This is a draft of one of the chapters from my book, The Descent Into Complete Order. This version may differ from the final publication.
"SECURITY is greater than LIBERTY"
This is what we are told to think in America. Not in those exact words, of course, that would be too brash. But it is plainly the choice, a false choice, between security and liberty that we are presented with all the time, and then told, in a carefully framed nudge, that the Only Possible Solution is security.
Where are we asked to make this choice?
We are bombarded with stories of mass shootings, and told that the Only Possible Solution is [gun control / more armed citizens]. Solutions which, what do you know, just so happen to [strengthen the political power of the government / improve sales for the gun lobby].
We are bombarded with stories of migrant invasions, and told that the Only Possible Solution is a boarder wall. A Solution which, what do you know, just so happens to increase the power of the politicians telling us this.
We are bombarded with stories of terrorists lurking around every corner, and told that the Only Possible Solution is a massive conglomerate of surveillance, pat downs, checkpoints, and cameras. A Solution which, what do you know, just so happens to increase the power of numerous government agencies and the ability of the government to control society.
We are bombarded with stories of the heinous acts of the Bad Political Party which is hopelessly stupid and corrupt, and told that the Only Possible Solution is to vote for the Good Political Party, who has never ever been wrong and never ever will be wrong. A Solution which, what do you know, just so happens to strengthen the grip of the political party telling you how great and caring they are.
These Solutions are nice sounding, and some of them may even be well intentioned. But they all frame the issue with a false choice.
The threats are always framed as existential. The stakes are always framed as do-or-die, life or death. The solution is always held up as the Only Possible Solution. And any disagreement with the Only Possible Solution is framed as stupidity or traitory.
You don’t hate the Constitution, do you? No, of course not. So of course you have to support the Second Amendment, of course you support my right to carry this rifle.
You don’t support terrorists, do you? No of course not. So of course you support this surveillance program.
It’s convenient, isn’t it, how the Only Possible Solution being offered always seems to strengthen the political power of the one offering the Only Possible Solution?
These are carefully framed arguments that serve the interests of those making them, not you the person listening to them. These nudges widely appear across the ocean of online news and social media content, as well as in our newspapers, on television, on the radio, and on blogs. Whether you’re watching Fox News or NBC, whether you’re reading the New York Times or Brietbart, whether you listen to John Oliver or Rush Limbaugh. All of them frame issues as existential threats to your safety but, if you just give up a little more control, you’ll be safe.
Sometimes the authors are even well-intentioned, sometimes they even believe it. That doesn’t change the fact that what they are asking is not the Only Possible Solution. There is never a single ‘Answer’. That doesn’t mean that all these people and publications are always wrong. No, they usually have a lot of interesting and useful facts and insights to share. But when they frame their Solutions as the Only Possible ones, when they dismiss any disagreement as traitory, then it becomes dangerous. Dangerous to your Independence of Mind.
Because if someone can tell you over and over again that theirs is the Only Possible Solution, and get you to believe it, then they’ve successfully nudged you into accepting their view of the world. They’ve successfully kept you from imagining any other possible solution or even considering that maybe sitting down with other people and hearing different perspectives might help you collaborate to find a (gasp) compromise.
There, I said it. I said the ‘C’ word. Compromise. Oh, the horror.
So how do they get away with it? How do they frame their arguments and nudge people to accept the Only Possible Solution?
One easy tactic is to be as vague as possible. Normally when we want to understand a complicated problem, having specific facts is very useful. But specific facts are troublesome if we want to blow an issue out of proportion or twist people’s perceptions of the world.
For example, people might not be very concerned about terrorism in the US if they learned that it killed only 79 Americans worldwide in 2016.
But we can’t have that, no, we need people to be terrified of terrorists so we can justify all that new military-grade equipment for our police state (er, I mean the standard protective gear for your friendly neighborhood cops, right).
To be perfectly clear, purchasing military armament for police, or any number of other programs, may be well intentioned and justified. But it certainly shouldn't be justified by an imaginary threat.
We could show people this chart, which looks at cause of death in the US and highlights that fewer than 0.01% of all deaths in the US in 2016 were from terrorism. You are 180 times more likely to die from suicide, over 3,000 times more likely to die from heart disease. Terrorism is scary, that’s the point, but it’s really not a bit threat to Americans.
Globally, terrorism is a bit more deadly, responsible for 0.05% of all deaths in 2017. Even so, that’s still a vanishingly small amount. We pay an outsized amount of attention to terrorism.
So sure, we could spread the word that terrorism isn’t such a big deal. But then people would stop being afraid. And we couldn’t use that fear as an excuse to take more control.
Much better if we stick to telling people that terrorists are a ‘huge problem’ that risks ‘tearing the country apart’.
Oh, and be sure to spend a few hours of airtime ever single time even a minor incident happens anywhere in the country. That way people will think that this is happening all the time and terrorists lurk around every corner.
See, this way they don’t have to bother with accurate or specific facts. When they (whichever person or publication is using this tactic) can keep things as vague as possible it becomes easier to spin stories however they want, and it helps them avoid having to put things in perspective. That might risk people like you realizing that this Existential Threat isn’t that big of a deal. Much better to keep the treat vague and ominous.
Because if they can make you afraid, then you’re not going to think properly. If they can keep you afraid, they can tell you what to think. If they can keep you afraid they can justify the Only Possible Solution – which, would you look at that, just so happens to strengthen their political power.
And you know what, maybe that Only Possible Solution being proposed actually is a good idea. But if it is, we shouldn’t adopt it because we’re being terrified into embracing it as the Only Possible Solution. If it’s actually a good idea, it should be adopted because we’ve come together to review the facts, shared our different perspectives, and identified this as one of many possible responses that we can take that, while it might not fully address the problem, we can be pretty sure that it will do more good than harm.
But it’s just so much easier and nice sounding to say that we have an Answer that will finally solve everything!
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. - Benjamin Franklin, AD 1755
I know, I’m quoting out of context. On it’s own though it superbly captures the trade off, so I’m keeping it.
Another tactic to twist public opinion is for someone to avoid making specific citations and instead try to make their opinion seem like it’s common knowledge. This is particularly true when a speaker or anchor starts a statement with “Some people say...”
Well some people say that February has 30 days. Some people say that Abraham Lincoln puffed four Juuls every morning before his crossfit class followed by a bubblegum flavored martini – shaken not stirred. Some people are five year old children that will gladly say anything for a piece of candy. I don’t care what ‘some people’ say.
As a news organization, if you’re so lazy or incompetent that you can’t send someone on the street or an internet forum and actually interview a real life human being that says those things, and then clearly portray that this is an opinion, then you’re probably just making stuff up.
Seriously, don’t tell us ‘some people think...’ followed by your personal opinion. Tell us who, specifically, thinks those things, and why we should treat them as an authority on the subject.
That’s right, tell me their credentials. Is this a PhD researcher? Is this a blue collar worker who’s been honing her trade for the past 25 years?
Or is this the drunk guy on the Metro sitting next to me rambling about how he just got fired and the world sucks but it’s OK now because I’m his ‘comrade’ and we’ve got to stand up to ‘The Man’? (true story)
Maybe we should have a rule of thumb. Any time someone says ‘some people say’ or ‘people are saying’ or ‘a very close friend’ or ‘I’ve heard that’ and don’t immediately follow that with an actual example or named source, let’s mentally replace that with ‘some drunk guy on the train’.
Try it out for a few days and see how often you need to make that change. Just a thought.
I’m not just ranting about problems for the sake of being frustrated. All of these things I’m writing about – speaking in vague terms instead of hard facts, fostering fear, saying ‘some people say’ instead of citing specific people – these are tactics that we can learn to become aware of, train ourselves to notice when they are being used on us.
In that way we can hopefully become more astute consumers of information and filter out the BS, protecting our autonomy of mind from being corrupted by Narratives others hoist upon us.
So what are some other tricks that we can learn to become aware of? There are many, and at this point instead of listing them I’ll just let you wiki ‘logical fallacies’. My goal here was to draw attention to the fact that our information streams are distorted and framed to control perspectives. I don’t mean the Right Media or the Left Media distort and frame conversations, I mean that all publications, every newspaper, every single politician or salesperson, all of them. They all put their own spin on the stories they communicate. Yes, the newspaper you read, the blogger you follow, the YouTube commentators you listen to, your friends and family. All of them are constantly nudging you, spinning stories with their own frames. Some are small and almost unconscious, others are elaborate and planned. Some are in your own interests, like when your spouse tries to coax you into exercising more, some do not have your own interests in mind.
Everyone puts a spin on the stories they share. That’s not a bad thing or a good thing, it’s a thing all humans do. I’m doing it in this book by choosing what topics to include or exclude.
What’s important is that we, as a consumers of information, are aware of the biases of our sources of information and work to counter them. Once you do realize that the stories you are being told are always at least part fiction, well, you’re a smart person, you’ll be able to figure out for yourself how it’s being done and how to recognize the fallacies.
Not to paint a false equivalence however, the way a parent tries to corral their kids out of bed for school is a very different type of manipulation than a company lobbying for a certain regulation. I’m much more concerned with the later, both because it involves a much greater scale and has the potential to affect millions of people for years to come, not just one or two children for the day.
There is one fallacy that I do want to spend more time on. Fear. And fear is perhaps the most powerful of all the fallacies, because it’s so effective at short circuiting your rational thinking and shifting you into immediate impulsive action.
Let’s take one example, fear of migrants. Many believe migrants are more likely to commit crimes. Some politicians have taken advantage of this fear.
In 2015, Germany accepted over 1 million Syrian refugees. Some heralded doom, claiming that “In Europe right now the crisis is so intense, the entire European Union may collapse” (Fox). (Spoiler alert, five years later the EU has not collapsed)
Now, integrating 1 million people was obviously going to be a challenge for a country of 80 million, and public services have struggled to provide enough language and job training quickly. Turbulent though it may have been, society is far from a ‘collapse’. As for violent crime, overall, the trend in in Germany was the same in the years before and after the spike in migrants.
Does that mean everything was smooth sailing for Germany? Absolutely not. Besides the inevitable challenge of moving so many people through the immigration process, assessing their asylum claims, and helping approved migrants transition into schools and jobs, there have been cultural tensions and, perhaps most notoriously, numerous rapes perpetrated by migrants (see the 2015-2016 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults).
There is a difference, however, between the actual crimes migrants have committed, and the fear of crimes that immigrants commit. While the former is a concern that needs attention and resources, and has proven worrisome but not catastrophic, the latter has been blown out of proportion and exploited to spread division.
Perhaps the most salient case of this division-by-fear was the case of a 13 year old girl named Lisa. On January 11th of 2016 Lisa disappeared on her way to school. 30 hours later she returned home, and reported to police that she had been abducted by foreign men who did not speak good German and forced her to have sex with them. The police opened an investigation but, as she was a minor and the investigation was ongoing, did not release many details.
Media, particularly Russian media outlets, pounced on the developing story. They reported the case as an abduction of a minor by refugees who turned her into a sex slave, and alleged that this type of crime was common, despite citing no other such cases. In response to this story, there were several protests across Germany against migrants.
Several weeks later, once the investigation concluded, the German police reported that the girl was stressed about school and had actually gone to her boyfriends’ house and appears to have made the abduction story up. There was no evidence of a kidnapping or that she had had any sexual encounter during her disappearance.
The response to a refugee crisis is complicated, and needs public debate, developed plans, and time. What it doesn’t need is reports leaping ahead of the facts that spread fear.
If you dislike immigration and want the process changed, then let's engage in a discussion on the merits of our system, raising critics of its challenges and flaws (of which there are many). Then we have a chance at a clear headed discussion over the costs and benefits to different groups and how to compromise and actually get something done. The alternative (of just piling into someone else’s simplistic sounding arguments motivated out of fear) just leads to a shouting match in which nothing gets done and everyone is left unhappy and angry.
The fear categorizes people into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, which is great for riling up emotions. It’s a good tactic to replace the need for sound policies and good governance with emotional platitudes and vague slogans.
The way to shift out of this is to shift worldviews.
If you split the world into groups based on race or nationality or identity politics, in which the “other” side is alien and can’t possibly be like you, then we will always be divided and struggling against each other, a bleak self fulfilling prophecy.
If, however, the groups of the world are divided by worldview, and if each worldview allows for communication, then we can collaborate, debate, reach consensus, and occasionally change someone’s mind.
In this case the world isn’t full of good and bad people. It’s filled with people who have good and bad ideas, where those ideas can change, and we’re all living in the world together trying to figure out which ones are good and bad and which ones need changing.
Let’s try a different question: if you honestly believe that the other side is comprised of evil elitists/racists/commies/criminals, what do you do? If you believe that those who disagree with you are not decent people who happen to hold different views and opinions but rather less-than human beasts that seek to destroy you, what does politics mean to you?
Politics can no longer be a marketplace of ideas where we listen to each other and broker compromise. Politics becomes a battlefield where the other side must be defeated, and where any tactic is justified to win. That leads to a very vicious, zero-sum, race-to-the-bottom, un-American environment. Instead of cooperating to build something great we end up competing over the rubble we created. Is that where we want to go?
The solution is strike that. There is no one Only Possible Solution.
One possible process for avoiding that nasty competitive state is to evoke the Golden Rule.
Love God, and Love your Neighbor. Who is your neighbor? Everyone – be like the Good Samaritan. Empathy, compassion, generosity. Unconditionally extended to all people.
Might there be other processes that can help us build a better world? Certainly. I maintain that the Golden Rule, unconditional Love, is the most important one and serves as a foundations for many others.
Remembering that the vast and overwhelming majority of humans are individual people like us with hopes and dreams is a powerful first step for dispelling fear and building a better world.
What other processes can we take to dispel unwarranted fear?
One is to arm ourselves with some common and boring facts: that while everything in the world has the potential to implode, most of the world is currently not doing so, and is in fact doing quite well.
The current pandemic is horrific. At the same time, it is wonderful to remember that such events used to be far more common and more severe. Though still not eliminated, many infectious diseases have become far less prevalent in recent decades (see chart on next page).
Chart from: Our World In Data
Another cause for celebration is that fewer mothers are dying in childbirth. Although not uniform across regions, and with much progress still to go, infant mortality and maternal deaths throughout the world have collapsed.
Chart from: Our World In Data
Access to electricity, running water, the internet, vaccines, and abundant food are all much more universally accessible than a century ago, or even thirty years ago.
Certainly, much progress remains. But changing the world doesn’t happen over night. We should acknowledge the fantastic victories we’ve won for humanity over the years, and use that as motivation to continue to make those small meaningful changes that will further compound.
Above all, remember to be optimistic, and let your imagination soar.
In the face of all these headwinds, and existential risks, the future may seem rather bleak to some.
Many would take this as reason to despair.
I would agree that there is much unnecessary hardship in the world. You’d have to be a fool to deny that. It is proper to look out with open eyes and see the world for what it is, the beauty and the flaws.
It is also proper to identify the problems left to be solved and let your mind imagine how to fix them.
To me, the problems of the world are not insurmountable barriers over which to despair. I see how far we’ve come, and I know we as a human race have the potential to overcome anything.
I see these global challenges as exciting and interesting problems to engage with and to enjoy the process of solving.
A cynical pessimist sees the problems in the world and decides that it is broken and always will be. A realistic optimist sees those same problems, admits what is broken, and sets about fixing them.
Rather than begrudgingly settling for our problems or ignoring them, investigating them with open eyes allows us to learn what is broken, how it can be fixed. The knowledge that it is feasible to greatly improve the world is a source of hope. It’s not easy, it’s not quick, and it’s not permanent. We need to work both to build a better world and to maintain it.
But it’s worth doing. And it’s worth doing joyously.