Remember that old game we used to play in grade school called Telephone? A sentence passed from lips to ear down a line of people comes out on the other end in a significantly different form than it began.
Through the mysterious interaction of brain, ears and tongue, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again” morphs to “All the king’s horses ate all the king’s hens and couldn’t get Humphrey together with Ben.”
It seems to happen in politics a lot lately, despite the existence of video and audio recordings. (I recall vividly how a legislator presented with video of her saying something, cotinued to deny that she said it. It was jaw-dropping.)
My predilection for backtracking news stories I read has netted a host of examples of political message morph, but this one happened right out in the open over a relatively short period of time (roughly two weeks):
From John Fund, of the National Review: “Did you know the Obama administration’s position has been defeated in at least 13 cases before the Supreme Court since January 2012 that were unanimous decisions?” (Okay, it’s a bit awkward, but it has the benefit of being accurate.)
From Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) on Fox News: the Supreme Court decision in National Labor Relations Board vs. Noel Canning was “the 13th time the Supreme Court has voted 9-0 that the president has exceeded his constitutional authority.”
From former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.): “It’s not a perfect system but when you’ve got an ideologically split court and 13 cases saying 9-0 the president or the administration exceeded its constitutional authority, that says something very powerful.” (Or it would if that was what they had said.)
From RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer on national television: “[I]n the last three years alone, 13 times, the Supreme Court, unanimously, 9-0, including all of the president’s liberal picks, have struck down the president’s executive orders.”
Did you catch what happened? The message went from saying that the court ruled against administration-held positions in 13 cases (which is true), to saying that it had ruled that he exceeded his constitutional authority, to saying that it struck down 13 executive orders. Mr. Goodlatte’s statement was rated False by Politifact.com, something he later admitted, saying he misspoke. Mr. Spicer’s rendering of the facts got a “pants on fire” rating. As an aside, 9 of the 13 cases originated during the prior administration. The only one that ruled on the POTUS’ constitutional authority was the one dealing with recess appointments. The court decided that Congress, not the President gets to define what a recess is.
Now, depending on which of these statements someone read or heard, they’d get a completely different idea of what had happened. It would actually be interesting to eavesdrop on conversations between three people who had each heard a different version of the statement (true, false and pants on fire). Each could claim that they heard it on the news from persons of official capacity.
These distinctions are important because they color the way we view issues, the people involved, and each other when we engage in discussion of them. They color the way we express ourselves about what we hear. Such a misconstruction of events drives a wedge between people to no benefit. Perhaps that is the intent of the speakers—I don’t know, but I hope not. We don’t need more grounds for disunity.
To me this sort of message morph serves as a wake-up call and reminds me that it is a valuable exercise to backtrack the stories I encounter in the “news”, rather than taking everything I read at face value. One of the core principles of my faith is the independent investigation of truth. This sort of investigation is necessary to understanding most complex situations and, like democracy, requires a well-informed populace. It is not proof to manipulation, but I think is a step toward being somewhat resistant to it.
Outright misrepresentation is only one factor that can impede an investigation of reality. As a writer, I know the power of words to manipulate the reader or listener—to raise the spirits or dash them, to incite pleasure or anger, to cause foreboding and fear or anticipation and attraction. Using words in this way is what the craft of writing is all about. I’m paid to be skillful at it. The tools my craft are evocative verbs, colorful adjectives, descriptive adverbs. I choose my tools carefully to maximize their effect.
As a writer of fiction, most of what I write is utter fabrication, but when I am writing non-fiction—articles such as this one—I make a point of being just as careful, but with a different purpose in mind. I want to convey what I think and feel about an issue, yes, but I want to do it without manipulating the reader—most especially through negative emotions such as fear or anger. This is why I resist common devices such as hyperbole (indicated by words like “always”, “never”, “best”, “worst”, etc.). I try not to color my reader’s perceptions of facts I relate by decorating them with adjectives, adverbs and verbs with high emotional content. I try, instead, to choose word forms that are neutral.
It can make a big difference in how a reader understands a situation. Compare these statements:
- I was walking down the sidewalk today when a boy on a skateboard almost side-swiped me.
- Some careless punk on a skateboard almost ran me down on the sidewalk today.
- I had a close call with a little boy on a skateboard today.
As I said, how you say something can make a huge difference in how a listener or reader understands it. While #1 is a fairly straightforward retelling of what happened. The words are fairly neutral. #2 assigns blame and assumes carelessness, plus it negatively labels the boy. It also hints at ill intent. #3 goes the other way, assigning no blame and softening the reader’s impression of the boy by using the adjective “little”.
Because I’m hyper aware of these devices, I tend to redact them when I read for comprehension of news items or commentary. I let the events speak for themselves, and then will often read about the same event or situation from several different sources to try to get a more accurate picture of it. If it involves actions or statements on the part of an individual, I may also try to find an account that gives a context for them. This can also be important.
Remember when Mitt Romney was quoted as saying he enjoyed firing people? What he actually said was this: “I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.”
Inelegant, but not what at least one of his competitors in the Republican primary used it to say. The paragraph in which the seemingly suspicious sentence appears provide context for what Mr. Romney meant.
Something similar happened when Mr. Obama was quoted as saying “You didn’t build that”, a statement that was taken out of context and applied to mean that no one had any part in the success of their own success. Here’s what the POTUS actually said:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.“
In context, the comment doesn’t even seem to apply directly to the business, but to the infrastructure needed for all business—roads and bridges, etc. We had a saying when I was writing training software for a high tech: Context is everything. Yes, that is hyperbole. Context may not be “everything”, but it sure is important to our understanding of the world we live in … and each other.