Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Little Chris and the Naive Politics of Black and White

Growing up in a small town in the 1970s, there were plenty of other kids with whom I could play.  It was a less worried time, when many parents would allow their kids to freely roam their neighborhoods and beyond.  For the most part, they did it without fear of anything more than the old lady down the street calling to report to them that their child was climbing on the roof of the toolshed.

When I was about five years old, I was the youngest member of a group of about a half dozen friends who lived in the houses around mine.  The acknowledged leader of this gang of kids was also named Chris like me, so he was called “Big Chris” and I was saddled with the moniker “Little Chris”, a nickname which I loathed and despised with a white hot passion.  Nonetheless, that’s how it was.

"Little Chris", from around the time about which I am writing.  And yes, turtleneck sweaters were considered "in" at the time.

As the youngest of the group, I was the least worldly, relatively speaking, and because of that naivety and my strong desire to be accepted by the others, I was prone to being put up to things.  It was never anything terribly serious, but I was a sucker nonetheless.  If they needed someone to swipe some apples from a neighbor’s tree, I was their man.  When they wanted to see if the wooden ramp they built for bicycle jumps was too high, I was their go-to guy.  And if they wanted to get some candy from Mrs. Johnson, who always had a bowl on her kitchen counter as treats for us kids, I was the emissary who was sent to ask for it, because I was not only the smallest and presumably cutest, but also they knew I would not refuse to go.

Yes, “Little Chris” was gullible, but as I got a bit older and gained some more life experience, that gullibility decreased rapidly.  Before too long, I was on to them, and not long after that, I could put others up to doing things if I chose.  As a little more light was shed on matters through time and experience, I saw things I hadn't previously, and it worked to my advantage.

I’ve been thinking about my days as gullible “Little Chris” lately as I have read and watched the news, both national and state.  It seems like many politicians, pundits, and media outlets these days are implementing a “Little Chris” treatment on you and me, and sadly, are meeting with some degree of success.

My intent in this post is not to single out a particular person or entity, so I’ll be dealing in generalities here.

We live in an age with an overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips.  There is such a high volume of data out there, much of it conflicting, that many suffer from fatigue in dealing with it.  It’s much easier just to have someone distill it for us.  And there is no shortage of talking heads who are willing to cherry-pick information and give it to us in a way that they want us to understand it.  It is made all the more persuasive when this cherry-picked information is given to us wrapped in emotion, drama, academic language, and/or pre-conceived ideas.  The overused term propaganda would apply here, though even it has become highly charged by some of the very people who use it, with direct connections often made to the wartime PR tactics of enemy nations.

This cherry-picking approach to politics and media bias would not be so pervasive if it didn’t actually work.  But it does.  Too many of us are easily persuaded.  Too many of us buy into what is being sold to us without asking ourselves if there is more to it.  The sins of omission seem far more frequent than those of commission in politics and media.

Let me give an example that I am just pulling out of the air.  Suppose a local media outlet reports on a horrific home invasion, where an elderly woman is beaten and robbed for drugs and money in her home.  It’s a terrible thing, and a legitimate news story, for sure.  Then, two nights later, the same media outlet starts airing a series of special reports on how you can protect yourself your loved one and your property from home invasions, complete with ominous music and scary clips from the most recent incident and others that have taken place in other parts of the country.  Interviews are aired with people who have experienced such a terrible thing.  Many viewers may become fearful.  It must be a problem, or else why would the news be devoting so much time and attention to it?  (Answer: Ratings.) Not only are viewers locking their doors and keeping their drugs secure, which would be sensible reactions, but some have also become frightened when they see an unfamiliar face in their neighborhood, and may even now refuse to go for a walk down their own street by themselves for fear of crime.  Some may go so far as to install an electronic security system in their homes.  Their fear has taken away some of their freedom, not to mention money.  And here’s the kicker: lost in the midst of it all is the fact that home invasions in that particular area are extremely rare, and the odds are greater that one would have a truck crash through their bedroom than that they would actually experience a home invasion.

I’m picking on the media taking something out of proper context in the aforementioned example, but politicians and pundits often do the very same thing.  It isn’t unusual for them to create a perceived boogeyman cloaked in emotional hot-buttons as they make their case for a particular candidacy or policy decision.  Their candidate or point of view is going to be the one to put a stop to this boogeyman (or “straw man” as it is called in debating terms), and therefore is the one with which all of us in the general public should be on board.  Welfare queens, big corporations, illegal aliens, religious fundamentalists, leftist whackos, right-wing nutjobs, the list of boogeymen goes on and on.  Some of these entities portrayed as boogeymen are actual problems, and some are not, depending on your own point of view.  If you don’t have your own point of view, politicians and pundits are more than willing to give you theirs.

So what’s my point?  It’s a very simple one: Despite what we are often led to believe, very, very  few issues in our society are black and white.  If something seems too clear, too cut-and-dried, then there is likely something we are missing.  Yes, there are people who abuse the welfare system horribly, for example.  But there are also many more on welfare who do not and use it as it was intended.  Yes, there are some large corporations that exploit their workers and plunder natural resources, as another example, but there are many more of them that do not, never have, and never will.  

In other words, don't be naive.  Do your homework.  Be skeptical without being cynical, especially when you find yourself automatically agreeing or disagreeing with something newly presented to you. 

Look at all sides before settling on a conclusion.  Don’t be satisfied with letting politicians, pundits, and the media feed you only the information they want you to have.  Seek out more for yourself. Consider the source of your information.  A press release from a lobbying group or political party headquarters may be “newsy”, but it is not necessarily news.  A pundit is not a reporter.  A letter to the editor is not a news article.  Opinions should be based on facts, but they are not facts themselves.  And don’t fall prey to hot-button terminology, especially in headlines.  Words like “terror”, “sex”, and “war”, among others, are often squeezed in there to capture your attention, even if they are not the best choices.

You owe it to yourself to be a cautious, media-literate consumer of information. Otherwise, you’ll likely end up like “Little Chris”, paying unintended consequences for being unquestioning and naive.