Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘truth

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

Interviewing Kellyanne Conway

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This video (6:31 long) from Vox was brought to my attention. It raises a number of interesting questions. Laid over with questions about Vox itself and the media in general, we have even more questions. It is a very layered story, and worth some time to dig through the various layers.

Let’s start with the subject at hand, then open the lens to the bigger picture.

Being a Representative

Conway’s role on these shows is to represent the administration. Within a circumscribed, forest-for-the-trees perspective of the role (more on that later), I think she does an outstanding job. She is determined and relentless. When she has a strong hand, she plays it; when she has a weak hand, she bluffs like crazy.

She knows that many of her interviewers want to pin her down. They want to face her. They want to force her to fold, to make concessions. She has no intention of doing that. It’s a test of wills.

I have some experience in representing myself; I represented a software company in sales efforts. Conway is a walking illustration of the very ethos of a successful software sales representative: “They promised you beachfront? You don’t want beachfront. Swampland is the future!”

Being Donald Trump’s Representative

Overlaid on top of this is the fact that she is representing the administration headed by President Trump. I don’t think I am being unfair to Trump by saying that this is no ordinary presidential administration. He consistently promised something out of the ordinary on his campaign, and he is delivering in abundance.

Given the nature of Donald Trump, the person, there are going to be some striking challenges in being his representative. For openers, he pops off at the mouth — or the tweet — much more than the typical organizational leader. Then his representatives have to go forward and try to control the damage.

I believe that Trump did not further his own cause by calling Judge James Robart a “so-called judge”, but he did. I believe that a more nuanced approach to the limitations of the press would have been preferable to calling them “The enemy of the American people.” But Trump doesn’t do nuance. We’ve had years to figure this out. The man is, as of this writing, 70 years old; he’s set in his ways.

So you, the representative, get the task of appearing in front of the press, who are howling like a scalded dog after having been called the enemy of the American people. You can’t unsay his remarks. You can’t disown them. You can’t cut and run. How are you going to navigate this?

So, yeah, Conway “reinvents Trump’s positions into more defensible versions of themselves.” How else would she keep her head above water? Jeff Lord has been doing the same thing as a Trump flack on CNN for the entire 2016 campaign. When Trump made totally outrageous, foot-in-mouth statements that would appear indefensible, Lord simply replaced them with positions from an idealized, Trump-like candidate that existed in his own imagination. What would you do on camera in front of a national audience? Concede the point? That’s not what you’re there for.

Some Perspective on Representatives

None of this is new; it’s just a matter of degree. The British series Yes, Prime Minister contained an episode titled “Official Secrets“, which first aired in 1987. Here is a link to the video. If you’re pressed for time, skip forward to about the 23:00 mark.

Bernard, what made you think that, just because someone was asking you questions, you had to answer them?
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

Further on, Hacker instructs Bernard in how to handle difficult questions. He has eight ways to defect questions. The net of his advice is:

If you have nothing to say, say nothing. Better still, have something to say and say it, no matter what they ask. Pay no attention to the question; make your own statement. If they ask the question again, you just say, “That’s not the question” or “I think the more important question is …” Then you make another statement of your own.
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

As a representative, you don’t have the option of having nothing to say. So you have to have something to say and force your will to prevail over the will of your questioners. Conway is very good at this.

So Why Invite Her?

The host of the Vox piece says at the end:

Just remember, she’s doing her job. It’s the news shows that keep booking her that are letting you down.
— Carlos Maza

Why do they bring her on? Part of it is the unwritten co-dependency story of how Trump got to be President in the first place. The news networks have 1,440 minutes a day to fill, 365 days a year. They’re crazy for content. They don’t know what else to do.

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
— Oscar Wilde

Trump has exploited this dependency mercilessly for his entire campaign. By saying and tweeting outrageous things, he dominated his opponents through airtime. While career politicians were cautious and scripted, Trump was spontaneous and outrageous. The received wisdom was that you couldn’t win an election doing that. Evidently, the received wisdom was wrong.

No, having flacks on a news show to evade questions is not helpful to us as citizens. It never was. The extremes of this administration just throw the issue into bright relief. Neither was having teams of opposing flacks to shout at one another and talk over one another during the 2016 campaign. Evidently, it is all the cable channels can think of fill time.

Journalists seem to think that the reporting of peoples’ opinions constitutes reporting facts. It may be a fact that the person you’re interviewing has that opinion, but it’s still an opinion. Postmodern journalism happened long before Donald Trump threw his cap in the ring.

Consider a real issue: last year, there was an announced change in Department of Labor policy that was later blocked by a federal court injunction. How much of this issue did you hear on cable news? How much did you read about it in your favorite print outlet?

Vox

The people at Vox are good at identifying behavior from Conway when it comes from people they don’t like, such as Conway. But do not lose sight of the fact that they have their own viewpoint to push — everybody does.

Some further reading:

What is Truth?

Most of us accept something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Simply put, if you accept this theory, than in order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond in some meaningful way to objective reality. This requires acceptance of a bundle of premises:

  1. There is an objective reality;
  2. We can know it;
  3. We can all obtained a shared common knowledge of it;
  4. We can take a statement and measure the correspondence with that shared common knowledge of reality, and therefore the truthfulness of that statement.

A full treatment of these implications is going to have to wait for another post, because this is a subject in itself.

It is clear to me, from his conduct, that Donald Trump does not subscribe to this theory. His truth is more pragmatic in nature: what is useful to me right now? This may seem shocking and even immoral, but it has an intellectual lineage going back to William James and Charles Sanders Pierce:

‘The true’, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily.
— William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI (1907)

So something can be true today, because it is expedient, and then untrue tomorrow, because it is no longer expedient.

I direct the interested reader to the entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Pragmatism for further discussion.

It is not necessary for Donald Trump to have read William James for him to think in this way. The notion has been rattling around out there for over a hundred years.

The question of truth introduces a professional challenge to the journalist: what are you reporting? The truth or someone’s truth?

For the journalist who does accept the Correspondence Theory of Truth, it presents also a personal ethical challenge: what do you do about this? Do the standards of journalism require you to refrain from inserting your own beliefs, or do you have an ethical responsibility upon to advocate your viewpoint as to the nature of truth?

It is clear that many of the people trying to get “the truth” out of Conway and those like her are not formally aware of these issues. They sense something is not quite right, but I don’t think they could articulate what the problem is.

 

 

Written by srojak

February 20, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Happy Birthday, Eric Blair

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Better known to the world by his pen name, George Orwell. Born 25 Jun 1903.

Quotable quotes from George Orwell.

Politics

  • Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
  • Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
  • In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
  • Political chaos is connected with the decay of language… one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.
  • So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.

War

  • People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
  • The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.

Reality

  • There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them.
  • The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.
  • We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.
  • The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

Life

  • Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.
  • Not to expose your true feelings to an adult seems to be instinctive from the age of seven or eight onwards.
  • To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others.
  • Many people genuinely do not want to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.
  • When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.
  • At fifty everyone has the face he deserves.

Written by srojak

June 25, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Posted in People

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