Sunday, March 18, 2012

Appeals to Prejudice in the Public Sphere

A number of stories that have captured a great deal of public and media attention have, upon examination, been demonstrated to be predicated on exaggeration or outright fabrication. Shocking? Not really - with the rise of the Internet it sometimes feels like exaggeration is at an all-time high, but it's nothing new.

I read fiction, as well as accounts that are "based on true stories" (a distinction from outright fiction that sometimes seems razor thin), and appreciate them for what they are. But when somebody claims that their story is factual, I think it is reasonable to expect that they are making a sincere effort to convey facts, not the "real truth behind the facts".

I believe that this is important not just out of a slavish devotion to truth, but in recognition of why certain stories resonate, whether or not they are true. When you hear a story that rings true, inspires a public reaction and perhaps even motivates change, but turns out to be false, it's possible to argue that the lie served a greater good. But let's remember, we don't all share the same prejudices. We don't all share the same conception of what serves the greater good. No matter what your perspective, if you sort through lies that gained public traction you won't only find progress. You'll find lies that appealed to the worst aspects of human nature and pulled society (or parts of society) backwards.

At Forbes, Tim Worstall presents a partial defense of Mike Daisey's fabrications about Foxconn and Apple,
Assuming that we know we’re being lied to in search of that emotional reaction to the truthiness then indeed, it is being done with integrity. The problem comes if we are assuming actual truth while the artist is presenting us only with emotional truth. When theatre is presented as journalism say.

I’d go further too: I’m not just OK with, I applaud, laud, attempts to manipulate those emotional reactions in pursuit of some larger truth. It is what the arts of rhetoric and persuasion are all about after all. I’ve not even got a problem with people telling outright lies in order to get people to pay attention to an important point about our world. As long as we then get to the next stage.... Yes, once we’ve been manipulated, once our emotions have been aroused so that we do in fact take an interest in the subject, then we have to put that emotion aside and start to think rationally. We need to turn to journalism, to facts and reality, so that we can decide what, if anything, we are to do about this subject that has now been called to our attention.
It's easier to take a step back from a creative narrative that highlights an important problem and say, "Now let's figure out what the actual facts are and find possible solutions," than it is to step back from something you already believe to be true and start looking, in essence, for facts that contradict your beliefs. (Confirmation bias.) The manner in which the story is presented is important both to how it will be perceived and how wedded people will become to the narrative.

When Daisey attacks sweatshop conditions, underage labor and industrial injury in a Foxconn assembly line, the story falls into a long line of "the horrors of sweatshops" exposés, and people are inspired by those stories to push for change. Many manufacturers have, in the past, improved working conditions in their global factories when it was revealed that they used child labor or had unsafe, unsanitary or cruel working conditions. You can argue that the investigation and introspection that resulted from Daisey's attacks is a good thing, but what was your reaction to the internal investigations that refuted him? A cover-up? And what is the likely impact of the deception upon future reports of poor work conditions? Absent hidden camera video, is it more or less likely that those reports will be taken seriously by the media or inspire significant public outrage - that is, if we endorse misinformation to draw attention to an issue we care about, aren't we risking a "boy who cried wolf" effect?

As for hidden camera video.... Let's give James O'Keefe some credit for finding a few ACORN workers whose reaction to his desire to be a pimp was anything but appropriate, and some genuine management deficits within the organization. But was it in the interest of the greater good, though, that through selective editing and implication, he misled people about the prevalence of the problems and the manner in which he obtained the information? If you're among the right-wing population that bought into the demonization of ACORN, the fact that the organization was taken down by accusations that were largely false is in the greater good of society.

For that matter, what about the misinformation that occurs in politics. When a politician running for national office starts prevaricating about Cadillac-driving welfare queens, or runs a "Willie Horton"-type ad, people react. Is that for the better of society? We get manipulated, our prejudices are triggered, our emotions are aroused, and... how do we then transition to "put[ting] that emotion aside and start[ing] to think rationally"? If we're among the people who matter - the people who are the targets of that type of misinformation campaign - we don't.

The media often does a poor job of explaining the facts, but that's only part of the story. Sometimes when you create a mythology, it takes on a life of its own and is highly resistant to correction based upon the facts. Take, for example, the huge population of Republicans who are wedded to various lies and misrepresentations about President Obama - you can smack them across the nose with a stack of birth certificates and all they'll see is a "cover-up". It doesn't help that some national political leaders who know better help advance the lies or dance around the issue, but even if you look to the efforts of more honorable politicians like John McCain to push back you can see that we're way past the point that the facts matter.

Worstall suggests that a public reaction to misinformation potentially opens the door to a reasoned discussion,
[N]ow that consciousness has been raised let’s have that discussion. The tragedy of Mike Daisey’s monologue is that by allowing his fable to be broadcast as factual he’s obscured, buried even, the very points that we should be discussing.
The difficulty with endorsing lies to raise public consciousness is that you are endorsing an approach that can work against the best interests of society, or of certain groups within a society, and which contributes to public cynicism about media and government. The problem with qualifying that with, "As long as we then get to the next stage" where we have a reasoned discussion of the issues is that you cannot know in advance if such a discussion will occur, with history suggesting that in most cases it either will not occur, will come too late, or will occur at such a low relative intensity that it has no significant impact on continued belief in the misrepresentation.


  1. You are a cancer, always kill cancer, never try to coexist with it. Kill it and then live in peace. Yeah, that makes sense since cancer seams, seems to have NO OBJECTIVE but pain and drama anyway.

    1. Well, you have the drama part down....

  2. Hello! "The difficulty with endorsing lies to raise public consciousness . . . " is that all of the reasons that we are against lies in general also apply to the "public forum".

    There are reasons that lies and liars have "always" been reviled. If we have to explain that to adults (particularly members of the media) the problem isn't "the way" we explain them it's that the adult hasn't learned the lessons we expect our children to internalize . . . and they probably never will.



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