Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

May 4, 2022

Everybody Lies


  First, let me say I'm aware that I make things up for a living, so writing about lying is a little hypocritical. But I don't pretend that what I say is real, and that's the difference. Everyone in our society is bombarded with lies all day, every day. We're used to it. Sometimes we even enjoy it.

When analysts dig into why people believe lies, they find all sorts of explanations. Confirmation bias means we like things that reinforce what we already believe, so we accept lies that help with that. Many like leaders or organizations that tell them what to think, so they don't have to reason things out for themselves. If that leader lies, at least he's tough. If the organization runs to propaganda, at least it's working for "our" benefit. Another big reason we believe lies is fear. If we don't think we can cope with X, we like it when someone promises that X won't happen, even if we know in our hearts that it isn't true. Conversely, if the leader/organization says X will happen if he/it isn't in control, or if we're told the problem doesn't really exist, we want to believe that too. Life is less scary that way.

There are other theories about why we believe lies, but you get the idea. All sorts of psychological factors figure in. But here's an idea I haven't seen discussed before. What if we believe lies because we expect them? From the first day we can understand language, we're lied to. It's called advertising, and it's a billion-dollar industry. Advertising is expected and even respected as a necessary tool of business. Soft lies and hard lies, ads are built on convincing us something is true that probably isn't.

You're a consumer. It's your job to figure out what they're trying to do to your head.

Recognize the (sometimes subtle) messaging. "Is it true blonds have more fun?" a slogan from the olden days, played on women's desire to be attractive. Ads hint that you'll have more friends or be more admired if you buy this car or drink this vodka. The reverse is also true. They hint that NOT using a product will devastate your social life: bad breath, stinky pits, frizzy hair...the list of social "sins" is endless, and we rush out to buy products to "protect" us from ostracism.

Look past the hype. How likely is it that Pillow X is the best in the world? How much do you really care about which beer you drink? Do you really need that phone plan with bells and whistles you'll probably never use?

Note the background imaging. It's no mistake that while the drug company spokesperson is reading you that looooooong list of possible side effects, there are people on the screen doing fun things with family and friends in peaceful, scenic settings. It's called distraction.

Reject endorsements. Advertisers can always find someone who'll endorse a product if the money's right. I get very angry when celebrities push products, and my husband gets tired of me shouting "Whore!" at the TV.  How much would you bet that Actor X doesn't know jack about reverse mortgages? And if his old car broke down, wouldn't Rapper Y simply get a new, flashier one?

Note the wording. "Nine out of ten doctors surveyed would recommend this product." How many doctors actually answered their survey? Were they given some incentive to respond positively? How was the question worded? As Mark Twain said, "Gather your statistics, and then distort them as much as you please."

If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Recently, a friend slapped her midsection and told me, "I gotta get rid of this, so I ordered some pills I saw on TV. You take one every night, and they dissolve your belly fat." Sometimes we want to believe so badly, it takes almost no effort to persuade us. But take a moment before you order the exercise machine the people on the screen seem to be enjoying so darned much. Picture yourself using it for even half an hour every day, for months. Is that ever going to happen? (Hint: For the vast majority of us, the answer is no.)

What does all this have to do with lies we're told outside the world of advertising? All our lives, we've been bombarded with advertising that lies to us, so we expect lies in other spheres. I hear people dismiss political discourse with, "They're all liars." It's become an excuse to turn our backs and not listen, not analyze, not vote. But in the face of politicians' lies (sometimes attributable to hyperbole or exaggeration or even wishful thinking), our job is to dissect what's said and separate what's true from what's false, what's possible from what's improbable. 

We've all fallen prey to advertisers' lies and bought products that didn't deliver. If we became wiser about how we spend our money, that's a good result. It follows then, that if everybody in our political system lies, our job is to look past the hype and find who has real value and who is all smoke and mirrors.

You're a citizen. It's your job to figure out what they're trying to do to your head.


Jan 18, 2021

I Too Lie for a Living

 Her Highness' First Murder (A Simon & Elizabeth Mystery Book 1) by [Peg Herring] 

Novelists are liars. As one of my contemporaries likes to say, "We make shit up."

The bad part of lying is why you do it.

For writers, it's about entertaining readers. Fiction in a story is harmless in most cases, though I get frustrated with historical novelists who twist facts to suit their story. They don't care if readers (who aren't generally historical experts) conclude that so-and-so wasn't really the villain the history books portray but was actually kind of a pussycat. 

Outside of books, lies take on a more treacherous role. We grew up bombarded daily with commercial advertising, and while some of us learned to think through the hype, others buy products they have no need for because they succumb to the tricks liars play. When I taught high school, I asked students to dissect ads looking for two things: what the specific goal is and how the ad makes its appeal. Often advertisers trigger a person's insecurities so they'll buy a product. (Beauty products are great examples.) Other products sell a vision of what people think will be a better life. Generally, the less essential/healthful a product is, the happier the scenery/actors/activity will be in the ad. (Think car companies, beer, and fast food restaurants.)

One would think that after a lifetime of that, modern citizens would easily recognize lies in politics, but recent times indicate exactly the opposite. Just as people run out to buy products that won't make them irresistible or purchase one more self-help app that's sure to fix their lives, large numbers of voters swallow complete untruths without bothering to fact check what's been said.

As I said earlier, lying in a novel is fairly harmless. Lying to sell a political candidate or idea isn't. Since it's hard to police falsehoods, the burden of finding the truth falls mostly on the consumer. When you read my books, I don't expect you to believe that Elizabeth Tudor solved murders with a commoner named Simon. It's an entertaining dive into the idea of "What if...?" 

When you go to the store, you don't have to buy products that claim to make you wiser, cuter, or more popular. You can think it through. You can look it up. (Try typing "Are some eggs better than others?" into the search bar and discover the answer. You might save yourself a few bucks.)

Most of all, you don't have to believe what any politician or analyst tells you. A few minutes on the internet, checking a variety of sites and reading objective analysis is a great way to counteract the lies that have plunged our nation into chaos. (Hint: if an article uses terms like "lying Republicans" or "socialist Democrats," it isn't going to help you find the truth.) Read the actual words a speaker used, not the edited version, not the slanted opinion that some commentator attaches to it. 

It's time to grow up and learn that lies should be tolerated only in fiction.


Mar 26, 2018

It's Not What You Think, It's How You Present It

I was a debater back in the day. Our high school team was very successful, thanks in large part to a coach who knew argumentation and demanded we learn to do it correctly. I went on to college debate and more coaches who taught me how logical argument must go. In its most basic form a point of debate should:
1. State your position clearly
2. Explain your position
3. Support your position with evidence
4. Restate your position in a brief, easily remembered form

That's why Facebook makes me crazy.

Today's social media allows for arguments so weak they'd be laughable if our society weren't in peril because of them. These arguments are tossed into the public forum from the highest levels of our government down to the lowest levels of education, people who can't even spell the word argue.
Not only are pathetically weak arguments presented, but when someone responds, that weak argument usually descends into name calling and insults. Here are a few examples of bad technique.

Generalization: When someone says "You liberals" or "All Republicans," they're assuming the groups are completely in agreement. If you're paying the slightest attention to what people say, that obviously isn't true. Every group has a range of opinions within its membership. Still, it's convenient to dismiss a whole group at once. Wrong, but convenient.

Simplification: Taking an argument down to This or That is almost always wrong. The abortion issue, for example, has lots of facets, different ways we could go about solving the problem of unwanted pregnancies, but it almost always gets down to "Baby Killers" vs "Abusers of Women's Rights." Though we don't like to admit it, most problems aren't black and white. They're complicated, and the answers don't come from screaming at each other across picket lines or media posts.

Whataboutism: Arguments about current behavior of a public figure often go off the rails when someone says, "Well, what about when X did Y?" That's the technique you used as a kid to deflect Mom's anger when you broke her vase. "Well, Bobby kicked the dog yesterday." I'm guessing it didn't work then either, but we love to point the finger at someone else when we're wrong.

Iknewsomebodyism: Everyone who argues for or against welfare cites examples to "prove" that welfare recipients are either saved by or abuse the system. Now there are real figures that show precisely what welfare does and doesn't do, and how it affects the nation. We'd rather look at the two families we know personally who live off the government or that one little old lady who'd have died without Meals on Wheels. Similarly, whenever a new shooter kills a bunch of people, arguers (including news media) rush to "prove" he demonstrates their favorite theory: Muslims are violent, white men are all repressed nuts, etc. On any topic, one example doesn't prove anything.

Namecalling: When all else fails, you win the argument by attacking your opponent, right? Wrong. You might see respondents fall away from your posts (except the bots who get paid to keep things going) but it's because they, unlike you, recognize that the last defense of a defeated debater is personal attack, and BTW, the more obscene your terminology, the weaker your argument was in the first place. No matter how much you despise a person or group, your feelings don't make their evidence incorrect, and no matter how much you admire someone, he or she can be wrong.

There are more bad ways to argue, and I'm aware that I won't convince people to stop using these techniques. Please recognize that the arguments above are amateurish and ineffective with those of us who think. In an actual debate, an opponent would smash them to bits, no matter what the topic was.

Then again, I'm reminded of what the secretly taped guy from Cambridge Analytica said: Truthfulness doesn't matter. You should go for people's feelings, not logic. In that case, today's online arguments are all exactly where those who hate America want them to be.

May 23, 2016

An Argument for Better Arguing

"But can't you see how wrong you are?"

Centuries ago, when I was in high school, I took up argumentation. I joined the debate team because my sister had done well there, and because the coach cornered me in the hallway and asked me to.

I loved it. Research, constructing cases, looking for weaknesses in the arguments of others, and organizing information so I could get at it easily. It might not sound like everyone's cup of tea, but it was certainly mine. I ended up ranked in the state and got a scholarship to college.

Debating in college was even more fun. The competition was tough, but we traveled to places I'd only read about and formed a close-knit group that loved to--you guessed it--argue. Play with language. One-up each other. Argue some more.

Debate is formal argument, and it doesn't bear much resemblance to the real-life version. One can try tossing out lies and false evidence, but the other team is likely to call her on it. [Great example: we once debated a team that based their whole case on a plan developed by the U.S. army. As they laid out their points, it sounded really good. However, my partner recognized the reference and went digging through her evidence cards. She was able to report from a later article that the army had abandoned the plan because it was flawed and unworkable. That pretty much ended that debate!]

In a formal debating situation, everyone is similarly armed with intelligence and background research. Results are decided by a judge who knows the subject, so there's little hope he or she will be fooled by tricks or displays of "personality." [Although we did have a judge once in college who gave us the win because he said it was pretty even as far as speaker points but we were dressed better.] In real life, people look for easy answers, don't do independent research, and stick with their beliefs even when the rest of the world thinks they're crazy to do so. To err is human, and we all do it.

Debaters often have to take both sides of an argument, which taught me that there is no "right" answer in most cases. Arguments can be made for just about anything, and tough subjects come down to emotional reactions we must all be aware of. Wise people look past their emotions and try to find truth. Not so wise people blame "them" for trouble and convince themselves that things would be better if we could just get rid of all those pesky _____ (Answers will vary).

One of the first things a debater learns is that she must listen to what the opponent says. Once she understands his arguments, she must apply logic and evidence to see where the weaknesses lie. You're going to build a wall. How will that get done? You're going to send everyone to college for free. Where will the money come from? You're going to overturn Citizens United. By what process? NOTE: Please don't write to explain those answers to me. I know what the candidates have said. I'm simply appalled by voters who think that when a person is President, he or she can just wave a wand and everything that was promised will happen. Um, Congress? Remember? Our legislative branch?

Listening and reasoning is a far cry from the screaming we see on TV and on social media. People talk past each other, belittling those who disagree with their views. Do we really think we can change anyone's mind by telling them they're stupid? Can we sway undecided voters by demeaning each other? Does anyone think the media isn't encouraging bad behavior and ridiculous statements? In most cases, their goal is to get people to watch/listen, not to create an informed electorate.

One of the most important things about competition debate was that we never engaged in personal attacks. Worse than useless (and very bad form); it was actually counterproductive. How much better would it be if we asked why a person supports a particular candidate and then talked calmly with him about it? He probably won't convince you to change your mind, but in the process of explaining his choice (if you don't get angry or uppity but just keep asking questions), he might be forced to admit there are weaknesses in his candidate's platform. Of course, he's likely to be prepared with his own ammunition, and you'll have to defend your choice, too. You'll have to admit to weaknesses on your side, because that's the way real life goes.

I'm heartily sick of politics, as is every thinking person I know. We need the process, I suppose, and we will go on as a nation no matter what happens, but I sure wish the American public would take some lessons from formal debate.

Sep 17, 2014

You Know What They Say about Opinions

Here's the G-rated version: "Opinions are like noses. Everybody has one."
America is a country that has long valued the right of each individual to have an opinion, and that's good. The problem comes when opinions are all a person has. Here's my take on the subject.
*A person's opinions should be based on evidence, and that evidence must be real. It's difficult--sometimes really difficult--to look at the evidence, read or listen across a range of information, and make a conscious decision as to what you think about a subject. It's often easier to take the word of someone you think is smart or knowledgeable or well-read on the topic. The problem is that his/her opinion might be just as misinformed or slanted as anyone else's. If all it took to be right is brains or education, there wouldn't be so much disagreement in the highest levels of government. As a debater in high school and college, I learned that it's essential to look at both sides of an argument and examine the strengths and weaknesses of the supporting evidence. It does make it harder to be a 100% supporter of any candidate or solution, but it makes you able to think for yourself, which to me is the best way to think.
*Opinions must be presented in a way that doesn't denigrate the opinions of others. I'm not an idiot if we disagree, just as I'm not a genius when we agree.
*Opinions must be open to discussion and possible change. Whether we like it or not, things don't stay the same, and insisting they should doesn't solve anything. We can't deal with our problems by wishing to go back to the way it used to be. In the first place, the past probably never was the way we like to remember it, and even if it were, it's gone. We must form opinions based on today's reality, not some hazy view of how it was back when we were ten. (There was a lot going on back then we either didn't see or didn't comprehend.)
That's my opinion on opinions. Not that it will change yours.

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