Thursday, September 24, 2009

If You Say Something Enough, Does It Really Become True?

Harry Nilsson--"Everybody's Talkin'" (mp3)
All Hail--"Truth Be Told" (mp3)

About three years ago, I brought a nutritionist onto our campus to speak to the boys. She was a hardcore, but positive, vegan, and accepting of other choices. In touring the campus before her talk, she got a look at everything from the dining hall and its setup to the snack machines outside the bookstore. She advocated restructuring the soda-first approach of our dining hall, so that the students' first option in the natural flow of getting food and sitting down was not a gauntlet of sugar drinks. She also noted that every single snack or drink in the machines outside the bookstore was absolutely unhealthy--full of fat or salt or sugar or all three.

Of course, due to federal or state law concerning public schools, or simply to a greater awareness of the obesity and other health problems plaguing our nation, this year, our school is adopting every one of her recommendations.

But at the time, she was a threat.
Our bookstore depends on selling junk food to students for a substantial portion of its revenue. The dining hall, already an expensive proposition with cost overrages each year, had no intention of rearranging drinks or expanding their menu to include more expensive, healthier options.

And a threat must be dealt with.

So one obsequious faculty member was walking somewhere that morning and happened to see a woman sitting in her car in the chapel parking lot smoking a cigarette. He made the immediate connection that this must be the nutritionist. While she was speaking to the students in chapel, he told the story to a school administrator, and the story very quickly made the rounds, even while the nutritionist was on campus. When I spoke to that school administrator the next day, he told me the story of the "smoking nutritionist" with more than a hint of mockery. I explained to him why that could not have been her in the car because she was with me the whole time. He nodded.

But it did not matter. The next day, he was still telling the story of the smoking nutritionist, and all of her suggestions were ignored. It was as if she were never on campus.

Could this be a post about the Iraq War? Bush and company said so often and in so many places that Saddam Hussein had been connected to the 9/11 terrorists that a significant number of Americans believed, and probably still believe, that it is true.

Or a post about Barack Obama? Conservatives have trafficked in claims that Obama a) is Muslim, or b) was not born in the United States, or c) is a Socialist, or d) is a Communist, or e) wants to be the One World leader, or f) you name it, so often that people have begun to believe them. In the South, nearly 50% of the people believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States; it's about 10% in other parts of the country.

Or about Health Care? Well, you get it. You get the point.

We all tell lies. No point in denying that. We all have told the same lie more than once. No point in denying that either. But there is something so insidious, so virulent, so wrong in telling the same lie over and over in the public discourse of a school or, even worse, a country as a way of undermining one's opponent. Whether it skews more towards pathological behavior or towards Machiavelli, it is a repulsive act.

The problem is that it tends to work. Like all ad hominem attacks ("against the person"), such statements are hard to refute, because every time you say that something isn't true, it feels to the casual observer that it might be a little more true. And the other problem , for the human soul, if that matters, is that a person who tells the same lie over and over starts to believe it's true, starts to act on it as if it is fact, will defend it against all opposition with greater ferocity than an equivalent truth.

And so what happens to a society that gets bombarded with false statements repeated over and over? I'll tell you. The people in that society become confused, they become paranoid and distrustful, they become passive, and any attempt to move that society forward becomes mired in that mud. You want a quick way to get a sense of where we are right now, then take a hard look at the statements that are out there every day, being mouthed on radios and televisions and then being repeated in cars and churches and locker rooms.

In America 2009, if you think that whatever side you're on is winning, you're wrong. It is only the voices of the shrill that are winning, drowning out any middle ground as we push farther and farther apart.


Jason said...

Great post Bob. It feels like the middle is evaporating in so many ways, not just politically, nowadays.

Anonymous said...

The middle isn't shrinking and isn't evaporating. It's just not newsworthy. Nothing about the middle garners attention. The entire nature of the middle is to want boring things like people working together and compromising.

I realize it's fiction, but watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington this week has me starting to suspect that this isn't remotely a new problem in politics.

Mike Scott said...

I personally believe that if you spread enough lies eventually one of them is bound to be true.

jed said...

as George Costanza once said, "It's not a lie if you believe it."

Tockstar said...

Even if the nutritionist was smoking, what's the big deal? She's not a pulmonologist. If she'd eaten the cigarette, THAT would be problematic. Great post! I've been reading a lot lately encouraging people to look to the middle ground - perhaps a meaningful movement is afoot in the blogosphere?

cinderkeys said...

Exactly right. And as in your example, it's not just telling the lie over and over again. It's refusing to acknowledge the other side.

This happens in discussions of myalgic encephalomyelitis, a so-far incurable disease that causes crushing fatigue, pain, and a lot of other nasty symptoms. Many psychiatrist quacks will tell you this is psychological ... that sufferers have "illness beliefs" and need therapy. (Haven't heard of ME? That's because the people who want you to believe it's psychological call it "chronic fatigue syndrome.")

There are tons of scientific papers about genetic and physiological causes of the disease. The quacks' response? Nothing. They simply don't mention those papers in their papers.

The Iraq War is another great example. If the Bushies had engaged their opponents by trying to prove Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, their arguments would have fallen apart straightaway. Just saying he was involved was far more effective.

Anyway, thanks for posting. This kind of thing drives me insane.

Bob said...

Maybe a nutritionist who smokes shouldn't matter, but it sure was used against her.

Yeah, I know the author of Sea Biscuit has chronic fatigue syndrome; I've read of her trials and tribulations just to get the book written. But, you're right, just the change in label makes it sound like something you ought to be able to shake off.