‘proof.’ In fact, we tend to accept without question anything that:
a) supports our biases
b) condemns the ‘other’
A lot of the time when you join a group, you have to accept that group’s enemy as your own. The longer the feud, the more ingrained and dogmatic beliefs become — especially as to why those other people are wrong. I’m talking — short of calling them baby raping, crackheads — any slur, rumor, allegation, insult or criticism of ‘those’ people is accepted at face value and assumed to be true. “Evidence? We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence! Just for that we’ll blog about your mother, too!” (With apologies to Bogey and “Sierra Madre.”)
Before we get to how to spot slant, bias, spin doctoring, agenda pushing and plain old manipulation designed to get your limbic system all aflutter (so you shut down your higher brain functions and get all tribal monkey), let’s look at the differences between the way we get our information as straight news, analysis, opinion/editorial and blogging. This differences are important. Past straight news, odds are good someone is intentionally trying to light up your tribal ‘monkey’ for their own profit, power and control.
Wow, doesn’t that sound paranoid and Machiavellian? Well, guess what? Even if nothing is happening right at that moment, keeping your emotional monkey brain simmering stops you from slowing down and actually thinking for yourself. Or to be more specific, thinking along anything other than tribal lines. It’s in the source’s best interest to keep you emotional and excited … especially if it means you keep coming back to him or her as a ‘news’ source or to vote for them. And don’t forget the increase in their advertising rates (revenue) when it comes to increased ratings or circulation. Machiavellian? Nah. Try business. The media is not a philanthropic organization, not even the news.
A straight news story tells you who, what, when, where, why and how. That’s pretty much it. An important sticking point is the ‘why.’ For the sake of clarity, we’ll say that the best ‘why’ comes directly from individuals involved in the story. It’s news when the guy in the story tells you ‘why’ he’s doing something. When the writer of the piece starts telling you ‘why,’ it’s floating away from straight news. How far that goes … well, that remains to be seen.
One also can say that a legit story will give you multiple sides. My wife, who was a newspaper editor for more than 20 years, has a saying: “A good story pisses everyone off.” That’s because all sides are going to be angry that you gave equal time and space to everyone, instead of favoring just one angle. (Oh, did you notice how I slid in the idea that actual news isn’t binary? If you’re lucky there’s only 16 different sides with their own opinions and complicating related issues about the subject. That’s another wifely insight.) If you look at issues beyond a simplistic black and white, right or wrong perspective, things get complicated real quick.
Proportions are something you need to keep an eye on. News — on anything more complicated than a house fire or simple crime — reports the opposing viewpoints of an issue. Now sometimes they have to go to a total barking moonbat to find an opposing point of view, but they will report it. They do this to keep up the appearance of being balanced and reporting the ‘opposing’ points of view. You can see this because the bulk of the news story will be about the facts, reputable sources will make up most of the ‘why’ and one lone paragraph or section will contain the moonbat’s comments.
This same practice, however, can be used to slant a news story. Giving equal time to opposing sides does not mean three paragraphs of quotes from one side and a one liner from the other. That’s a subtle way to make the underrepresented side look like a barking moonbat.
Where things start getting complicated is with analysis pieces. An analysis looks like a news story; in fact, they show up most in self-proclaimed ‘news magazines.’ But simply stated, it ain’t the news. It ain’t a feature, and it’s often only a hair away from an opinion/editorial piece.
An analysis is a booger because it is not straight news. It’s the writer analyzing the information he or she is giving you. Information he (or she) has picked and chosen. An analysis piece relies heavily on experts telling you what something means and what is going to happen about a major issue. I’m a big fan of going back and reading old news magazines to see how badly they got things wrong. While the stories seem so crisp, clear and definite at the time of publication, humans often mistake conviction and certitude for being right. If this ‘expert’ says this is what it means and that is what is going to happen, who are we to question? Never mind that it turned out entirely differently than predicted. It was presented with utmost confidence. That’s why reading old analysis pieces is such a hoot.
Ideally, an analysis piece will be a well researched, carefully investigated and balanced. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. In these days of immediate media, the need to get the story out is a higher priority than getting it right. (You can always run a retraction or correction later.)
This is where the ‘it’s not a Machiavellian plot, but business’ comes into play. In recent years, the media has leaned more and more toward presenting news in a narrative style and using more and more analysis. Simply stated, news is more interesting and entertaining when presented this way. It’s becoming info-tainment. The competition for your attention in our multimedia overload world makes the shift understandable. This especially applies to articles and news television shows trying to trigger your tribal monkey. It’s a good way to attract viewers, readers and advertisers.
It’s here that you’ll find a lot of the stuff I’m going to be talking about creeping in — but hiding under the guise of ‘news.’ Part of this tracks back to the need to get information out quickly. You can fill a lot of space and air time by stuffing these tricks into your ‘featured news story of the hour’ or article.
And this brings us to the next category. The opinion/editorial (op/ed) piece.
An opinion/editorial article is about persuasion. As in high school debate team persuasive speech (oratory ) competition. Wikipedia explains persuasive speech as “to change, reinforce or instill the attitudes, beliefs and values of the audience.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individual_events_%28speech%29 ) Any reputable newspaper, television station or magazine will clearly identify such segments as commentary. And yes, there are entire shows predicated on the entertaining opinions of a particular pundit. They have higher ratings than straight news.
The slickest op/ed is the one that pretends to be news or an analysis about a subject. This, so you think you’re getting accurate information and news — instead of someone trying to persuade you of something. The fact is, when it is identified as an op/ed piece, that’s perfectly OK. Basically, you know the writer is sharing his or her opinion and trying to get a reaction from you. It’s done within the editorial and professional journalistic standards of the source.
The problem is the number of people who assume an op/ed article is actually a ‘straight’ news source. (It isn’t.) But because of the shift to narrative news and analysis, it is easier to blur the lines and to sell such segments as “the news,” when they are not ‘straight,’ ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ news stories.
We now come to blogging — an Internet phenomenon that covers a wide spectrum of information and opinion. I’ve seen it done in a more professional and informed way than many media outlets. I’ve seen it so paranoid and ranting that the writer needs to be put into a padded room. Blogging can also be a housewife telling you about her baby’s progress. A whole lot of blogging is basically op/ed without meeting the professional standards or conditions of journalism. There is no need to present any alternative points of view. And a lot of blogging is juicy and emotional to hook folks, who think a certain way, and get them all fired up and tribal. It is pure cherry picking of facts and often outright attacks on the hated ‘them.’
Once again, people can mistake blogging for news because often they hear about a event or story from a blogger, comic or pundit. What’s coming to them is filled with opinion, slant, bias edited facts and, often, outright attacks and condemnation. Here’s a hint folks: Neither Rush Limbaugh nor Bill Maher are reliable news sources. Same goes for various articles in the Huffington Post or a Glenn Beck commentary.
Now, I’m of the opinion that the media brought their lack of credibility on themselves by blurring the lines between news, analysis and op/ed to fill space and air time, as well as sell more info-tainment than the more boring straight news. Actual investigative journalism? Takes too long. Find a pundit and stick him in front of the camera or quote him to fill time and space. This, of course, when the writer isn’t filling it with the tricks, twists and spin methods that I’m going to talk about.
And BTW, if you think there is no credibility issue with the media, I have a simple test: Fox News or New York Times? Which one of those caused a “well, of course” reaction and which one caused a “those idiots” response? Credibility issue? Or does it go deeper than that and into the realm of your tribal monkey? A monkey that accepts your sources as credible, but not the sources of ‘those people?’ Pander to one tribe, and you lose credibility with others.
There’s also something you should know about most news. It makes really boring television. Explosions, car crashes, fires, shoot outs, those are exciting. A city council meeting over a bond issue, not so much. So what the news media does best is report conflict. Basically via the electronic media (TV and cable) you get 10 seconds of straight news, then you get 20 seconds of opposing sides trying to tell you why they’re right about the issue. The story is about the conflict.
Another time filler is the human interest aspect (how the people involved ‘feel’), the history or follow up. If there’ has been a big news event, the local media can keep it going for years. Here in Denver, the local news channels are still running ‘related’ stories about the Columbine High School shootings, even though they occurred in 1999. Naturally, they have to do a back story in case you forgot about it. (So they show video of the killers running around with guns.) Exciting time filler, that. How are the families coping all these years later? Not exactly news.
The reason all this is an issue is it has conditioned us to think that news comes with ‘expert’ opinions, human interest and related ‘stories.’ We don’t even notice when we’re being fed ‘filler’ material, instead of “just the facts” of straight news. Much less when it’s one-quarter news and three-quarters opinion.
So now that I’ve probably bored you to tears with all this background information and explanations, let’s look at a list of ways to spot bias — especially our own.
Adverbs and adjectives — These modifiers are somewhat like subliminal advertising. Back in the late ’70s, I trained myself to start seeing subliminal manipulation in advertising. That was the stuff advertisers were putting in ads that didn’t register on your consciousness, but — hopefully — subconsciously affected your behavior. There was a law about doing anything as overt as editing theatrical movies. That’s where a film would be edited, inserting a single frame of an image of popcorn or a soft drink. This image would go by so fast, the viewer never consciously saw it. But in theory, the viewer would get a craving to go to the refreshment stand and buy stuff. Years of psychological research have pretty well proved that subliminal advertising is less than effective (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subliminal_stimuli ) — at least if you’re not already predisposed.
But back then, the advertising companies were pouring a lot of money into the idea. Because of that law, though, they couldn’t be obvious about it. So tricks like airbrushing vague and not-so vague images into the larger images in print ads became common. When I was researching the subject, I would look at an ad, and something in my subconscious would twitch. That was the signal to start looking for the hidden images. My personal fave was the booze ad that had what looked to be a guy in a suit looking up at a noose in the ice cubes. Coincidence? Not likely. Overt enough to get challenged in court? Nope. Not that, either.
I tell you this because there’s something really similar going on with slanting a news article. The best way to manipulate people is through the use of strong adverbs and adjectives. If you believe in what the author is ‘selling,’ you won’t even notice them. They will slide under your radar. If you disagree, they’re going to piss you off. But odds are, you won’t know why. That’s because it’s a kind of subliminal, even though it’s right there in plain sight.
For example, ‘Police shoot suspect’ vs. ‘Police brutally shoot suspect.’ One word and it colors everything. Even if the rest of the article is straight news, the biases have been activated, and they will color your perception of the story. Some of these word choices can be ham handed (like ‘brutally’), others can be subtle. If you already think the cops are oppressors, enforcers of the power elite or just ignorant knuckle draggers on power trips, then ‘brutally’ is going to reconfirm your bias. To the point that you think ‘brutally’ is part of the news. If you’re a cop (or related to one), the insult has been given and the conclusion made that it’s not going to be a fair and accurate reporting of the event. We are emotionally swayed by one adverb.
That’s an obvious example, but a lot of times use of adjectives and adverbs is more subtle. So subtle, in fact, this manipulation can be seen where something is mentioned and not mentioned. Like the Newsweek article I read that insisted on identifying every Republican senator as Republican each time that person was mentioned. Conversely, the political affiliation of Democratic senators was only mentioned in passing — if at all. The article read like this: Senator John Smith and Senator John Doe (R) are in disagreement over this issue.
This may not sound like much, but think of it in terms of tribalism. That (R) is a scarlet letter. It’s not a senator, it’s one of THOSE people. The only real senators are the ones of your party. The (R) basically means every Democratic reader presupposes that Senator John Doe is wrong for disagreeing with their good guy, John Smith.
Train yourself to be sensitive to adverbs and adjectives. This, whether you agree with them or not. The ones you agree with are the hardest to spot. Yet they also are the most important ones for you to start recognizing. Unless, of course, your definition of being intelligent and informed is “I allow myself to be emotionally manipulated and drink the Kool-Aid.”
Hot button words and phrases — Let’s just start with two big ones here in the U.S. — liberal and conservative. You just mention either of these terms and the brains of a lot of folks — if they’re in an MRI machine — will light up like a pinball machines. Thing is, you don’t need an MRI to see that glazed-over, emotional, dogmatic expression creep over someone’s face when those parts of the brain kick in.
There are a lot more hot buttons than just those two. Thing about hot button words or phrases is they have a lot of attached baggage, history and cant. No, I didn’t leave out an apostrophe. Cant can be used as a noun or a verb, but both refer to “hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious or political nature.” Using hot button words kicks people into their monkey brains. That’s where not only cant seems reasonable, but you get all kinds of presuppositions and dogma attached.
Racism, sexism, education, discrimination, sexual harassment, feminism, domestic violence, abortion, global warming, climate change, creationism vs. evolution, peaceful protest and oppression — all are hot button words and phrases. You can think of these as the new cry to holy war. These, in fact, have become new ‘religions’ for many folks. People react to these terms with a fever that eclipses their reaction to religion in our modern, Western world.
But even if someone isn’t a true believer, he or she will react emotionally to these hot button terms. Usually because they’ve been burned by them. Negative experience comes in three basic forms. One is being attacked by someone using this rhetoric (e.g., getting torn into by a social harpy for daring to question the dogma of these new religions). Two is having been accused and hauled before the inquisitors. Three, they’re the inquisitors swinging into action to protect the company from possible legal action from such an allegation.
Yeah, funny how we’re too smart to act this way about religion anymore. But we will react over these new causes. Pretty much anytime these phrases are used, people’s rational minds shut down and their brains go into the emotional patterns the MRI reveals. Knowing this, learn to spot hot button terms and pay close attention to how fast they show up (like in the headline or lead [first] paragraph of an article).
Name calling — Closely related to adjectives, but it is a far more direct and open attack. You may say to yourself — if you’re edjamukated — “Ah an ad hominen.” While name calling is often used as a logical fallacy, an ad hominem is ‘His points are invalid because he’s a douchebag.’ Name calling is just calling him a douchebag.
A lot of attacks go hand in glove with hot button terms. For example, calling a particular politician a racist or a socialist. These are vague, unsubstantiated accusations, not facts. Yet our tribal monkey will grab onto them as proof of why we shouldn’t like this person (we’ll come back to this point later).
Still other terms are just flat out insults, accusations, condemnations or judgments. Take, for example, calling someone ‘ignorant.’ Here’s a good one from the icon of the warm and fuzzy, Mahatma Ghandi: “Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you.”
By implication, anyone who disagrees with your ‘version of truth’ (we’ll get to that in a second) is ignorant. It also isn’t just a disagreement with what you are saying, it’s a personal condemnation of you for being you, as well. That’s what those evil bastards are about. They are out to get you, to punish you. Aside from the paranoia and self-righteousness, look at what else is happening. Without having to bother with actually proving that your idea works, you’re right, they’re wrong. Those ignorant meanies. They deserve what they get. (Quick, can you spot the tribal monkey? Name calling is a big step in the process.)
“Well, it isn’t an attack if it’s the truth” is the most common form of self-justification for this behavior. No, it’s an attack, plain and simple. If you have to figure out a justification as to why it isn’t — like telling yourself that it’s ‘the truth’ without proof — you’re in your emotional monkey brain. You are doing exactly what the Emory study demonstrated.
That brings us to the next two forms of bias.
Moralistic and ‘right or wrong’ judgment — If you judge things from the standard of right or wrong, most of what you are doing is subjective interpretation. Not just based on cultural paradigms, but your own beliefs, biases and ingrained assumptions.
A lot of people do this as a kind of mental shorthand to get through life. In many ways, it follows the old saying, “A conclusion is where most people get tired of thinking.” Here’s the booger about that, a moral judgment allows you not to think about the complexities of the subject anymore. Or if you do, it’s just to reconfirm your bias. This, whether your judgment is good or bad. It’s black and white. You’ve made a judgment, you’re right, they’re wrong. That’s that.
Take, for example, gay marriage. If you judge it to be wrong, you get to shut down your brain and take a vacation from actually looking at the complexities of the issues that arise from real life, e.g., legal status, insurance, heath care decisions, inheritance and all the other matters that are addressed by two-person unions in our society. If you judge it to be right, you get to feel morally superior, smarter, and more compassionate and understanding than those ignorant wretches who oppose it on religious grounds. (Yep, I just demonstrated name calling. But, more than that, did you noticed that being judgmental and righteous is a two-way street?)
Now this version of spin is seldom overtly stated as “we’re right, they’re wrong.” But it serves as an underlying foundation of a lot of editorials and blogs. It even serves as the foundation of the Ghandi quote. Use of hot button (and judgmental) terms such as ‘truth’ and ‘correct’ flat out ignore the fact they are more subjective than we’d like to believe.
How subjective? For example, in the West, the way many Muslim cultures treat women is considered wrong and oppressive. Yet, when approached with the idea of change, many Muslim women resist because they think their cultural values are true and correct.
Pay close attention to our inclination to be judgmental rather than rational. It opens the door for all kinds of manipulation by people who know how to exploit this tendency. Make no mistake, there are folks whose profession it is to manipulate your tribal monkey along these lines.
Idealistic appeal to compassion or superior values — This has become the new form of moral superiority. Believing you’re morally superior because you worship the right god (or the correct version) is soooooo old school. Now, if you don’t support the right social cause, attempt to save the world or hold certain ideals, you’re wrong, ignorant or part of the problem. In other words, the person who does ascribe to them is better than you. Don’tcha know?
Man, I am so going to lose sleep over the fact I’m not socially conscious enough.
The thing is, we, as humans, are designed to care for and cooperate with those inside our tribe. Outside our tribe, not so much. This creates some stress within our modern lifestyle.
On one hand, our modern world is based on getting past this small tribal attitude, getting together and working with others to form a bigger tribe. (Hint: The concept of ‘nationalism’ didn’t come about until the French Revolution.)
On the other hand, many people have trouble with how far some folks are willing to take the idea that we’re all one big happy family that needs to care for each other. Just how big is this uber-tribe supposed to be? Where do we draw the line? For example, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)and old school ecologists would have you believe animals and trees are in your tribe, too. That’s what using the term ‘murdering’ implies. They’ll tell you we’re murdering animals and trees. That is their ‘truth.’ (Beginning to see why truth can be so subjective?)
The human tendency to show compassion can be exploited. It’s bias if there’s an underlying assumption that you have to support an idea because it’s for the ‘good of the children,’ will help society or the cause opposes something that is wrong (e.g., racism, inequality of wealth, etc.) If you don’t support these noble ideals, you’re an insensitive, unenlightened prick — who’s probably part of the problem. See how fast name calling and tribalism show up?
You also can get a target painted on your chest if you suggest that maybe — just maybe — there should be a few practical checks and balances put onto the ‘solutions’ these folks are suggesting. How could you be so cold-hearted not to approve unlimited funding for this ‘crisis?’ Or from the flip side, not willing to give unchecked power and money to protect our ‘way of life.’
You should know this is a real common tactic when it comes to shutting down discussion on the practical considerations of where such noble attitudes will lead. For example, ‘education is for the good of the children.’ How good, how noble, how virtuous. How dare you ask about financial oversight, disclosure and accountability as to how the money is going to be used by the school system. If you want to get caught in the dragon’s flame suggest that someone is making a career out of educational crisis.
As you can guess, appealing to noble and virtuous ideals is a core element in editorials and blogs. As is condemning those who don’t support the source’s particular version of what constitutes ‘compassion’ or patriotic and virtuous ideals.
Creative editing of quotes or video — “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Heard it. Know it. Right?
Ever heard the full quote? “Under men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.” Not even a period, but a comma divides the qualifier from the rest of the quote. Folks must presuppose they’re ‘entirely great’ to drop that important qualifier. Personally, I’m under no such delusion. I’d really rather go into a fight with a sword instead of a pen, but that’s just me.
In the media, you can really make someone seem like a horrible, evil wretch by taking a quote out of context or only quoting part of what he or she said. That’s also the problem with sound bites, you don’t always get the bigger picture.
For example, if I take a sound bite and throw in a lot of adjectives, adverbs, hot button words and appeal to your superior social consciousness, I can make anybody sound like a racist. This is important because if that person is from another tribe (or political party), you’ll immediately believe it — especially if your tribe has negative beliefs about the others. You may not even know the person, but, because he or she is from the other tribe, you’ll buy the racist allegation hook, line and sinker.
I mentioned painting a public figure as racist because of a comment he or she made. Two points about that.
First, realistically, if you look at these *cough, cough* news stories, what you will find is the specific comment made by the candidate, and the rest of the story will be quotes from people saying he or she is racist. That, and the outrage and furor such people are causing. Ninety-nine percent of the story isn’t about what the person said, it’s about the outrage. You might find a story that is 98 percent because it includes the public figure clarifying or apologizing. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if the source is hunting that person’s scalp.
Second is my response to my conservative friends who tell me Obama is a socialist. “I don’t personally know the man, so I don’t know that for sure.” It’s true. I don’t know the guy. I’ve never had a chance to sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk about what either of us believe. As such, everything I hear about him being a socialist is hearsay. Usually by people who don’t like the guy. (Oh yeah, this works both ways. It’s easy for his supporters to call his detractors racist. Although all the detractors I’ve personally dealt with are way more up tight about his being a Democrat than his race.) Stop and think about this behavior from folks who are posting blog pieces about candidates being racists or closet communists. And hearsay and blogs being accepted as truth by tribal monkeys.
Half quotes and a lot of opining by people who weren’t actually there (or know the person) are real common ways to present bias as ‘news.’
In these days of cameras in phones and Youtube, you’re also going to see a video version of edited information. What you will see is only the most exciting parts. That is to say, the parts that will get you emotional, excited and direct your thinking down a certain path (especially if the commentary is filled with adjectives, adverbs and outrage).
I’ll go back to the old days and talk about the Rodney King beating. The ‘beating video’ lasts about a minute-and-a-half. All you see is one dude getting a beat down from the cops. It is infuriating. The full video … well, that’s kind of interesting. Modern sources talk about it being nine or 12 minutes But I — who was living in LA during the incident, the trial, the riots and the federal trials — seem to remember it as 18 minutes.
I often say about the first trial that the jury saw the whole tape (which they did). By the end of it, they were saying, “Give me the club, I’m going to beat him myself!” (This is hyperbole, but they didn’t convict the officers.)
Not too many people have actually seen the full tape. Nor do they understand use of force policies. As fucked up as that situation was, there is a reason the officers were acquitted. At the time, that was use of force policy for the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department (incidentally, it’s one of the many reasons why I don’t like PPCT). Tasers had failed. A chokehold could have ended it much earlier, but those had been prohibited by the LAPD since Ron Sutter. Shooting him wasn’t justified. Did you notice I just gave you more factual information about why the officers were acquitted than you’ve probably ever heard before? And since I’m clarifying things, the federal charges were not about excessive force and assault, but civil rights. So technically it wasn’t double jeopardy. (Although we can argue about it being politically motivated and placating people who demanded punishment for the ‘wrong’ — there’s that idea again — the officers did.)
The full clip, information about use of force policies and suddenly the acquittal makes more sense. That short video mixed with the officer acquittal, however, resulted in Los Angeles burning. The rioters had made their minds up based on edited information.
Whenever you see a video clip, the first thing you want to do is look for adjectives and hot button terms in the title or the explanation. What is this person trying to sell you as the ‘truth’ that the clip supposedly proves? While you’re at it, the first time you watch it, do it with the sound off. This, especially with cell phone camera footage. Often the commentary of the filmer is emotional and slanted.
Then ask yourself, what parts of the video are not being shown? If you really want to be daring, try finding the longest recording you can of the incident. You’d be amazed at how often the full video undermines the ‘poor, sweet, innocent victim’ image you get from the short clip.
This brings us to the next grouping on our list of spinning the facts, slants and agendas.
Exclusion, editing of salient points and pertinent facts — This isn’t just ‘my mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.’ I’m talking about legitimate and arguably intentional exclusion by the source of information pertinent to the issue.
Let’s talk about health care. Let’s talk about the ‘value of human life’ in nuts-and-bolts terms. How much money should we spend to save a specific life? When it’s someone you love, the sky’s the limit. It also can be when you’re the one with the fatal disease. Then, no amount of money is too much. The same goes if you’re an uber-tribalist (we’re all one ‘family’). But when you’re talking about unlimited spending for hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens that can get a little pricey. That is something that doesn’t come up in the ‘for’ arguments, but it certainly comes up in the arguments ‘against.’ When it does or someone attempts to limit expenditures, he or she is accused of trying to kill people in the name of greed.
If a source is for (or against) something, information that would weaken that position will be left out of what he or she is telling you. You can pretty much take that to the bank. This is a very good reason to read sources that are diametrically opposed to your normal perspective. If you’re a liberal, try watching Fox. If you’re a conservative, try reading the New York Times. If you can get past the name calling and adjectives each uses against your cherished ideals, you’ll find a lot of information on the issue that your regular sources aren’t reporting.
Guilt by association — This is particularly common in politics. First recognize an important point: Just because you disagree with the standards of a group doesn’t mean the right of its members to vote should be stripped away. Nor does it mean that politicians have no business listening or talking to them. They too are U.S. citizens. A political office holder is duty bound to represent and work for the needs of everyone, not just those who voted for him.
Second, when you hear the condemnation, accusations and disgust expressed by pundits, bloggers and opinion piece writers over a politician talking to or being supported by an organization, you’re seeing guilt by association. Usually association with a group that is synonymous with a hot button term. This is the justification to dismiss, condemn and despise the candidate who dares to oppose your good, just and noble candidate. I remember the sense of outrage that certain circles felt because the mayor met with gang representatives over a police shooting. Oddly enough, the same folks who strongly support the idea of a mayor talking to gang members are in turn outraged and disgusted when the American Nazis and the Klu Klux Kan support a candidate. And oh mah gawd, what if he belongs to a religion I don’t approve of?
Glittering generalities — This is both a big warning signal and a common tactic. The term ‘glittering generality’ is one my wife coined. We all know what a generality is, but a glittering one is that which sounds good, but has no real substance.
Glittering generalities work because everyone thinks they know what they mean. This functions on what I like to call ‘framework thinking.’ That means someone is saying something that is actually very vague, but you to fill in the details about what you think he means.
A good example is ‘it’s for the children.’ Another one is ‘Christian values.’ (Sorry, folks, but there are more than 3,000 different sects of Christianity with many different values, ethics, ways of worship and beliefs.) But you use these terms and people just eat them up. To each of these terms, we ascribe our own values, significance and meaning. So the guy who is using such terms is framing the house, but you add the plumbing, electric, drywall, etc., etc., all the while thinking he’s the one who built it.
Once again, the hardest bias to spot is your own. This, especially when it comes to the details you fill in on someone else’s glittering generality. Be a pest, ask the person to actually define what he means by his statements. This, instead of his expecting you to do all the work of figuring out what he means.
Criticism instead of complaint — A complaint is a legitimate communication about a specific injury or wrong. It is communication about something that can be remedied. A criticism is a generalized condemnation and a personal attack. It’s not seeking to fix a particular problem, it’s about blaming the other person for … well … everything. It’s not about what a person did, it’s about him or her in an overall sense of being wrong. While it may be initiated on a particular subject or quote, it quickly leaves that and becomes both condemning and generalized, e.g., you always do (fill in the blank). There is nothing the person can do about it. The condemnation is now and forever.
Some criticisms become so entrenched and dogmatic that a hot button term is all it takes. If the person is a known liberal or conservative, pointing that out isn’t news. Calling him that is being used as a condemnation and criticism — at least to people from the other tribes.
Think I’m making this up? ‘Conservative icon Rush Limbaugh.’ Does anyone over 5 years old not know who he is? Why does he need to be identified and labeled? If you buy into the liberal camp, one hot button word and noun (icon) not only condemns everything he has to say, but also the retards who listen to him. (The irony of that is how much he uses the same techniques to trigger folk’s monkey brain reactions about ‘liberals.’) I don’t have to criticize someone for being a narrow-minded, bigoted, greedy bastard — all I have to do is sneer when I say, “He’s a conservative.”
Another subtle version of criticism is the source ascribing results or motives. Usually these are subtly negative and tacked on at the end of facts. For example: The (fill in the blank) in the House are attempting to pass (insert bill number), which will cost American taxpayers millions. That is a fact followed by a criticism disguised as a fact. Realistically anything congress does is going to cost a few million dollars, so why this caveat except to criticize? Same thing goes for ‘(fill in the blank) are attempting to control the House.’ Obviously it’s wrong when the other side tries to do it, but right that your side is doing the same thing.
Hyperbole and grandiosity — I recently read an article in a Canadian newspaper about a trial in Ontario involving a Afghan family members committing multiple honor killings. The article started with a bit of hyperbole. Speaking about the trial not just as a battle between Western jurisprudence and Sharia law, the so-called ‘news source’ declared the jury “held the moral fabric of Canada in their hands.” When I mentioned the adjectives and adverbs, the person who sent me the link admitted that the Edmonton Sun was famous for that kind of hyperbole.
The situation was screwed up in all kinds of ways. First, there was polygamy involved (one of the deceased was the father’s first wife). Second, four people were killed. Third, the ‘wife’ who was killed was in the country illegally. Fourth, all of her daughters also were killed by the father’s other family. (Kinda financially convenient, eh?) I’m not entirely sure how Canadian law works, but I’m pretty sure even with a conviction, there is the right of appeal to higher courts. As such, the fate of the nation isn’t a decision made by 12 people not smart enough to get out of jury duty. It was, however, a pretty solid murder conviction. But c’mon, one decision that saved an entire country? Much less that the verdict was — and I quote — an ‘heroic’ stand against ‘the cold-blooded and twisted customs of foreign lands.’ That’s a little over the top, don’tcha think?
Hyperbole and grandiosity are closely related to another point that’s coming. But this particular story has something that is pretty unique unto itself. If you live in Edmonton or even Alberta, you know the Sun is pretty ‘tabloidish.’ Except this ‘news’ story was sent to me, not only over the Internet, but posted on my Facebook page as ‘news.’ In short, I had no way of knowing if the Sun was a legitimate news source, a supermarket rag or an e-zine. The use of adverbs, adjectives and hyperbole tipped me off that the story wasn’t straight news. And surprise, surprise, even the Edmonton Sun filed it under op/ed. Still I had to research the tabloid nature of the paper. How many ‘news’ items you receive over the Internet do you actually check to see if they are news, a feature, op/ed or blogs? Or do you just assume it’s actual news?
Freight train thinking — There is an old story about a famous ‘rocket scientist,’ who went to speak at one of the big technology schools. (I’ve heard both MIT and Cal Tech cited.) After his lecture, there came the usual question-and-answer period. Those of you old enough to have lived through this will understand the following: A gender feminist stood up and ‘asked,’ given the male fixation with their penises, isn’t it obvious that rockets are built in the shape of men’s biggest obsession? The lecturer responded, “We tried to make rockets in the shape of vaginas, but they weren’t aerodynamically sound.”
Some say that story is apocryphal, others say it actually happened to (insert scientist’s name here). Still others say it is an outright lie to make feminism look bad. (Three guesses who says this.) That’s not the point, the point is this story represents a good example of what I like to call ‘freight train thinking.’
That is where someone tries to attach hot button topics to everything. This can be a Johnny One Note or it can be someone who tries to attach everything — including the kitchen sink — to a subject. Let’s stick with the Johnny One Note because he’s easier to explain. With such folks, the entire universe is filtered through one perspective. It’s not that it always comes back to the topic. It’s that this particular person is incapable of ever leaving the subject. As Winston Churchill once said a “fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
The seeming credibility of the vagina-shaped rocket story comes from not just our tendency to want to think badly of those from another tribe, but also bad personal experiences with Johnny One Notes of the RadFem persuasion. (Or maybe I should say Jenny One Notes).
Odds are good you’ve met someone who does freight train thinking. Someone who always manages to bring it back to the same old thing by attaching it to every subject. What you may not realize is how much freight train thinking plays in the business of blogs, media commentators and show hosts. You see it all the time, but, unless you’re aware of it, you won’t even notice it. And this is kind of scary because it’s become a staple in so-called ‘news.’
In what turned out to be rather predictive about the direction the electronic media was heading, James Fallows in his 1997 book, Breaking The News, talks about the requirements of constantly staying in front of the public eye. Although he doesn’t refer to it as such, the person in front of the camera (or the blogger) needs to develop a ‘shtick.’ For those of you who don’t speak Yiddish, a shtick is a theme or gimmick that specifically identifies a comic (e.g., Ron White with his cigar and bourbon or Gabriel Iglesias’s voices).
In essence, nobody can be an expert on everything. Furthermore, you can’t really research a subject thoroughly in one day, much less actually investigate it. There are certain topics that take years of study before you can talk intelligently about the complexities and variables. Yet this person needs to appear informed by airtime.
At the same time, we have become used to 24-hour-a-day news and accustomed to googling news stories we hear about. In short, if we want to know about something — even if it’s breaking news — we expect to have the information immediately. That source better be on it or we’ll go elsewhere.
These two factors play heavily into both the shtick media personalities must develop and freight train thinking. Constantly remaining in the public view while maintaining the ‘credibility’ of being informed and intelligent is no easy task. This is especially true when you are expected to opine intelligently on whatever issue is involved in the current breaking news.
One way to do this — and why the term shtick is appropriate — is through comedy. No matter what is occurring, a few witty remarks about it, and people will think you’re informed, intelligent and up-to-date with current events. Bill Maher, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brian and Johnny Carson are examples of this.
Another way of doing this is to always have a shtick to come back to no matter what the subject. A shtick that is pretty much freight train thinking because it attaches itself to the subject and takes it a particular direction. For example, no matter what the issue, the question of “how will the White House respond to this crisis?” will fill air time and make the commentator look intelligent and concerned. That’s the media celebrity’s shtick.
The freight train thinking is that it’s the White House’s problem in the first place. Then comes the whole Democrat/Republican tribal thing and whether you hate or love the current administration. That’s the beauty of freight train thinking when it’s done subtly, you’re the one who attaches all the extra ‘cars’ onto the train. What you don’t notice is how, with this commentator, it always comes back to the same old hot button issue or ideal.
Freight train thinking also can come in the form of attaching all kinds of other hot button issues and ideas to confuse the issue. Train yourself to be aware of both when you’re doing it and when it’s being done to you.
Logical fallacies — At last, the final item on the list. Except there is a thundering herd of different logical fallacies.
It is a subject that is well worth acquainting yourself with because you’ll see these a lot in the media, on the Internet and in the words of someone trying to persuade you. I’m particularly fond of referring people to the Nizkor Project ( http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/ ) for an simplified explanation of an often complex subject. In fact, once you’ve acquainted yourself with them take a look at this article again and see if you can spot how they relate to spinning facts and information (e.g., name calling is a Siamese twin to an ad hominen).
Let’s just deal with three of the most common to give you a taste: Strawman — Here’s a hint, never ‘learn’ what someone’s position is from that person’s opponent. In other words, do not think you are going to get an accurate interpretation of the Democratic or Republican platform from the Republicans or Democrats. What you will be receiving is a distorted, twisted and edited version so that side can knock the bejeebers out of it. The stomping of the distorted version is known as a strawman argument. (Socrates was good at this.) It’s the intellectual equivalent of kicking a cripple, after you’ve crippled him.
Slippery slope — I also like to call this ‘rock slide’ thinking. This tiny little pebble — if thrown down the mountain side — will cause a rock slide of biblical proportions, crushing the tiny hamlet of Western civilization. Sound like hyperbole? That’s what slippery slope thinking is. If we allow this one tiny issue to occur, the world as we know it will end. Really. Truly. It will happen if we allow this behavior or we don’t stop this bill from passing.
Take, for example, all the gunfights that will constantly happen in the streets with the passage of legislation that makes it easier to get concealed carry permits. Not seen any lately? Too bad. Because that was the slippery slope argument that was used against concealed carry. If people were allowed to carry handguns, our streets would turn into the Wild West.
Appeal to fear — A lot could be said about how our society has been conditioned to be afraid. Fear is an emotion. Emotional people are easy to manipulate. If I trigger your fears, you’ll pretty much agree to anything, including my sending you at someone else like a wind-up pit bull (or agreeing to someone else doing it).
Now that’s rather ham handed. But there are lots of other, far more subtle fears to which I can appeal. For example, if I start telling you about all the deaths and brain injuries of children riding bicycles, I really don’t have to sell you on buying a child’s helmet from me. You’ll sell yourself.
Those are only three, there are lots more logical fallacies you’ll learn to recognize.
I know this has been a long article, but, like pretty much anything involving human beings, it’s a complicated subject. A subject that many of us just want to be simple. We’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys. We’re right, they’re wrong. How much more complicated can it be?
The answer is lots.
Our desire to simplify life and revert to tribal ‘rules’ and beliefs makes it easy for us to be manipulated. Make no mistake, media, advertising and politics are professionals at manipulating you. It’s their job, so to speak. And the most effective type of manipulation not only works with how our brains are designed to function, but also plays with getting you to think you are thinking.
Take this information and start looking for the biases, slants, manipulation and out right spin doctoring of anything being sent your way. You’ll start seeing it everywhere, even in things you believe in. That’s an important step in actually communicating with and compromising with people who believe differently than you.
This, instead of acting like a bunch of pissed off tribal monkeys screaming and throwing shit at each other from different trees.