Years ago, a television news personality filmed street crew loafing, or was it taking an extended coffee break, and packaged it as news. She rode that to a career of picking the fly-feces from the pepper (to sanitize and old expression I heard frequently in my aviation days) and to always do this in front of news cameras that she controlled, all the while speaking in scornful tones of a world far too immersed in corruption to ever be redeemed, unless she could make a buck by slanting the benefit of the doubt to suit her self-promotional goals. She had a career that I must confess was Shakespearian, to wit:
“. . . a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” Mac Beth, Act V, Scene V
One fine day, I found myself in the same place with a middle aged woman, and she was extolling the nearly unlimited virtues of this reporter with the enthusiasm of a new convert to an evangelical religion. I had been aware of this reporter for years and never took her very seriously; hearing someone speak about her with such conviction was something I found amusing, if not slightly bemusing.
So I decided to make an attempt to ask one question.
“Do you suppose that she does these because of her goodness, or because she can attract more viewers and get more money for her shows?”
The middle-aged woman became highly indignant and for a moment I wondered if she were about to strike me in anger. It was made clear to me that she thought me to be contemptible. Her righteous indignation burned like a magnesium flare and was visible to anyone close enough to see and/or hear the exchange. My reaction was self-similar to the reaction I held for the reporter herself, amusement and bemusement.
There is a great danger when individuals attach their hopes, dreams and aspirations, to one cause, or even worse, to one person. Confirmation bias goes on a feeding frenzy and better judgement is no longer in the picture. Politicians and entertainers publicly embrace causes as a way to build affiliation with their public. They may ardently believe in the cause, or may have no interest in it whatsoever, but being identified with a cause can be a powerful tool.
I suspect that some celebrities, politicians, etc, will publicly embrace a cause that they personally find counter-productive in order to harvest the benefits of being publicly affiliated with a cause that seems noble and self sacrificing. If this is the case, the consequences of such short-sighted behavior can have devastating effects. If you don’t believe me, read the history of Germany from the ’20s through to the mid ’40s. Seemingly noble causes were co-opted into one of the most egregious examples of inhumane behavior in recorded history. The masses backed the popular cause unhaltingly until the illusion became unsustainable and it collapsed. Another variation of this same phenomena played out in the collapse of the Soviet Bloc as it has done so in various places throughout history.
While self-declared investigative reporters are hardly on a plane with mad dictators, the phenomena of so completely placing one’s trust in a human icon claiming to represent all that is noble can be quite dangerous. In terms of conversational hypnosis (I’m not talking about hokey sitcom scenes involving a watch on a chain and someone barking like a seal when they hear a certain word) this comes down to pacing and leading. The icon embraces a popular, and likely noble cause, such as better schools. The public provides the enthusiasm and the icon provides the publicity, or at least the promise of publicity. If enough people hop on the bandwagon the icon is no longer pacing but is in fact leading, using the desire for affiliation to attract and retain followers. A person that started out wanting to renovate some playground equipment at the neighborhood elementary school could find themselves supporting political causes with which they do not agree, but they are unable to act with total freedom unless they are willing to abandon a great deal of status among their affiliates.
I Speak From Experience
Although I don’t use Facebook, Twitter, etc, I have been a user of various Internet fora over the years. I can think of several examples along the way that demonstrate the slippery slope from sympathizer to follower to defender. One that comes to mind involved an Internet forum that was owned and moderated by an individual whom maintained a very active presence on his own forum. (Not all forum owners do this.) In a sense, he was a minor celebrity on the forum and some forum members seemed to gain a lot of social cachet just by interacting with the forum owner in a thread. Simply stated, if the owner answered one of your posts it was a feather in your cap.
One fine day, the forum owner came onto the forum with a lament about how cruel the finances of the forum were and how he was unable to pay his technical help adequately for their efforts. Forum members jumped through all sorts of hoops, trying to outdo one another in their expressions of sympathy and making ever more grandiose offers to saddle up a white horse and ride onto the scene with a huge donation. Soon a hierarchy formed, based upon donations made. User accounts had codes indicating the level of cash donations each user had made and if you were not adequately conspicuous in your donations, then the status of your posts was negatively impacted.
Eventually, I left that forum in disgust. Occasionally I have stopped by to sample the mood, but the mood has been glum every time I’ve stopped by. Many of the forum stalwarts have moved on, and more than a few have been banned by the forum owner. The sense of community has been replaced by an attitude that can best be described as: “we don’t take kindly to strangers in these parts.” I have heard that his traffic, the lifeblood of any monetized web site, has been on an ever downward slide for years.
The phenomena, at least as I see it, seems to be as a mix of Tom Sawyer & the Picket Fence and an overly zealous Civil Defense warden. I’ve seen similar things happen on other fora, usually involving a protective rush to help the forum owner, but occasionally to defend a well-known forum member that promulgated the notion that they had been unfairly victimized.
Do you feel sorry for me yet?
A common thread in all of these examples, from the crusading investigative reporter to the self-pitying forum owner, the dominant emotion is sympathy, coupled with a strong desire to defend a sympathetic character. This rush to defend is where I see the tie-in to Tom Sawyer and the Picket Fence and the obvious tie-in to an overly zealous Civil Defense warden. In every case I cite above, the defender is entirely self-appointed while the person being defended had successfully crafted themselves as a sympathetic character. It is a tiny seed that can sprout to enormous size.
The momentum of conviction.
Public figures come in many forms, from big fish in the small pond of a special-interest Internet forum to self-declared investigative reporters, to world-famous politicians, the same phenomena consistently arises. For some reason, many people will jump at the chance to be seen as defenders of the virtuous and self-sacrificing. In the case of my forum example, these people were willing to spend surprising amounts of money once they had a way ensuring that others could see just how much they were willing to sacrifice for the virtuous cause cause they chose to support.
The amazing thing about this is the momentum that can be established when the members of a following begin to compete among themselves and try to outdo one another in their devotion to a cause, or more correctly to the person that has attached themselves to a cause, hence to be known as the icon. If that wasn’t amazing enough, the character of the person representing the cause is completely subsumed by the virtue of the cause. It becomes a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation; if the character of the icon fails to live up to the virtue of the cause their mere affiliation with the cause gives observers a reason to be understanding of any shortcomings. Remember, the icon’s role is one of affiliation, possibly publicity and perhaps even fame. The only information accepted by the would-be defenders is that which confirms their faith in the icon. When people want to believe something, the facts are of little importance.
Who are you going to believe, me, or your own eyes?
In Marx Brothers movie, brother Chico was dressed as Groucho. His identity is questioned and he answered as above, in an effort to prop up his deceit. Beyond the admittedly substantial power of confirmation bias there is one more factor that makes a noble cause so powerful as a device for persuasion. If there were a bill called “The Ultimate Child Protection Act” it would be hard to campaign against it, even if the bill did nothing to protect children. Bills that claim to protect rights, freedoms or privacy do not necessarily live up to their name, but by being framed in those terms they discourage scrutiny and anyone that challenges them risks of being seen as fighting against causes that are considered to be universal in their decency.
When I questioned the motives of her icon, the woman I referred to at the beginning of this post saw me as standing in favor of everything her icon claimed to stand against. Her anger, her near rage, was not actually directed at, but at the injustices she perceived her icon to be fighting. Chances are that I held views very similar to hers, but because I didn’t share her confidence in the motives of her icon the facts became irrelevant. Actually, the facts had already been irrelevant for some time, but my question, although asked calmly and respectfully, brought to light the emotional nature of her devotion to this investigative reporter.
While I truly had no intention of attacking the journalist, who I see as little more than a local thespian playing a role. What I did intend was simply to stimulate thought. If I had any “negative” motive it would be simply to point out that television should never be thought of as being real. Everything seen on television is completely controlled and nothing in reality is ever completely controllable. With the possible rare exception of a truly unexpected event, such as the live feed of the space shuttle Challenger exploding, every second of television, radio movies, etc, is only visible because it is intended to be. I may have just ruined TV and movies for the rest of your life, but if it adds even a bit of understanding with regard to the true significance of news and other “factual programming” then it may be worth it. 🙂
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