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BiG fat LiARSHow Politicians, Corporations, and the Media Use Science and Statistics to Manipulate the Public
By Morris E. Chafetz
NELSON CURRENTCopyright © 2007 Morris E. Chafetz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE DANGER OF GENERALIZATION
Mark Twain famously wrote that we must take care to learn from a thing not just its lesson but only its lesson. A cat that has stepped on a hot stove lid, he noted, will never repeat the mistake. But, he added, it won't step on a cold stove lid, either.
Albert Einstein, who many of us would agree was a very bright fellow, said the same thing, though differently: "All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike-and yet it is the most precious thing we have." We can learn from our discoveries, and it is essential that we do so if we are to advance-but we must never lose sight of the fact that even our best discoveries tell us comparatively little of the nature of things.
What neither Twain nor Einstein said is that the world is richly populated with those who would use what little we know, or pretend that we know, to gain power over us.
We live in an era in which we generalize as a matter of convenience, sometimes of laziness. As a result, we seldom get the full lesson of a thing, and almost always we get more of a lesson than circumstances warrant.
We are all different, yet ours has become a nation of lowest common denominators. As a result, the real differences that make us individual human beings often go unnoticed. We have passed laws against the effects of racial and other kinds of prejudice-but prejudice is nothing except drawing a generalization and acting upon it. Indeed, as a result of some civil rights legislation, we have produced a second set of prejudices-the effects of which are as institutionally embedded and as insidious as the evils they were intended to eliminate.
It has always been easier to generalize, and troublesome results have come of it. A friend, now fifty, suffers from chronic back pain. His spine is twisted, though not so you would notice it; but when he stands with his feet lined up as if looking forward, his shoulders are turned slightly to the right.
This is because, as a child, he was in a school where all the desks were built for right-handed students, and he is left-handed. He had to contort his posture, twist to the right, in order to use the desk to which he was assigned. (The reason the desks were all right-handed was that only a few years earlier left-handed students had been forced to pretend that they were right-handed.)
He knew that something was wrong, that each day at school was painful. He was always fidgeting and squirming in an attempt to become comfortable, and as a result he was chided for being disruptive. Before long, he himself actually believed that the problem was behavioral-that something was wrong with him. He learned that erroneous lesson and has a sore back to this day.
His teachers sought to keep control of their classrooms, and when he complained, they decided there was something wrong with him. For his part, he lacked the self-respect to believe himself-that he was in pain each day-and to therefore reject the idea that he was to blame.
His story is a small, simple example of several widespread phenomena in which generalizations have been made, "magically" converted into absolutes, and then used to control everyone, but most especially to control those who fall outside the original generalization.
Today, perhaps, his family would sue the school district. There would be many lawyers involved, at enormous expense. Perhaps the state legislature would become involved, passing laws mandating that school districts place in each classroom a number of left-handed desks equal not to the number of students who are actually left-handed but instead to the percentage of students who are statistically likely to be left-handed-about 10 percent. Of course, by the time it all got resolved, my friend with his twisted spine would be well along in college, perhaps paid for by the settlement from the school district because of the claim-lawyers will be lawyers-that the boy's dignity was compromised by his having had to sit at a right-handed desk.
Or perhaps the legislature would mandate that handedness-neutral desks be provided, which is a fine idea-if a manufacturer could be found who had the proper proportion of minorities and women among its employees and who met the vast range of other generalized requirements imposed by the government in an effort to legislate fairness.
But what constitutes fairness? We live in a society that in large measure rejects notions of right and wrong. It is true that social mores change. The pace of technological development has accelerated at an ever-increasing rate. There have been more significant discoveries and technical developments put to practical use in the last two hundred years than there were in all of history up to that time. Those developments have posed powerful moral and ethical questions, and the questioning of things which were ethically settled-what in the law is called stare decisis-has grown as well. In some cases this is a good thing, while in other cases it is not. It is always a mistake to apply the standards of today in judging the actions of persons who lived in the past; consider the absurdity of calling Lincoln a failed war president because he couldn't use the U.S. Air Force to rout the Confederate army in a week's time.
The result is that we live in a society in which a substantial number of people do not believe that there are such things as objective right and wrong. A president who denounces attacks on America (in which thousands of civilian lives were lost) as "evil" wakes up the next day to learn that he is criticized as a religious extremist for proposing that there is such a thing as evil. Even were it possible to pass a statewide or, worse, national law with the object of fairness for everyone, how could that possibly be brought about?
More and more, the denominator is something that has come to be known as "political correctness." From the poetry of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," political correctness engages in reductio ad absurdum-taking those words which define and specify the most fundamental of rights and carrying it to a ridiculous extreme. From "created equal" it derives "just alike, no matter what their abilities are, what they think, or what they do." It carries generalization to the extreme, with the result that ultimately no distinctions at all will be possible. It also carries that sacred document, the Bill of Rights, well past its intention. The first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States were designed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Political correctness establishes the tyranny of the minority by seeking to codify the lowest common denominator-to establish a system under which nothing may go forward unless it is approved by the wackiest among us.
This nonsense has infected the very fiber of our country, and has made it possible for scalawags to take control. It has created problems where there were none, and has replaced some problems with other problems.
Political correctness is itself the logical if absurd reduction of a trend that has coincided with the growth of the federal government. The United States is a huge and diverse place. It has regions where it never freezes and regions where it never thaws. It has places where there is nothing but forest as far as the eye can see, and places where the entire vista comprises buildings and pavement. It has cities whose various immigrant communities would themselves make up substantial cities, and towns where "the new family" is the one that moved in twenty years ago. There are regions in near-constant danger of flooding, and regions where the constant is a prayer for rain. In some states, road crews have to deal with the melting and bubbling of the hot tar in the summer heat, while in others the frost heaves of winter make roads difficult. It costs far more to live in some places than in others, yet national taxes are constant, so a person who in one place might be the richest person in town would barely scrape by someplace else. Setting standards for all those places from one central capital is something that a moment's voyage into common sense would tell us is impossible, with any attempt to do so being both expensive and inefficient. There is very little that a national government-a national anything, really-can do which will benefit the entire country. The place simply defies generalization.
Nor was this arrangement the one contemplated when the national government was established. But political power tends to consolidate, to do all it can to create more power for itself. This applies to all political power, not just that held by governments. Political science is defined as the study of coercive institutions-institutions which have sufficient power to force obedience. As such, part of this book can be thought of as a critique of those institutions.
But only part. Criticism is cheap and seldom useful unless an alternative is proposed. The alternative is here, too.
We are born alone, usually, and we usually die alone. We have our own individual hopes and aspirations. Yes, we sometimes act in groups, and we hope for the success of the groups of which we are a part. But we individually decide to affiliate ourselves with those groups, whether they be sporting teams, business partnerships, companies for which we work, places of worship-whatever. We decide as individuals to join the group.
There is an exception: the family. The basic unit of humanity is the individual, but individuals are, or-and this is an objective truth-should be born into families. The definition of what constitutes a family would take up a book of its own-and has, several times over. The diminishing importance given to the family, more and more a function of political correctness lest someone whose family is nonexistent feel bad about it, is a terrible thing. Witness the fact that if you have the ability and interest needed to read this book, there is a very good chance that you had a family that served at least some important purposes. If you did not and are reading it anyway, you are probably even more aware of the importance of having one.
Still, while we are most of us born into families and are under the control of our parents during our early years, there comes a time when we are adults and the familial connection is lessened. Then as individuals we decide whether and when to establish families of our own. And even when we are under our parents' roof, we have already begun to grow as individuals, with individual thoughts, plans, and responsibilities. If you fail to take out the trash at age eight, it is you and you alone who are punished; if at sixteen you get a speeding ticket, it is you who stands before a judge appointed not by your family but by society, though you may face additional, perhaps harsher, judgment at home, too.
Judgment from others is difficult to face. When we are born, the judgment of others is the only clue we have. If we are fortunate, we are surrounded at first by people who give us a sense of their unconditional love. As time passes, we learn that the manifestation of this love can be moderated by our behavior. The signals are not always clear: The boy baby with a full bladder who lets loose in daddy's face as daddy changes his soiled diaper, for instance, may well get the sense that daddy doesn't especially love him right now, but mommy is laughing and delighted. Is this a way to please mommy? But it doesn't please daddy. Hmm. (If mommy breastfeeds, it's easy to figure out where the decision of who to please will come down, and daddy would be well advised to invest in goggles, though he'll probably just decide that he's "no good at changing diapers" instead.)
As our understanding grows, we learn that some things we do seem to foster greater manifestations of love from those around us than do others; at some point we figure out that we can do things that make that love seem to disappear entirely. In addition to being the source of everything we know, love, and trust, our family is for most of us our first coercive institution, the first place where approval and punishment are administered. We are being taught, and that teaching is based entirely on our desire to receive the approval of others.
At the same time, we are beginning to teach ourselves. We learn that certain things result in pain. But nature is very wise; if we were more perfect thinking machines, we would identify the action that led to the pain and there would never be a second attempt at anything. No one would ever have learned to ride a bicycle.
Thus begins, in our earliest years, a struggle. It is the battle between our own reasoning, as delivered to us at first in things that bring us physical pain or, sometimes, physical pleasure and the desire to please those people upon whom we are wholly dependent. Over time, our dependence on those people-or at least those particular people-goes away, but our desire to achieve the approval of others does not.
We go to school, and, for many of us, it is the first time that we have been in a group of people our own age. This brings a whole new perspective on things. The contradictions, the choices, the confusion! We discover that the classmate who misbehaves sometimes gets the approval of others, but not the approval of the teacher. If we emulate that classmate, we get a lesson in nonfamily coercive institutions-the teacher has some clout. We decide whether the approval of our classmates is worth the pain of punishment.
The noted psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow achieved his fame largely through his observation that there are five fundamental groups of needs, in descending order.
Physiological needs: We need air, water, and food, and sufficient shelter to keep us from freezing or dying in the heat. We need to be nourished.
Safety: At a very basic level, we need to be protected from wild animals or from predacious humans, from falling rocks and drowning. We need to feel safe.
Belonging: We need the love, affection, and association of others.
Esteem: In Maslow's observations, this takes two forms. The first is the approval of others. The second is self-esteem, our approval of ourselves.
These four he called "deficit needs." By this he meant that if you are lacking in any of them, you will feel it, in gasping for breath, or thirst, or hunger; in fear; in loneliness; in feeling like the outcast; or in shame or a sense of inferiority. All of these things, Maslow said, are essential to our health and well-being.
It is important to point out something here that will be a theme of this book, even as it is the subject of this chapter: It is impossible for Maslow to have known with precision the truth of his observations. If there is a criticism to be made of him, despite his laboratory work with primates, it is that with thinking creatures it is impossible to control all the variables, so psychological experimentation is always in doubt. As with the polls that have converted our electoral process into a sporting event, without listing the margin of error the experiment is highly questionable. In psychological experimentation, it is impossible to know the margin of error. We are all unique. That having been said, Maslow's observations are not without merit.
The fifth need, which Maslow said makes itself less apparent to us than the others, is "self-actualization." It is the desire, having been given life, to make the most of it. To achieve.
A moment's digression: Have you ever pondered the tremendous odds against your even being here? A woman typically emits one egg per month over a fertile lifetime of about thirty-five years. That is 420 months of cycles during which she could become pregnant. There are times during this thirty-five years, most notably when she is pregnant, when eggs are not emitted. As most couples seeking a child can attest, even when pregnancy is sought, it is anything but certain. Even for the most prolific couple in the world, 95 percent of those eggs pass unfertilized, and for most families it's more like 99.5 percent. That you are here at all means that your parents engaged in sexual congress at just the right time to give you your one-in-two hundred chance of being born. Now, consider that the odds were about the same-there were factors such as higher infant mortality, but couples had more children to compensate-for your father, and for your mother, and for their parents, and for their parents' parents, and so on, going back to the arrival of humans on the planet. The number of potential people who were never born outweighs, by orders of magnitude, the ones who ever actually drew breath. And the odds against you are higher, actually, if you are relatively young: In the United States there have been on average more than a million abortions each year for the last thirty years; this represents about a fifth of the U.S. birth rate.
Startling numbers, aren't they? They probably make you feel pretty special. And you are in one way, but not at all special in another. Today, there are about 6.5 billion people in the world. Every one of them faced the same odds that you did, give or take a little based on local customs as to family size, health practices, and so on. You are one 6.5-billionth of the world's population. Not so special, huh? But you are, and ought to be, special to yourself. Your life is the only one you've been given. The thought of not existing is abhorrent and frightening to you. You are mortified at the thought of your own death, though perhaps there are things for which you would sacrifice your life-protection of your family, maybe. Before we return to our thoughts of that schoolchild facing the first important decisions, it should be noted that it gets no easier.
If we look at things in Maslow's terms, we instantly discover that our choices in life often pit one need against another. And as we incorporate more and more his fifth need into our lives-the sense that life has some purpose beyond survival-the conflicts become even more intense. As the little schoolchild weighs the choices against each other, where is some sense of guidance? What is the right choice?
That depends on whether she has learned something that Maslow touches upon but does not fully develop (nor could he; his work was in psychology, not sociology, law, advertising, the media, politics, or any of the other factors that figure so profoundly in our lives). It is something that coercive institutions-social groups, the legal system, the ad agencies, the "news" programs and publications, the politicians, and others-seek to knock down in their pursuit of generalization to achieve power and, sometimes, profit. It is the one thing that doesn't by itself justify your life but without which you cannot set a course for your life that will give it meaning useful to yourself and your family.
It is self-respect.
Self-respect is something you give to yourself, but it is also something whose circle of influence is limited to yourself. It does not come from pretending to be a wounded minority, because each of us is a minority among 6.5 billion other minorities. We cannot and should not expect someone else to grant us our self-respect. Nor can we impose our requirements for self-respect on others. Of course, the exception is in equipping our children with self-respect to the extent that when they go off to school and face the cacophony of choices that entering a broader society brings, they have a sense of what course to take.
Self-respect is confidence in making our own choices and following them through. It is something that is, of course, informed by useful data as they become available, though always with skepticism and examination, always with an eye cast toward the herd mentality that is promoted nearly everywhere today.
It is something that is immune to generalization, even, often, to characterization. Imagine how people around you would characterize you. Be honest. How broad would their brush sweep? Would it differ from the way they would have described you a month ago, a year? Now that you've done the exercise, another question: Who cares? Beyond your family, to whom you are responsible and who deserves some explanation for what might seem to be inconsistency, your responsibility is to yourself.
This isn't some abstract, soul-searching notion. It applies to every decision you make in your life. It applies to whether you smoke, don't smoke, or give up smoking. It applies to how much you eat and what you eat. It applies to your drinking habits. It applies to what you believe, whether or not everyone else believes it.
Self-respect is the recognition that no one else knows you as well as you do.
My left-handed friend arrived at the cusp, between one kind of generalization and another. He has self-respect and has overcome it. All of us have failed in one way or another to separate ourselves from the generalizations that invariably cede power over our lives to some coercive institution when it need not be so. Some of us have fallen victim to this more than others. The entirely worthwhile effort to grant minorities rights equivalent to those of the majority has mutated into a phenomenon whereby it is now a matter of law that minorities are granted special dispensations. This is the announcement and gross generalization that minorities cannot make the grade without special privileges. The only proper reaction by members of minority groups who possess self-respect is outrage. How dare the politicians-the coercive institutions-suggest that they are beneath the standards that apply to others?
In fact, minority groups and others are being played by those institutions and by those who would control those institutions. They are, in the name of their advancement, being held back. They are being told that some vague, anti-politically-correct unfairness is keeping them down. They are being told that they should avoid consideration of their own self-respect in favor of some generalized characterization of them as a group.
The examples alone would fill this book, but that is not its purpose. Instead, if this book accomplishes its purpose it will have convinced you that you are, and of right ought to be, the sole master of your decisions-not politicians, corporations, ad agencies, activists, lawyers, or lobbyists.
In my six decades as a psychiatrist and author, I have been involved in politics and national government; I've been broadcast and published, and have seen how those media work; and I have appeared in court as an expert witness and therefore have some knowledge of how the law is administered. As an expert on substance abuse, I have seen the many ways in which things are diagnosed as "substance abuse" that actually have nothing to do with it. In all of this, I have learned much about these coercive institutions. These institutions work together to view people as a generalized group, to deny the value of the only weapon that can let you express your uniqueness as a minority among 6.5 billion, and to achieve the thing that at bottom they think they deserve: power over people.
Excerpted from BiG fat LiARS by Morris E. Chafetz Copyright © 2007 by Morris E. Chafetz. Excerpted by permission.
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