Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Posts Tagged ‘honesty

Truth, Justice and the American Politician

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There seems to be a lot of confusion and selective hearing about truth, particularly when it comes from politicians. Let’s step back and try to unpack all this.

Hillary Clinton Goes to Bosnia

Here is an excellent case study. In 2008, Hillary Clinton claimed:

I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.
— Hillary Clinton, speech at George Washington University, 2008.

In fact, nothing like that happened. Here is a video of Clinton’s arrival in Bosnia in 1996.

So did she lie? I do not believe that she did. Here rendering is not truthful, but I don’t believe it deserve the status of a lie.

Why do I say that?

I believe that Clinton had an image in her mind of the person she wanted to be, and she remembered what happened at Bosnia in 1996 in those terms. What actually happened was irrelevant.

Cognitive Dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first put forward by Leon Festinger in 1957. At the time, the idea was truly revolutionary, as psychology was in the grip of behaviorism. Festinger found behaviors that behaviorism could not explain. Subjects would change their opinions to achieve consonance with their previous behaviors.

Festinger, with Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, had written When Prophecy Fails, a book recording the beliefs of a small cult who had predicted a flood would destroy the world on 21 December 1954, both before and after the non-event. Not only did many cult members refuse to abandon their beliefs when the flood did not occur; they committed to them even more intensely.

Both women were greatly upset by the disconfirmation of the  morning of December 21, Edna Post being hit especially hard. Nevertheless, throughout the period of disconfirmation both these women unquestioningly accepted the messages, predictions, and rationalizations that Mrs, Keech and Dr. Armstrong worked out for the group. Both of them simply repeated the rationalizations of disconfirmation that the leaders elaborated and glowed over the wonder and beauty of the plan. Their faith, too, remained firm all through the time that we maintained contact with them. On January 24, Daisy while en route to Virginia wrote to one of the authors, saying, “Believe me, we certainly have had divine guidance all along the way. We get orders from ‘upstairs’ en
route.” And “Give our ‘best’ to the other two from Minneapolis, Tell them we know the future is ‘rosy.’ We’ve been promised many wonderful things and we still know who our Director is. We go as his guests — his representatives.”
— Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails (1956), p. 195.

The behavior of various public figures is often attributed to lying and covering up, but cognitive dissonance offers a better explanation and one that does not require mendacious intent.

It takes some degree of ego to run for national public office. A candidate has to appeal to others, raise funds for the campaign and prevail against hostile counteraction from competitors and their supporters.

Consider a newly elected Senator, arriving into what is often called “the world’s most exclusive club.” There will be overwhelming pressure to believe that he deserves to be there, reinforced by the bubble of staff that the Senator has accrued through the campaign. The realities of politics require that the Senator will have built a narrative about himself, his motives and his actions that can survive the attacks of others, armed with opposition research and seeking to show the voters inconsistent behavior in the Senator’s history.

Now, the Senator will not be able to obtain everything he wants; he must engage in barter and log-rolling, giving his vote on some issues on which he does not agree in order to obtain the support of others for items of higher priority. He must bring home patronage to influential constituents if he is to be re-elected. All these pressures reinforce the need for a narrative that can preserve his own self-image in the face of inconsistent behavior.

Thus, I find it hardly surprising that Clinton remembered herself coming into Bosnia under fire or that Jeff Sessions did not remember conversations with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings. These people construct narratives about themselves, remembering incidents in terms of the self-image they want to have. What actually happened is irrelevant.

It would seem a damn fool behavior to willfully lie about episodes that can be researched by the press or have video evidence on YouTube for anyone to find. I don’t believe the processing ever gets past the brain stem. The politician first deceives herself. She squeezes her memory of events, forcing them to fit the story about herself that she not only wants to tell others, but needs to believe about herself.

What’s Good for Me Is Good for America

I do not mean to exonerate people for this behavior. If my explanation is accurate, it is actually more disturbing than if the people involved had simply lied. It is saying that they can’t tell truth from falsehood. They have commingled their identities with the country. It speaks to delusions of grandeur.

The problem is not limited to government; private sector organizations also have to contend with it.

Billy Graham had a man named Grady Wilson who yelled “Horseshit” — however you say that in Baptist — at him whenever he took himself too seriously. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Graham organization has been so successful. I had a Chairman of the Executive Committee who used to blow a launch-caller at me. Every chief executive should find someone to perform this function and then make sure he can only be fired for being too polite. Since the leader must lead the battle against institutionalization, it’s to the leader that you should look for early signs of losing the war. Is he getting confused about who’s God? Polishing up the image instead of greasing the wheels? Preoccupied with the price of the stock? Listening to the public relations department? Short-tempered with honest criticism? Are people hesitating before they tell him?
— Robert Townsend, Further Up the Organization, p. 107.

In my experience, it takes an person of unusual moral strength to accept Townsend’s advice. The key difference being that when private sector organizations go senile, they ultimately fail and are replaced. They don’t take the whole country with them.

There is a great howling right now about truth and facts, but a failure to understand the human behavior that leads to the incidents we have observed. Perhaps it is comforting to think that we have been lied to and ill-served. We the People can believe a narrative about ourselves, that we have been taken advantage of by malicious operators. Throw the rascals out and get in a new lot. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Cognitive dissonance is not limited to people in power. Even nice people like you and I are susceptible.

Written by srojak

March 6, 2017 at 5:22 am

Part of the Problem

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Glenn Beck says the current climate of the public square bothers him. In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, he said:

Everybody feels like there’s a play going on, and we’re just watching it and looking at each other and shaking our heads in disbelief. And nobody’s listening to the hardworking American who doesn’t feel like they belong to anything anymore. In fact, it’s almost as if we’re being, we’re standing outside and we’re not being invited to this party at all.
— “Glenn Beck: I Warned about the Rise of Nazism in America, and Now with Trump It Is Happening” (link to transcript)

Which I find interesting, because Beck is not just any old pundit. He is the founder of TheBlaze, a media organization that serves as the home for, among others, Tomi Lahren. Yeah, the one who calls herself “a commentator, not a journalist.”

So if Glenn Beck wants to take an active role in increasing the signal-to-noise ratio, he has levers to push. He could start by setting up standards of ethical journalism and demanding that people who have access to his platform adhere to these standards. He could assert that the people who broadcast under his nameplate take responsibility for what they say. He could cut off the use of his airspace to make the situation worse.

If Beck is not willing to do so, then his complaints degenerate into the four most Machiavellian words in the English language: “I told you so.”

Written by srojak

October 3, 2016 at 12:35 pm

It’s a Free Country

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Tomi Lahren is a political commentator working for TheBlaze, a news/entertainment network founded by Glenn Beck. On 8 July, one day after the ambush that killed five Dallas police, Lahren set off an Internet storm with a tweet, which she later pulled down, that equated Black Lives Matter to the KKK.

The next Sunday, Lahren appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources”, in a conversation that also included David Zurawik, media critic for The Baltimore Sun [transcript]. Lahren opened reasonably enough:

I think that the Black Lives Matter started out with fantastic intentions.

They were trying to correct an injustice, real or perceived. And they were seeking equality and to bring attention to the things that they felt in their communities. However, we saw, in the aftermath of Ferguson, that things took an ugly turn.

We saw looting, we saw rioting, we saw burning down of communities. Now we’re seeing — and though it is not all — and I’m very careful to say that — though it is not all of the protesters, we do see some that are holding signs saying “F. the police,” “Kill all pigs.” Social media, though they might not be the first and foremost people of the movement, they are posting with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter horrific and awful things and calls to violence towards the police. So, I do believe that this movement needs to get itself back in check, because it has taken an ugly turn.

The people in the Black Lives Matter protests would likely not agree with Lahren’s summary. It is not my purpose to promote either side in this posting. The point is that Lahren started out with a reasonable tone.

When the discussion came around to the tweet put out by former Congressman Joe Walsh threatening President Obama, Zurawick stood up for a traditional media approach, discussing the issue without offering Walsh a media platform:

My compromise would be, you talk about what Walsh said, but you don’t bring him on. You talk about it with people. You have folks like Jamia. You have a panel like this, and let us talk about it.

And by doing that, you’re somehow saying to the audience, this man is irresponsible in this kind of rhetoric. You need to know it’s out there, but we’re going to try to contextualize it and talk about it and offer a framework for thinking about it.

That might sound paternalistic. That might sound old media thinking. Maybe it is.

Lahren emphatically disagreed, and went right off the rails:

LAHREN: I entirely disagree.

If you disagree with what someone is posting on social media, or you disagree with their voice, you bring them on and you allow them to address it. You don’t talk about them. You allow them to defend themselves. You allow them to clarify. And you have that open and honest conversation, as I have asked to do on many of the platforms that have said I went too far.

You bring that person on. You let them speak for themselves.

ZURAWIK: You did. You did go too far, Tomi. You did.

LAHREN: That is your opinion.

ZURAWIK: No, it’s not — I wish it was your employer’s opinion.

That’s really reckless, that kind of tweet at the situation we’re in. As a journalist, what you did appalls me. That’s the end of it. I’m trying to be civil about this.

LAHREN: And I appreciate it.

A, I’m not a journalist. I’m a commentator. I’m allowed to have my feelings and my opinions. And I stand behind the things that I say, because the thing that hurts people the most is when you’re honest. When you look at someone from an honest lens, from your perspective, and you bring that forth, you’re immediately labeled for it, and you are immediately criticized.

What those on the other side wants to do is criticize, label and silence those that disagree with them. I don’t play that game.

ZURAWIK: There’s no room for the kind of ignorance that your tweet put out there at this time in our history.

LAHREN: I agree with you that there’s divisive language out there that needs to be tamed. And I agree that some things that I may have said come from a place of anger and come from a place of being truly heartbroken at what happened in my city of Dallas.

But make no mistake. The First Amendment applies to everyone. And the best way to combat speech you don’t like is not to silence others. It’s more speech. It’s more conversation.

When I was about ten years old, my classmates and I used to say, “It’s a free country.” It was our justification for saying or doing anything we wanted to do. But we’re adults now, and we recognize that this is not an adult approach to life.

In less than five minutes, Lahren delivered an argument so wrong that it should be studied in schools. Lahren went wrong in these ways:

  • Evasion: Lahren said, “I’m not a journalist. I’m a commentator.” What does that even mean? She has a media platform for her comments. What is the distinction between a journalist and a commentator? Is a commentator free to make any sort of comment, no matter how ill-informed, inflammatory or irresponsible, without risk of being called on it?
  • Bogus Justification: Lahren continued, “I’m allowed to have my feelings and opinions.” So is every bully, manipulator and professional victim. Some of them ought to be kept to yourself.
    • Feelings are personal and private. They can’t be wrong. They also can’t be justification for actions.
    • Opinions can be wrong. A person having the opinion that the earth is flat is scientifically wrong. A person having the opinion that it is morally acceptable to own slaves is, in contemporary Western culture, wrong.
  • A substantial misreading of the First Amendment. More on this later.
  • Expansive approach to honesty: “When you look at someone from an honest lens, from your perspective, and you bring that forth, you’re immediately labeled for it, and you are immediately criticized.” We have way too much of this kind of self-described “honest” behavior in our daily life already. It is possible to be honest without being obnoxious.
  • Hasty generalization: “What those on the other side wants to do is criticize, label and silence those that disagree with them. I don’t play that game.” Tomi, aren’t you doing exactly that by saying this?

Freedom of Speech

There have been many idiotic invocations of First Amendment rights lately, so this is a good time to review. Always start with the primary source:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The key word here is Congress, that being the body given the lawmaking power in Article I of the Constitution. We extended this restriction to the several states, requiring them to grant the same rights to citizens as are granted by the Federal government.

The First Amendment is a restriction on government. It does not give a person the right to say anything without:

  • risk of being challenged over what the speaker is saying;
  • risk of consequences for speech whose content is inflammatory;
  • risk of ruining the speaker’s own credibility.

Lahren put out a tweet that was irresponsible and ill-advised. She realized that — or was made to — which is why she later deleted it. I understand that, in contemporary society, nothing is a mistake as long as you don’t admit it, but her attempts to justify herself on First Amendment grounds are pathetic.

Standards Cramp My Style

Despite her assertions to the contrary, Lahren is a journalist. In writing this blog, so am I. We face challenges on factual reporting, information reliability and time to prepare. I certainly don’t have formal training in journalism, but I have sense enough to be responsible for what I say. This piece waited all week while I found source material, found an uninterrupted block of time to write and organized my thoughts. I can’t just burn these off in a few minutes before dinner. I have scrapped some ideas because, when I examined the source material, the story just did not stand up to scrutiny.

Practicing bodies of journalists have developed standards and codes of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics featuring four organizing principles:

  • Seek Truth and Report It;
  • Minimize Harm;
  • Act Independently;
  • Be Accountable and Transparent.

When I was growing up and there were three major networks and major city newspapers, access to communicate came with strings attached. One of these strings was adherence to a set of journalistic standards. In order to get an audience, a journalist had to conform to the standards of the house. Here, for example, are the standards for National Public Radio.

Now, with the Internet, many of us have access to be heard that we would never before had. With that access comes responsibility. If we carry on as if we had no ethical standards, we will squander the opportunity before us. We won’t encourage more conversation, as Lahren said she wants to do, but more shrill screaming by partisan polemicists. We will eventually be ignored because people won’t trust us to be accountable for what we say.

David Zurawick was speaking from knowledge. His position was more than his opinion; it was grounded in the hard lessons of two hundred years of journalism, compressed into standards that journalists agree to operate within. It behooves all of us who address the public to take these principles seriously.

Written by srojak

July 16, 2016 at 9:22 pm