Manipulation 101


(USA) Election 2002, seen from the perspective of New York and New Jersey, was a pretty pitiful affair, filled with put-downs, lies, exaggerations, and manipulation attempts by the various candidates and their parties, an alarming shortage of meaningful information, and a dishearteningly low level of ethical conduct. Important though this year’s elections were, for the course of a nation facing a crucial moment in its history, the election results, per se, were probably far less important, in the long run, than the weaknesses in our system and culture which the election process served to remind us of - once again.

We see, reflected in this all-important time of year, which is supposed to provide a living, breathing, and working testament to the ideal of democracy - rule by the people, freed, by blood, from the shadow of kings - disturbing evidence that the democratic process, as it currently exists in the United States of America, is badly damaged and incomplete. We end up, having passed through another demeaning political circus, with a sense that knowledge is barely involved in the process of choosing our leaders, at all; that a few images and "selling points", built up and projected into our homes by advertisements, sound bites, campaign slogans, and photo ops are what, many times, decide the outcome of our elections. That money, which can do so much to generate these images, has largely taken the place of information in deciding the shape of our future. And that rather than being treated in a respectful manner, as free and equal citizens of a society whose future is supposed to be decided by us all, we are being treated, more and more as time goes on, by our political elites, as fools to be manipulated, putty to be shaped, puppets to be strung, and tools to be used. If this trend, which is so disconcertingly visible today, is allowed to continue, we can only wonder how long democracy will last, before it loses all of its meaning, and is eroded into something else: not quite "democracy" (rule by the people); nor "oligarchy" (rule by the few); nor "plutocracy" (rule by the rich); nor "autocracy" (rule by a king or dictator); but, instead, a kind of wasted shell of democracy which might well be called "MANIPULOCRACY" - a rule by manipulators, who use the resources available to them - money, media access, and a knowledge of certain psychological principles - to "prey upon" a basically exhausted and distracted populace, "capturing" them with disinformation and deceptions, and turning them into instruments of their own power and their own agenda. While such a system might outwardly appear to remain a democracy, in truth it would be a form of autocracy, concealed behind the familiar and reassuring shape of being able to "make choices": a system of "elected princes and kings", who "conquered" their subjects with lies, and dominated them with the chains of their own manipulated minds.

In order to protect themselves from the threat of aggressive foreign nations, countries develop armies, and arsenals of weapons. What weapon can the people inside a country develop in order to protect themselves from being manipulated, and turned into mere tools of their own leaders, or those who would be their leaders? What weapon can the people of a country develop to prevent the democracy they say they cherish, from being extinguished by the illusion of democracy?

The answer to that question is complex, and multifaceted. But surely, one of the most important steps that any populace, including our own, could take - after that of attempting to better inform itself of the issues which the politicians reduce to clichés and sound bites - would be to develop a clearer perception of the methods and tools of manipulation that are so often employed against it, in order to be better able to defend itself against them. I have often dreamt of doing something to help in this regard, contributing to a basic primer on the subject, perhaps; but I have never managed to get very far with the idea, especially considering my own hard-pressed life conditions. But here, today, as a small offering of what I have in mind, is a little piece on the matter, a little heads-up, which I have chosen to call "Manipulation 101." Something for politics, and life, in general; for America, and the rest of the world (because God knows, this kind of stuff is going on all across the globe).

More than the comprehensive or expert’s resource which we really need, consider it to be a hint. Maybe an inspiration for someone else, better connected than me, and with more time on his hands, to develop a really substantial primer for the future.

Saying It Doesn’t Mean It’s True: There’s the old adage, "You can’t believe everything you read." The same with everything you hear. Just because someone says something with authority in his voice, and an honest look on his face, doesn’t mean it’s true. He could be a good liar, or else have his facts wrong.

Details, So What? Many people are much more likely to believe a lie, or a false statement, if it is filled with details which seem to back it up, and give it a more authoritative air. For example, someone could say. "The number of violent crimes committed with legally-owned and registered firearms in the state of New Jersey between April 1998 and April 1999 represented only 6.2% of the total number of violent crimes involving a gun in the state of New Jersey during that same time." The addition of details (especially 6.2 - who would invent that?) seems to make this statement much more believable, than if it just came to us as: "There is no point in making gun registration any more difficult, because most crimes that are committed here involve guns that are illegally purchased, outside of the system." But the fact that these details have been added does NOT mean that the statement is correct. Hopefully it is, but before you take it at face value, consider: who is making the statement, what are they trying to accomplish, what do they stand to gain if we believe what they say, how reliable is this individual, what are his sources for making the statement, and can the information in that statement be verified by others who do not necessarily share his agenda? Certainly, a very effective tool of lying is to appear to be authoritative, and inserting details into one’s lie is very helpful in this regard - or can be - though it can also backfire, and come back to haunt one like a boomerang, if it is not well conceived and executed. (On the subject of details, just think of everyday life. "Where were you?" "I was - uhh - I - uhh - got stuck in traffic." Not too convincing. "Where were you?" "I got stuck in traffic. There was an accident, between an SUV and a van, right by exit 12, and two lanes were closed. We were just sitting there for hours, it seemed. Thank God I wasn’t in the car ahead of me, though, there were three little kids back there, playing and fighting with each other, I feel sorry for the mother.") Beware the master liar.

Cross-Check Sources And Make Up Your Own Mind: Before going on to continue dealing with political and societal issues, I’d like to put in this one small tip on avoiding manipulation in everyday life. It has applications both great and small. If someone tells you that your best friend is talking behind your back, pay attention, but don’t make a final judgment until you can get more information, either from your friend or from other witnesses. Is it possible the person who is telling you this stuff has an agenda of their own, and that they might be lying to you, or else misinterpreting things?

If someone tells you that so and so, who works at your company, is screwing up, check it out with your own eyes, don’t allow the perception of others to define other people and reality for you; see things for yourself, and make up your own mind. Maybe their prejudices, jealousies, or limitations are creating a false image. Form your own opinion.

In the world of politics, if someone puts down a candidate or leader, listen, and be alerted, but don’t let anyone else make your mind up for you. Always realize that when we get anything from anyone else, we are getting it through the filter of that person’s experience, sensibilities, and needs, and that that filter may, either intentionally or unintentionally, block out parts of the truth from reaching us.

The Lie’s Moment Of Usefulness: Even when a lie, or false factual claim, is subject to be "caught" and exposed, it can sometimes do its intended damage and "get away with it". I saw this in a political debate, in which one candidate denied having ever said something. After the televised debate, it was revealed that he had, in fact, said what he had denied saying. But the negative fallout from this was minimal. Far more important was the fact that he performed strongly and warded off his opponent’s attack during the debate, which millions of prospective voters were watching. The fallout afterwards did not reach as large an audience, in such an impactful way.

I also saw damage of this kind done through a newspaper, in which an act of violence in a South American country was attributed to the wrong side, in a major story. (More than being a lie on the part of the newspaper, this was probably a case of it uncritically accepting, and failing to analyze, an official statement emanating from the South American country, which did contain a lie.) When, several days later, the truth was revealed, it was generally learned only by very informed and interested observers of the region. The newspaper made no significant effort to update or correct the story, and left a false impression, with potentially important political ramifications, intact in the minds of the general public.

I also saw this scenario played out in the case of an invasion, in which the leader of the invaded country was accused of having many vices, and of possessing many incriminating artifacts in his residence. It was later determined that objects initially identified as packets of drugs, in his residence, were not drugs. But the truth was revealed only after the lie had served its purpose, and helped to accomplish its end. And it certainly got far less play than the lie.

Suckers For What We Want To Hear: Even those individuals who say, "Of course, I DON’T believe everything I read," can be suckered if the lie they’re told conforms with what they’d like to hear. If a statement seems to support our beliefs, we are far less likely to be critical of it than a statement which does not. And yet, it is important to remain open to the truth, whether it is convenient for us or not, for in the end, our basic human values and dearest dreams are better supported by knowing the truth, and working with it, than by attempting to shelter our values and dreams behind a false reality, which cannot, ultimately, protect them. I know of someone who, if he hears convincing evidence provided by "the other side" leading to conclusions he dislikes, at once puts on the glasses of skepticism to minutely examine it, if not dismiss it as certain propaganda. On the other hand, he will accept the most preposterous and absurd distortions and lies from his own "side", if they help him to believe what he already believes and wants to continue believing.

In this case, we may be a powerful accomplice in our manipulation by others, blocking out only the lies we do not want to hear, but readily accepting the lies that in some way nourish us.

Lies Directed At Our Vulnerabilities Are The Most Effective: The best lies are always those which find a way of reaching and interacting with our vulnerabilities: our fear, our egotism, our insecurity, our desire to be flattered and important, our desire to feel safe. For example, Nazism’s theories regarding the supremacy of the Aryan race - the supposed genetic superiority of the German people compared to other races and nationalities - constituted a great lie that helped to boost the German people’s self-esteem: which was one reason it was a lie accepted by so many Germans, at the time. In the same way, lies or misrepresentations that prey upon people’s fear of crime have often proven very effective in American political elections. This fear could be harnessed to attempt to achieve very different objectives, ranging from pushing laws to drastically restrict access to handguns (usually a "liberal agenda"), to increasing police powers to crack down on criminal suspects, at the expense of civil liberties (usually a "conservative agenda").

What is important, for the manipulator, is that the lie or deception relates to a very deep-seeded need or anxiety in the collective psyche, which makes the lie far more likely to "hook" the individual, enabling him to be mobilized and used, by means of it.

There Are Many Shades Of Lies: Most manipulation attempts, as a matter of fact, do not depend upon outright lies, such as "Walter Mondale had an affair with Britney Spears", or "Pakistan is in possession of space-based lasers", but use lesser shades of lies, which are far harder to nail down, and far less likely to disastrously boomerang. Lies of this sort could range from distortions, exaggerations, and misrepresentations, to truths created (by inaccurate polls, surveys, experiments, and studies); or so badly misused that they, in essence, exert the effect of lies.

Lying Through Tone: In the visual medium, many lies of this sort are transmitted by tone, without saying a single explicit lie. Photos of a candidate that show him looking tired and without vitality, or grumpy or unpleasant, and commercials backed by appropriately sinister music, can all cast a negative image about a candidate without even saying a single word. No lie has been stated, and yet the targeted individual ends up looking like Ivan the Terrible, or Dracula, which is certainly - or should I say hopefully - a misrepresentation.

Opinions As Facts: Many times, when a candidate (or other person) forcefully states his opinion of another person, many people will accept this opinion as though it were a fact. For example, someone could say: "Mr. X doesn’t care about us." "Mr. X is weak on terrorism." "Mr. X’s policies have failed." All of these are opinions, and yet millions of people routinely allow pronouncements of this sort to enter their minds as though they were facts, and to shape the images of candidates which they build and store in their minds, and take with them into the voting booth on Election Day.

It is absolutely crucial, in order to avoid being manipulated, that citizens be alert to distinguish opinion from fact. In the case of the above assertions, the citizen must ask himself, "Is there any factual basis to these claims, and if so, what is it? What has Mr. X done to indicate that he does not care about us? How is Mr. X weak on terrorism? In what way have Mr. X’s policies failed?"

The citizen must also be especially aware that to get "facts" about a candidate from a candidate’s opponent is a very unreliable way of finding out the truth, indeed!

To illustrate how misleading the above assertions may be, suppose that Mr. X is said not to care about "us", because he voted against a bill that would have lowered the cost of prescription drugs for seniors. Sounds bad, really heartless, but still, don’t count Mr. X out. Maybe the bill he voted against was a bill that didn’t cut the costs of prescription drugs enough! Maybe he thought this bill was an effort by the big drug companies and their legislative backers to defuse a tense political situation by pretending to give in to consumers, and make a meaningless concession which would block out more significant legislation in the future. Maybe he was actually working for another, more thorough bill. Maybe the bill contained some unacceptable provisions, trying to sneak through behind the good parts of the bill (a common legislative trick). - Or take the case of Mr. X being "weak on terrorism." Maybe that means that he did not give the government a carte blanche on the war on terrorism; that he opposed certain provisions of a new antiterrorist bill that he thought might undermine fundamental civil liberties in issues not related to terrorism, as well as certain military actions which he thought might lose the focus of the war on terrorism, and undermine the international support needed for its successful prosecution. - As you can see, the negative opinions Mr. X’s opponent has used against him, are derived from distortions and misinterpretations of facts - and can, in no way, be accepted as substitutes for facts.

Buzz Words: "Buzz Words" are simply words filled with emotional content, used in the manner of shortcuts, or code words, to produce conditioned responses from those who hear them. If you call someone "weak" or "soft", for example, that is supposed to produce negative feelings that instantly turn people away from him. Never mind the fact that these words are just opinions, and that one man’s "weak man", many actually be a strong man who will not let others walk over his conscience or obscure his judgment, in order to assume a pose of strength. (Sometimes, in fact, those who seem strongest are actually only the cruelest and most psychologically frail.) How about this one: "divisive." Many times, those who advocate for the poor and speak out against injustice are called "divisive" - a negative buzz word - rather than courageous, compassionate, or principled. I have always found it particularly interesting how those who point out existing inequalities are accused of dividing a society, whereas those who defend and profit from those inequalities - those who, in effect, champion an already "divided society" - are the ones who are somehow able to portray themselves as promoters of social harmony and peace.

Here are some more: "Godless atheists." Who the hell are these guys? They sound like monsters, but, in truth, they may simply be individuals who support the separation of Church and State, meaning that they believe the government should not officially sponsor or support any particular religion, as that might eventually lead to discrimination against, or repression of, other religious beliefs (which would violate the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion). Presumably, individuals are also allowed to maintain a non-religious view of the universe, in our society, which would be an appropriate exercise of their intellectual freedom. This does not mean that they are immoral, for morality is capable of being formed and generated by the compassionate human heart, regardless of whether one believes in God, or not. An atheist may be kind, moral, prudent, and wise; while religion is no guarantee of morality. Just take a look at Bin Laden, a deeply religious man, whose belief led to airplanes filled with innocent people being hijacked and crashed into the twin towers of the world trade center. Just look at the officials of the medieval Christian Inquisition, whose belief led them to burn people alive at the stake, and to torture, imprison, and terrorize great multitudes. Clearly, morality and immorality are not absolutely defined by whether one believes in God, or not, because many who have no religion have found other sources of love and discipline to guide them through life, while many who say they do believe in God, have only used religion to project their cruelty into the world. Nonetheless, "Godless atheist" is most definitely a loaded phrase, implying, to most people, that someone who is called that is in some way immoral, degenerate, dangerous, or despicable.

Then we have the buzz word "Un-American." A person who is "Un-American" seems to be like a traitor, an enemy within, who ought to be cast out of society, or at least rejected and isolated. But who is calling the person "Un-American"? And what does "American" mean to him? And to you? Is someone who criticizes some aspect of the country and its behavior "Un-American", or might he actually love the country more, and be trying to cure it of some ill, and make it better? Who is it, I wonder, who has the right to say what is "American", and what is not?

Along similar lines, we have the word "socialism", and any variation thereof, such as "socialized medicine." "Socialism" implies, to most Americans, an authoritarian and economically inefficient system in which the government intrudes into people’s lives, limits their freedoms, and controls the economy, crushing private enterprise and individual liberty. The fact is, most modern capitalist societies - societies which are driven by private enterprise and business, such as our own - contain elements of socialism (or government control over the economy) to help them run more smoothly. These are called "mixed economies": societies in which the government does participate as a major economic player, while still allowing private enterprise to remain as the primary engine of economic development. Welfare payments for the poor, unemployment insurance, Social Security, disability insurance, Medicaid and Medicare, government subsidies for some businesses, and government bailouts of others, government spending on public works projects, legislation created to protect consumers and the environment by regulating, or formulating standards for the business community, government involvement in fiscal policy, etc., could all be considered as elements of socialism introduced into the capitalist system, in order to overcome some of the defects, excesses and oversights of that system, in its unconstrained, "laissez faire" state. Most political analysts today consider that such measures have historically strengthened, even saved, rather than weakened the capitalist system. And yet the word "socialism" continues to be thrown around as a negative buzz word, to discredit anything it touches. This approach has been used to attack efforts to create a national health insurance plan which would help to provide medical coverage for millions of uninsured, and at risk, Americans. Designated "socialized medicine" by its opponents, this buzz word has played a part in making what seems to be a natural, compassionate ideal, appear as some kind of dark threat to the American way of life.

"Special interests" is another of the classic buzz phrases, as in, "He supports special interests..." This term is meant to apply to organizations or groups which lobby (advocate certain policies to legislators), and which may sometimes support a politician (with contributions and votes) in exchange for "favors", or help down the road. For example, a company may donate money to a politician’s campaign, and the politician may, in turn, try to kill legislation that could adversely affect the company. Or a trade union may mobilize votes for a politician, who might then seek to promote economic policies that helped the members of that union. Sometimes, the relation is not so cynical, there is just an honest rapport and natural affinity between a politician and certain interests and causes. And when all is said and done, practically every politician has connections to some "special interests." Those who blast others for being "wed to special interests" are often just trying to play an emotional card, making it seem like that politician is only concerned about a small group, and not "the rest of us", while the fact is that many of us are represented by "special interest groups", which may be our unions, consumer advocacy groups, environmental protection groups, civil rights groups, and/or business groups. Whenever the word "special interests" is thrown around, more details need to be uncovered before it’s time to start throwing stones.

Then, not to be forgotten, is the word "evil." That’s about as strong a buzz word as one can find. It should also raise a "red flag", in any alert citizen’s mind, because it is most always part of a manipulation attempt. Very few people or nations are purely "evil", and the use of this word to describe them is an obvious effort to arouse strong emotions, in order to mobilize the public to fight, not think - in order to drive them to act, not understand. But this is not a world of black and white, and the word "evil" more often obscures reality, than defines it. It simplifies the world, robbing it of its complexity and nuances - nuances, in which healing and paths to peace may sometimes be found. In cases, when this politically-motivated reduction of reality into the mindless dichotomy of "good versus evil" leads to needless, ill-conceived acts of violence, I would call it a "criminal simplification" of the truth. This is not to say that there are not heinous, cruel, ruthless, aggressive, and dangerous people out there. But who is calling these people "evil"? Are the ones doing the name-calling really so much better, or only more familiar to us, and less threatening? Is there an angel anywhere on this planet? Although understanding another person’s wounds and motivations may not make peace possible, not understanding his wounds and motivations will make peace impossible. The word "evil" stands in the way of developing this understanding.

But, of course, "buzz words" need not always be negative. We also have many positive buzz words on record, such as "peace", "democracy", "freedom", "liberty", "democracy", "progress", and "justice." Whenever any one of these words is used in connection with a project, that project is immediately blessed, immediately sanctified, immediately supported. Who could be against it? And yet, it is well to remember that words are words. What are the actions that have chosen to wear these words? Do the words fit them, or are the words only being used as a disguise to cover over another, darker intention, another, darker spirit, whether born of malice or ignorance? It is well to remember, when one hears them, that everyone uses these words. The Chinese took over Tibet to "liberate" the Tibetan people from a "backward social order", and to bring "progress." The British colonized and dominated India and large parts of Africa to bring "civilization." In my lifetime, I have seen words such as "freedom" and "democracy" used selectively to justify actions in one part of the world, while issues of freedom and democracy were utterly ignored, or even violated, in other parts of the world; which has led me to the conclusion that nations are far more likely to base their actions upon pragmatic and self-serving concerns than upon those idealistic concerns that are officially used to mobilize support for their actions. This does not mean that it is wrong to act on the basis of pragmatic concerns. Sometimes, it is imperative to do so. However, this does serve as a warning that just because positive buzz words are being used to justify an action, does not meant that those wonderful things are what the intended action is really all about. Whenever such words are used, it is well to look more deeply at the actual reality, and to divine what is truly happening, so that one can decide if the price being asked of one is really worth paying.

Out Of Context: Many times, individuals may be attacked on the basis of something they said, which has been deliberately taken out of context in order to create a false impression. Take this striking example: "Mr. X. said, and I quote, ‘Hitler was a great leader…’" Well, a quote like that, pumped into the media, would certainly put Mr. X’s political (and personal) future on the ropes. People would immediately equate him with some kind of Neo-Nazi maniac, and do everything in their power to crush him. But, it turns out, Mr. X’s actual quote was: "Hitler was a great leader, in terms of his ability to manipulate the masses and to shape people into a tool to achieve his ends." This statement is not only accurate, but obviously imbued with anti-Hitler sentiment; and yet, by extracting a part of it, and presenting it out of context, it has been used to misrepresent Mr. X’s views to the public, and to convey a totally misleading picture of his real beliefs.

Exaggerations: Somewhat similar to the device of taking an opponent’s words out of context, is the device of exaggerating facts, and representing them with words that really do not "fit." For example, say a person, as a young man, was once busted for smoking pot. Would it really be representative and fair, now, 30 years later, to say something like: "Do we want a drug user running our government?" Or, "He wants to be our senator, in spite of his criminal past." If challenged, the individuals using this weapon can say that they are only telling the truth; but, in fact, they are really using the truth as a kind of soil in which to grow a plant that is quite disconnected from the truth. They are using it to turn a pussy cat into a lion.

Another example might be the case of a legislator who votes against a bill which would have banned pornography from the Internet. "So and so supports pornography," his opponents could then say - and it seems, they would be right, to a certain extent. However, that representation of his actions would really obscure the fact that the legislator’s primary motivation for voting as he did, was to limit government’s power to censor material on the Internet, in an effort to keep the Internet from falling under the control of a particular mindset that might use "porno" as a way to break down "First Amendment rights", and then begin to extend its moral agenda into other dimensions of expression. Again, this exaggeration, and misrepresentation, would turn the unfortunate legislator from being a champion of intellectual and artistic freedom, and a believer in protecting the citizenry from excessive government interference with their personal choices, into a "low class sleazeball." From a person of character, he would have been transformed into an "advocate of vice". Not quite accurate, or fair.

Birds Of A Feather Flock Together: Many times, people are judged by the company they keep. If you can associate a respectable opponent with some other figure who is unpopular, disreputable, or unliked, you may be able to bring him down, not for anything he has done, but just by means of "contaminating" his image with that of the other one. Many times, "the fatal handshake" is used against a political figure. In some official diplomatic or fact-finding capacity, this figure may have traveled to another land, and been photographed shaking hands with a hated and mistrusted foreign leader. Usually, on such missions, if one is offered a hand to shake, one will shake it. That is the nature of diplomacy, and probably the most prudent choice, since if one refused, it would be like slapping the foreign leader in the face, and closing any possible doors that might have been opened. A photo such as this, however, back at home, may be used to project a false image of one as an enemy sympathizer, or a fool, and cause a lot of PR damage.

At other times, no photograph, and no connection of any kind, not even a one-second handshake, is necessary. Consider this sentence: "America is today being rotted out at the roots by atheists, gays and liberals." In this sentence, "atheists", "gays" and "liberals" are all being lumped into one category, and for many people, rendered morally equivalent. While for many people, today, being "gay" is a source of pride, for many others across the land, it still carries connotations of sin, perversion, degeneracy, and anti-Christian behavior. The negative feelings evoked, in such people, by this word, is likely to "rub off" on the word "liberal", which has been included with it in the same list, and to therefore put political liberals into the same boat as the "corrupt" and "sinful" gays, and the "Godless" and "immoral" atheists.

Bad Connotations: Sometimes, facts which may carry "bad connotations", are presented, and used to put someone down. For example, a candidate might be referred to, by his opponent, as a "multimillionaire" or a "billionaire", which may excite jealousy, spark resentment, and engender distrust ("will he look out for me, the little guy?"), especially if he is the son of an "oil tycoon" or "company executive." If someone is rich in America, people are more likely to relate to him if he started from scratch and built up his fortune in true rags-to-riches fashion, than if he was just handed everything on a silver platter. Even in the 19th century, Toqueville noted how many of the wealthy tried to downplay their wealth, and appear to be part of the "common mass of men"; and we can still note that tendency, today, as millionaires and multimillionaires try their damnedest to talk in a folksy, "salt of the earth" type of way, and run commercials showing themselves "hanging" with blue collar, working class people. (One of the funniest cases of this occurred some years ago, when Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wanted to overcome his intellectual, upper-class image, and shoot a commercial showing him talking with people in the slums. But apparently he, or his campaign managers, feared to actually take him to the slums, and so they built a fake slum set on which to shoot the ad.)

But not to lose the point: although being rich (as a result of one’s family background) has bad connotations in the American political scene, it should not, really. Prince Siddartha Gautama, destined to become the Buddha, was born rich, a prince; and who showed more compassion and love and solidarity with the poor people of the earth than he, when he finally came down from his palace to live in the "real world", with everyone else? Better someone who is rich, and does not flaunt it or hide from it, than someone who is rich and tries to come off like Abe Lincoln…

Another example of how "bad connotations" could be used against a candidate: the fact might be brought up, or somehow "let out of the bag", that he had, at one time in his life, had a "divorce" - something which really would not reveal much about his worth as a candidate, but which might, nonetheless, create a bad impression in some people’s minds. (This was a deadly political liability in the past, though nowadays, its impact is probably minimal.)

In the same way that we should not misjudge someone because of certain personal facts which may have "bad connotations", so we need not blindly give our support to anyone just because there are elements to their personal story which have "good connotations." "A veteran and a war hero", for example. That sounds good. But if this man is running to be a US senator, let’s find out more about him and his views on a variety of subjects. After all, helping to shape the future of a nation is not the same as fighting valiantly on a battlefield. Being a wise political leader is not the same as being an effective military tactician.

Who’s To Blame? Whenever something goes wrong in a society, you can be sure that manipulation attempts are going to be out in force. If the disaster can’t be hidden, then at least you can try to disown it, and leave it in somebody else’s yard. This makes me think of the 1980s, when during the Reagan presidency, the US budget deficit grew to staggering proportions. The Democrats, Reagan’s political opponents, blamed him for cutting taxes and thereby reducing government revenue, while increasing military spending (with programs such as "Star Wars/SDI"), which raised government costs. They saw the tax cuts as an irresponsible mechanism used by the Republicans, Reagan’s party, in order to win votes (at the price of doing long-term damage to the economy). The Republicans, on the other hand, blamed the Democrats in the Congress for refusing to deepen cuts in government spending for social services, such as Welfare, and many other programs which provided relief or support to poor communities. If they had made these spending cuts, the Republicans argued, the tax cuts (revenue cuts) could have been sustained without producing a deficit. According to the Republicans, the Democrats were using these social service programs as a kind of political bribe to win the support of the communities which benefited from them. Who was right, and who was wrong? Though I have my own view, I won’t insert it into this article. What I will say is that both the Republicans and Democrats, with their different visions of America, refused to give up what meant the most to them, in terms of government spending; and that, in that context, the tax cuts (with no corresponding reduction in spending), inevitably resulted in a horrendous budged deficit. Not surprisingly, it seems that, during this time, Republicans tended to side with the President and to blame the "free-spending" Democrats, and that Democrats tended to blame the President for his "mammoth military budget", and for using tax cuts "irresponsibly, as a political tool."

False Accusations: Here’s a good trick for downing someone: the false accusation. The accusation, even if it doesn’t stick, and even if the individual is cleared, is likely to leave a residue of doubt polluting the good name of the intended victim. In this day and age, some common accusations include that of underpaying one’s taxes, receiving improper gifts or donations, having an illicit sexual affair, or having abused or sexually harassed someone in the past. Of course, serious accusations cannot be dismissed as mere political ploys or attempts at defamation, they do need to be investigated. And sometimes (especially in the world we live in now) they will even turn out to be true. Although the effort to bring someone down in this way can backfire, if it is obvious enough to put the perpetrator into the spotlight for "playing dirty", it can, if successfully utilized, create lasting harm to the intended victim, even if he manages to "clear" his name. This is especially so if the final outcome is ambiguous - if the accusation cannot be proved, but neither absolutely disproved (as in the case of a sexual harassment charge, for example. For while "innocent until proven guilty" is the state of mind in the courtroom, the public mind, outside of the courtroom, often feels that if one is accused of something, one is likely to be guilty: which translates into "guilty until proven innocent." And how could a man absolutely prove that he did not sexually harass a woman, if she was his secretary, for instance, and they were sometimes in his office alone?)

Unreliable Expert Testimony: No one is as dangerous as someone who is supposed to have the right answer, because he is the most likely to be able to get away with giving the wrong answer. In public safety issues, for example, who can do the damage of the expert witness, the scientist or doctor who says that being exposed to low-level radiation by a nuclear power plant is not dangerous, or that the level of carcinogens in the public water supply is not high enough to constitute a threat to human health?

What about the scientist who says that global warming is not a problem, that there is nothing for anybody to worry about? Or the economist who tells the poor, developing country that it must take measures which will "temporarily" increase poverty there, causing many people to lose their jobs, and the prices of basic food commodities to rise, while increasing political unrest, because this is the only way that that country can ever develop a base for generating long-term growth?

What about the intelligence agency that says it has hard evidence proving that Country Z has deadly weapons and a secret military program which require immediate action to neutralize? It shows satellite photos that might or might not be sites for producing banned weapons, and refuses to share its other "hard evidence" because that could "compromise intelligence sources." In other words, take it on faith, we’re the experts.

What about the general who says, "I can put down this revolution in 1 year, with less than 250 American casualties", or "I can conquer this country in 6 months, with no more than 500 US casualties"? He is an expert, shouldn’t he know?

Expert testimony and assurances are one of the most powerful tools in the manipulator’s arsenal. At times, the incorrect assessments of these authorities may be "bought" - experts may be part of the same social network, or on the payroll, direct or indirect, of those whose views they support. They may actively manipulate data, lie, and deceive, using the cloak of their expertise to give a special force to their lies. Or, on the other hand, they may really believe what they are saying. They may be mistaken, overconfident, careless, blinded by their own hopes and views. Their human fallibility may undermine their expertise, and their false knowledge may then be seized upon, and used, by those who can turn it to their political advantage.

All of this leads us to the conclusion that when an expert speaks, it is well to remember that he is not the only expert in the world, and that it would be prudent to try to tune in to the voices of other experts, as well, to see how their takes coincided, or differed, from his. It would also be prudent to consider what, if any links, the expert had to the advocates of those policies which his views or findings supported.

Always respect an expert, but never to the point of putting yourself at his mercy.

Surveys, Polls, Statistics, And Experiments: Thank God, objective facts at last, something real to base our decisions on! Nice try. Unfortunately, supposedly concrete and objective evidence and facts such as those collected and represented by surveys, polls, statistics, studies, and experiments may sometimes be used to "quantify" lies, and to give an objective appearance to things that are actually subjective.

Take a survey which finds that 55% of Americans are against stronger government controls on gun purchases and ownership. First of all, who conducted and/or paid for the survey? An independent, neutral organization, or an organization or group with a stake in the outcome (such as a pro-gun lobby, or a group in favor of stricter gun control)? If the survey was commissioned or designed and carried out by a group that has a stake in the outcome, chances are it will convey the results that they want it to. A variety of means exist for corrupting a survey so that the "objective truth" which it reveals, is actually an outcome which you, yourself, have manufactured, in order to support your position. Here are some of the ways it can be done:

The survey could be conducted in an "unscientific" manner. Rather than contacting individuals from different regions, and different income levels, a so-called true "sampling" (or microcosm) of the American public, you could conduct your survey in areas deemed "friendly" to your cause, or execute it in such a way as to give those areas greater weight in your survey, than they actually had relative to the total national population.

You could conduct various surveys, constructed differently, until you finally got one with results that you liked. You could then discard the other surveys, and only publicize the one which provided you with maximum support. Surveys with a relatively small sampling would be useful in this regard, since the smaller the number of people involved in the survey, the more likely you would be to get aberrant results. (For example, on any given coin flip, the probability of getting either "heads" or "tails" is considered to be 50%. However, the less flips you make, the more likely you are to get results which differ from this norm. If, flipping the coin 5 times, you came up with 4 heads, you would end up with "statistical evidence" that the probability of getting heads was 80%, and that the probability of getting tails was 20% - results way off the mark. Whereas if you flipped the coin 1000 times, you would be more likely to get a result such as 520 heads, and 480 tails, or 52% and 48% - much more accurate.) In this same way, a small sampling, or a deliberately unrepresentative sampling, could help produce survey results which seemed to provide objective support for a fact that was really not a fact!

The way the survey was structured could also have a major impact on the results. For example, a survey which asked, "Do you believe the government should impose stricter registration and ownership laws on firearms which people may need for defense of themselves and their families?", is likely to get a much higher % of people against gun control, than one which asks, "Do you believe the government should do more to protect citizens against the threat of easy access to guns which may be used in violent crimes?" The question, itself, is phrased in such a way as to attempt to elicit the desired answer.

Also, the key question could be imbedded in a series of questions which helped to frame the respondent’s mind, beforehand, "leading" him to make the "right" answer. For example: "Are you alarmed by the growing level of violence in America?" "Are you worried about your safety coming to and from work, due to the proliferation of firearms on our streets?" "Do you ever worry that your children might become victims of a violent crime involving firearms in their school?" "Do you think the government should do more to curb the widespread availability of guns in our country?" In this case, the desired answer would be "Vote Yes for Gun Control!" On the other hand, look at these "set-up" questions: "Are you ever afraid for your personal safety, or for the safety of your loved ones, due to the threat of crime?" "Do you every worry that the criminals may have an unfair advantage over you, because it is easy for them to get illegal firearms with which to commit their crimes, while the government places many restrictions upon the rights of law-abiding citizens to acquire guns with which to protect themselves?" "Do you favor government efforts to make it even more difficult for law-abiding citizens to become legal gun owners in America?" Naturally, this line of questioning would heavily push respondents towards the "No Gun Control" answer that the survey designers so desperately wished to produce.

Moving, now, to another survey, to demonstrate how structure can affect outcome, take this survey meant to weigh in on America’s belief in reincarnation. These are the results:

I am absolutely sure that reincarnation exists     5%


I can’t rule out the possibility that reincarnation might exist     35%


I don’t believe in reincarnation     60%

In this survey, the structure could be used to create different perceptions of what America is thinking about this controversial subject. If you wanted to downplay America’s interest in reincarnation, you could report: "Only 5% of Americans believe in reincarnation." Or, if you wanted to boost it, you could say "40% of Americans believe that reincarnation is possible." Both statements could be considered to be true, based upon the survey results, but they would convey very different impressions. And since most people never get to see the actual structure of the surveys used to generate a result, but only hear the result , and assume it is the product of an objective, fact-finding process, they will end up being swayed by the statement, minus the critical details of how that statement was arrived at.

Now, take a look at some deceptive statistics. "The people in Country Y are the most generous people in the world." Country Y is a very rich nation, regarded by some as egocentric, materialistic, and self-absorbed, so somebody finally asks, "What makes you say that?" The answer: "The average citizen of Country Y gives $300 of his annual income to charities, the highest amount of gift-giving anywhere in the world." All right, great, so it seems the world’s wrong to ask anything more of Country Y, after all. But consider what these statistics may actually mean: If a man with a yearly income of $10,000 gives $300 of his income to charity, it means he is giving away 3% of what he makes, and that he is remaining with $9,700. While if a man who makes $300 a year gives away $30, he is giving away 10% of his income, and remaining with $270. If "generosity" is measured in terms of the amount given, then certainly the person who has given away $300 is much more generous than the one who has given away $30 (10 times more generous, in fact). But if "generosity" is measured in terms of the sacrifice implied by one’s giving, and by the % of what one has which one has given, then the man who has given away only $30 is actually the more generous one.

But it doesn’t end there. Supposing generosity is measured, after all, in terms of the % of one’s income that one gives away. In that case, a millionaire may give away 25% of his income, and still remain with $750,000. Now suppose you have an individual who is barely making it. He earns $10,000 per year, and is counting pennies to survive. Say he gives away $100 - a mere 1% of his income - yet it is enough to make him wonder if he will be able to pay his next month’s rent. Is this man to be taken to be less generous than the millionaire?

Then there is the question of whether generosity is only to be measured in terms of money given to tax-deductible charities. That may, indeed, be one way of defining and measuring generosity, but what about those countries in which people are too poor and have too little money to give to such charities (they, themselves, would, in fact, be deserving beneficiaries of such charities)? Is it, therefore, impossible for them to be generous? What about other forms of generosity? Something beyond the model of the affluent nuclear household giving a small portion of its income to tax-deductible charity organizations? What about those poor households in which families live with their relatives, care for their aged, share some of their food with a local widow, loan their water buffalo or their mule to a neighbor, participate in a community project to dig a well, or build a fence?

Given all this, is it really accurate to say that the people of Country Y are more generous than the people of other countries?

As this one example shows, there is often far more to statistics than meets the eye, ranging from the assumptions, concepts and frameworks used to generate the statistics, to the usual questions of have the statistics been doctored, or in any way fabricated or tampered with? Statistics, which outwardly seem so objective and serene, so inviolable and unassailable, must never be blindly taken at face value - for they too, may, when all is said and done, prove to be only more formidable and well-dressed forms of manipulation.

Of course, surveys, polls, and statistics, and the "objective evidence" they create, are often important components of manipulation, for they can create a climate which encourages certain actions and inhibits others, and by substituting false knowledge for truth, may often change the way in which a society chooses to meet the future.

Then, we have the realm of scientific experiments, so important for influencing the development of many forms of public policy. Scientific experiments, also, are subject to manipulation. In the case of experiments sponsored by companies or individuals who strongly desire a particular result, it is not surprising to discover that results much closer to what they want are often achieved than in experiments conducted by independent organizations or scientists. How are these results achieved? They may be achieved by creating false data; by screening out, or ignoring, some contradictory findings which surface during the course of the experiment; by repeating the experiment, under various conditions, until the desired results are achieved (and keeping the contrary results under wraps); and finally, by utilizing questionable standards, definitions, and methods in setting up, carrying out, and representing the experiment.

One example of how an experiment could be designed so as to produce specific results: a pharmaceutical company wants to prove that its drug is effective in treating a certain medical condition. Usually, in order to test the effectiveness of a drug, human subjects who have agreed to participate in the study are divided into at least two groups, one group being administered the drug, and the other group, known as the "control group", being administered a placebo, or fake drug. This is to make sure that that any improvement recorded in the condition of the test subjects is really a result of the effects of the drug (subjects who are administered the drug should have a higher rate of improvement than those who belong to the control group). If an experiment to test the effectiveness of a new drug were to find that the improvement rate of subjects treated with the drug was 55%, and that the improvement rate of individuals in the control group was also 55%, the drug would be considered to be a failure. But imagine if no control group had been established by the experiment designers: then the manufacturers of the drug could boast that their medicine was able to cure, or significantly improve, the condition of over 50% of patients treated with it, and they could send an expensive new product to market that was, in essence, no more helpful than a sugar pill.

Of course, an experiment so badly flawed in design as this would probably run into stiff resistance and challenges down the road. But this example does serve to show how experiment design can affect experiment results in major ways, and even lead to the production of "scientific knowledge" and "proven facts" which are really false. Now consider a slightly more subtle twist. Imagine that there was a control group, which showed a 55% rate of improvement using the placebo. Now imagine that the administrators of the experiment who provided the real-drug group with its medicine, also spent longer hours with the subjects of this group, providing them with more personal care, more support, and other advantages not provided to the control group - advantages which remained "invisible" when the study was published, and yet, which helped to boost the improvement rate of the real-drug group up to 70%. In this way, the appearance of a well-designed experiment could be created, even as the integrity of the experiment was corrupted from within. Afterwards, the effects of the bogus experiment could be heightened by choosing the proper words to describe it: "In a clinical study, Drug P was shown to SIGNIFICANTLY improve the condition of patients affected by Disease Q." Or, "… to be EFFECTIVE in treating Disease Q." Does a 15% higher rate of improvement than that experienced by a placebo merit the words "significantly" or "effective"? Here is a case where the subjectivity of words can be used to undermine the objectivity of numbers, and to bend cold, hard numbers to the human will.

In the same way, scientists can use such words as "… poses no significant risk", or "there is no conclusive proof of …", to manhandle the results of their studies, and use them as they want to. (What level of toxins in the environment, for example, constitutes a "significant" risk? What % increase in cancer or birth defects constitutes "proof"? What time frame is being used to assess the danger? There is always a large gray area in which it is a judgment call.)

Still other examples of how seemingly objective, rock-solid data can turn out to be nothing more than manipulation’s armaments: Take the case of Mr. D, who says: "During my tenure in office, I created 5,000 new jobs." At the very worst, he might have overseen the creation of 5,000 new jobs, while 10,000 old jobs were lost (a net loss of 5,000 jobs)! While in between that dismal deception, and the golden record which Mr. D claims to have achieved, lies the possibility that the new jobs are nothing to write home about: low-paying jobs, without job security or benefits, in many cases temporary jobs, as his region’s economy continues to slide downhill.

Or what about the politician who says, "The people of Country U are earning more than at any other time in their history!" (Of course, he is single-handedly responsible for this.) But look again. Even though the people have higher salaries than ever before, the cost of living is skyrocketing, the workplace is steadily cutting back on health benefits and making workers pay for them out of their own pockets, the viability of pension and retirement plans is in general decline, and job security is breaking down. In terms of what they can afford, how hard and long they have to work to be able to afford it, and their sense of security and faith in the future, the people of Country U are doing less well than ten years before. By focusing on one true fact, extracted from the overall combination of facts which determines their reality, the politician has turned the truth into a tool of manipulation.

The Future Of Democracy: As I stated at the outset, this article is but a tiny hint of what is going on, or might go on, in terms of the manipulation of citizens within our democratic society. There are enemies of democracy’s spirit, amidst us, who use its forms to appease and deceive us, while attempting to corrupt its meaning by taking away from us the vision of reality and truth which we need to make informed and intelligent decisions about our future. If this trend continues, I wonder: will we be able to be manipulated into giving up our democratic way of life, altogether? Will our democracy one day degenerate into a MANIPULOCRACY that finally comes so close, in substance, to autocracy, that it leaves our leaders with the choice to either continue playing the game, or to abandon it, having outgrown the need to hide behind illusions?

Of one thing I am sure. If our democracy is to survive, we must fight for it. And we must fight for it, most of all, in the battleground of our own minds. We can all start by trying to become harder targets for the manipulators, who hunt us everywhere, trying to turn us into the pawns of their own agendas, and drive for power.

(For more on my vision of the future, and its challenges, see my book, The Message Of Rainsnow. - JRS)


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