Friday, February 4, 2011

Black and White

Black and White

OK. I admit it; I am a black and white thinker. I’ll also cop to being a Libra, which means I like things to be reasonably fair and balanced. If I could be granted one wish in this lifetime, it would be that every human being be predisposed to honest and straightforward behavior. There is too much in our world that is based on misdirection, obfuscation, and the all-important error of omission.

My wife and I are deluged with solicitations for charitable donations. We have a well thought out charitable giving plan, and there are a number of causes and institutions that we support each year. Because we pay attention and because we keep good records, we have noticed that very often a number of these organizations will send out renewal solicitations at different times. These have begun to appear to me to be deliberate attempts to generate extra money from those people who might not keep as scrupulous records as we do. Others attempt to scare you by invoking “alarmist rhetoric” in order to goad you into giving to their particular cause. In these situations the truth is often stretched to the breaking point in order to motivate people. I find this tactic just as distasteful as the multiple renewal tactics, and have resolved never to give to ANY organization that uses either tactic. Be straightforward, give me the facts and let me make intelligent decisions about my charitable giving.

Political causes are famous for the “alarmist rhetoric” tactic. And this takes several forms. For example, the word “liberal” has been demonized. On the right, the NRA will tell you that your gun rights are in serious jeopardy when they are not. On the left, the Right to Choose movement raises the alarm with every mailing, letting us know in no uncertain terms that our rights will evaporate if we do not contribute immediately . The environmental movement has cherry picked data to make a particular point on more than one occasion. The anti-immigration movement would have us believe that all our public services are in jeopardy because we are providing them to people who are in this country illegally. These tactics are used because they work, despite the fact that often they are very often out and out lies. They move the discussion from a rational plane, where facts can be evaluated and intelligent choices made, to an emotional plane. This tends to eliminate civil discourse about ANY issue. And the use of this type of tactic is in no way limited to either the left or the right. It is almost as if demagoguery is the only language spoken in politics. I find this truly disturbing.

And don’t even get me started about advertising, packaging and related issues. Every day we see blatant examples of misleading advertising, financial disclosures written in incomprehensible language; ads for dietary supplements that make extravagant claims under a small disclaimer that says “These statements have NOT been evaluated by the FDA…” And seldom are these people called out on these lies. And even when they are caught, they simply fire up the PR machinery to spin even faster. Imagine this: in the United States, there is only one state where using an asterisk in an advertisement to mislead the reader or viewer is illegal. That is Massachusetts. In any other state, advertisements can blatantly lie in large print so long as the truth is told in fine print under an asterisk, which can be placed anywhere else in the ad. Isn’t that special?

If this is the place to which we have come; a place where the media and the advertising world count on the fact that we are too stupid to make our own choices, then it is sad indeed, not to mention profoundly insulting. Even sadder is the fact that in this day and age each of us is exposed to far more information than our parents and grandparents were. We are exposed to information and advertising during virtually every waking hour, by television, radio, print and now the Internet. It is orders of magnitude more difficult for the average person to discern the truth about any given fact that is presented.

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about our “system of justice”. As you may or may not be aware, our “system of justice” has little to do with actual justice. It is little more than theatre, and often it is theatre of the absurd. We are told that every defendant is entitled to a vigorous defense. I am OK with that, especially knowing that there are a significant number of innocent people serving sentences for crimes they did not commit. There are likely also a significant number of people walking the streets who have committed crimes and never been punished for them. Why, on one hand, do we spend a bundle of money for a trial for the person who committed the atrocity in Tucson, when he is clearly guilty; and at the same time have prosecutors fighting tooth and nail to keep a defendant who has been proven innocent by DNA testing in prison? Is this not absolutely ridiculous?

And how many vigorous prosecutions and vigorous defenses involve misdirecting the jury; cherry picking jurors that may be unable to understand a complex case or who may decide a case based on emotion instead of fact? In many jurisdictions, it unfortunately comes down to winning; who has the better lawyer. For this sad situation, I do not blame attorneys. Most often they come out of law school with the best of intentions. It is the system that needs to be changed. And while the system is so very imperfect, we certainly have no business putting people to death unless we are 100% certain that they are guilty and that there is no other means of punishment that will assure that society is kept safe.

We have created systems that have gradually grown to the point where we can no longer rely on them to be straightforward with us; and that are very easy to game. It is almost as if every time we shop for something we are going into battle. Our complaints are ignored; our airlines and telecommunications companies treat us like sheep, and we are often powerless to have any effect on the outcome.

What can we do? The very best advice I can offer is this: pay scrupulous attention. Pay attention to everything you are told, and then question the answer. Be a troublemaker. Question everything you read and try to independently determine the truth, especially when the issue is important to you or you are making a large purchase or investment. The more we are troublemakers, the less likely they are to lie to us, because they know they will be challenged.


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Ann Arbor, MI, United States
I am a software developer. I have been in that business for over 4 decades. I am also recently widowed, having lost the love of my life to ovarian cancer.