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How to Spot Lies and Liars
"The history of an oppressed people is hidden in the lies and the agreed-upon myth of its conquerors." --Poet Meridel Le Sueur, Crusaders, 1955
In capitalist society, we see and hear more lies than truth. The main reason is capitalism's domination of information sources, but a deeper investigation will reveal that there are great opportunities for liars in the very nature of language, the nature of statistics and mathematics, and the science/art of presentation.
The capitalist class controls almost all information sources, including movies, TV, radio, novels, textbooks, and politics. Their most important tool is idealist philosophy rather than materialist. An idealist, someone who does not consult the physical world of facts but thinks he/she has some "inner guidance to truth", can be convinced of almost anything. In reality, their "inner guidance" is synonymous with their emotions.
Americans are misled time and time again by such basically crazy statements as "We have to protect our interests in the Middle East." Whose interests? Whom do they mean by "us?" Do "we" have interests in the Middle East, or is it "they" who have such interests? Big corporations, especially oil companies, surely do have interests in the Middle East. But do working people have interests there that overcome the sufferings of war?
With apologies to the lovable cartoon character, Pogo Possum, the oft-repeated humorous quote that "We have met the enemy and it is us" shows how misleading the simple pronouns, "us" and "we," can be. The ruling capitalist class dearly loves telling those who suffer under them that "we're all in this together."
The famous semanticist S.I. Hayakawa is quoted, "You guys are both saying the same thing. The only reason you're arguing is because you're using different words." Hayakawa wrote extensively about the shortcomings of language in describing the actual world and events. Semanticists enjoy word-riddles such as, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The grammar may make sense, but the sense is nonsense.
"Where does your fist go when you open your hand?" is another more or less harmless way to show that good grammar does not always describe the truth. "Where do you go when you die?" Semantics.
The failures of ordinary language become especially obvious when applied to abstract concepts with no reference point, such as space and time. "What comes after the end of time?" and "What's outside outer space?" are good grammatical sentences that seem to require answers, but have none. When we describe the universe as expanding, but with no edges and no center, we lack corresponding ideas to lend understanding, and yet that is, as far as anyone knows, the actual description of the universe! In describing certain realities, words fail us.
I once heard a radio evangelist make a much more sinister use of the contradictions within ordinary language. He was saying, "You have to believe that you will live forever. I challenge you to imagine yourself dead! You can't do it, so you must live forever, either in Heaven or Hell." If "you" were dead, of course, then "you" would be incapable of imagining anything, and that's the gimmick the preacher was using.
If we hear, "Nine out of ten doctors smoke Lucky Strike," we might want to ask, "Which ten were asked? Who asked them? How were they asked?" before believing anything. Mark Twain said that figures don't lie, but liars figure.
Recently, in their eagerness to undermine Social Security, anti-worker politicians enjoyed pointing out that there were 11 workers supporting every 1 retiree when Social Security was created in 1935, but that there were only 4 workers supporting every 1 retiree in 2005. If we don't see the lie in that, then we'd be willing to conclude, along with the greedy capitalist politicians, that Social Security must be drastically altered. The lie they were using becomes obvious when one realizes that a worker in 2005 produced more than 500% as much wealth than a worker in 1935, because of measured productivity gains. If the 2005 worker produced 5 times as much, then 4 of them were producing as much as 20 workers from 1935! They could almost support two retirees at the 1935 level. Liars figure!
Another, even simpler, lie was to say that Social Security was losing 5% of its value every year, consequently it would be gone in 20 years! Even the mathematics is wrong on that one, because the base 100% would be diminished every year, consequently the 5% lost would be less every year and the value would never completely disappear. But much worse and far more dangerous is the assumption that future events can be projected in a linear way from past events. Just because a certain mathematical progression can be found in past events does not predict that they will continue in future.
Statistics can be used to show a mathematical correlation between two trends. Does that mean that one of them caused the other? Liars assert that they do, but they don't necessarily. A politician might say, "Since I was elected, crime went down by 10%," but crime may have diminished for many other reasons having nothing to do with his/her being in office.
Statistics is a branch of mathematics, but even mathematics, like language, fails to explain some aspects of reality. Our geometry teachers tell us that a point has no height, width, nor depth; but reality tells us that a thing with no dimensions cannot exist. Teacher represents this "point" with a dot on a chalkboard, and the chalk dot exists, but it clearly has dimensions. In algebra, mathematics falters when a formula produces the square root of a negative 1. Since mathematicians can do almost nothing with it, they call it an "imaginary number" and go on.
Adolf Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, was famous for saying that people will believe anything if it is repeated often enough. If our television announcer tells us that raising taxes on the rich is impossible, we may seek corroboration on another TV channel, where they will tell us the same thing. Eventually, even we find ourselves repeating it. Goebbels' technique is known worldwide as "the big lie."
A "straw man" debater's trick is to say that one's opponent holds a position that he/she doesn't actually hold. Then argue against that position. It's extremely common in political campaign ads such as, "My opponent believes that government should spend, spend, spend without any regard to paying the bills. Let me tell you what's wrong with that...." The opponent believes no such thing, but the argument seems to prevail, even though it's an argument against a "straw men!"
Politicians hire "spin doctors" to make sure that information is presented in a way favorable to their employers. Imagine a murderer with a smoking gun standing over his bleeding victim and saying, "This man has confiscated my bullet, and I want it back!"
An insidious form of lying entails presenting arguments within "frames" that preclude discussions of the broader reality. Suppose that a politician wants to vote for a bill, but wants to pretend that the voters have insisted that he do so. He might "frame" a town hall meeting as a discussion on whether he should vote for it (1) today, in its present form, or (2) wait to vote for it tomorrow after amendments. His "frame" doesn't even allow for the idea that he could oppose the bill! The common example of a "framed" discussion begins with the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" Whoever answers, whether it's "yes" or "no," is trapped!
A good way to understand framing is to physically move a small picture frame around a larger photograph. The photos above, for example, might be used with 3 different headlines: The top one could say, "Women Dominate March," the second, "IAM Machinists Union Dominates March," or thirdly, "African American Workers Dominate March." Actually, each of the three frames were taken from the same larger photo. I framed them differently!
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