We all have seen them, the stories from different news outlets or bloggers with contradictory stories on the same topic. Sometimes these are simply reporting different perspectives, but other times the facts are coated in a nice thick layer of polemic speech.
Them’s fightin’ words…
Polemics are the language of war. They are arguments that incite people to violent passions. This kind of speech has always been popular in propaganda during times of war. Now these arguments based on emotional manipulation are everywhere, and used in virtually every political argument turning every issue, large or small, into a life-or-death struggle.
This isn’t primarily a right or left issue, polemics can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. Which is why it is so important, for civil discourse, that we can recognize inciting language and not allow it to shape our opinions and actions. How do we sort out what are the facts and what may be skewed by a certain point of view?
Look for inflated language.
Words matter. When someone wants to use emotion to shape your opinion, they will use bigger, inflammatory terms. If someone is covering a group of people gathered to express their disagreement with something, they can use different words to describe that group. Protesters. Crowd. Riot. Demonstrators. Each of those words carries a certain emotional weight. There is a guaranteed right of free speech and assembly in the Constitution. Gathering is not illegal, nor is expressing dissent. You can often find out more about the author’s viewpoints in their choice of language than those gathered to exercise free speech. Sometimes an author will even use different language for two different groups expressing their opinions publicly within the same article.
“The protestors gathered to express concerns over issue A, while across town crowds rioted in reaction to issue B.” (Clearly the author feels more sympathy with issue A.)
Look for crimes being described differently. Shoplifting vs Robbery. Fist fight vs Assault.
Look for action words. Marching. Walking. Gathering. Crowding. Supporting. Protesting.
Look for fallacies like the straw man, setting up a weak version of the opposing view in order to knock it down, or ad hominem attacks, coming against the person instead of facing the issue at hand.
Read different perspectives.
People take different paths when they come face to face with contradictions in the media. It is really easy to subscribe completely to the thoughts and ideas expressed by a particular media outlet and dismiss anything that contradicts those views. That certainly is a simple road to follow, but it may not lead to the truth. Instead, it allows us to insulate ourselves from anything that would challenge what we hold dear.
It is important to read and listen broadly if you want a more complete picture of any issue. This can be uncomfortable. It often means hearing the other side’s polemic which by design counters the polemic we are used to hearing. It puts us on the defensive. It makes us angry sometimes. It is really easy to see their flawed arguments and their inciting language. Sit with the discomfort. Understand that to someone of the opposing viewpoint, this is what it feels like to read articles expressing your side of the issue.
You might, if you can get past the initial reaction, see a little of the other perspective. This is not just important for your personal understanding, but may allow you to self-censor when speaking with others about your point of view. In recognizing the tactics, you can refrain from using them yourself and maybe even have a civil discussion with someone who holds different opinions.
Find the facts.
Skimming the articles for the facts and bypassing the descriptive language all together helps us form our own opinions. If you can read articles from 3 different news agencies, a conservative, a liberal, and an international, and find the common ground, you will most likely have the facts.
Facts are important. If we can focus on the facts in any story, we can often begin to see that it is possible to interpret them in different ways, to spin them to fit a certain political or philosophical framework.
Facts: people gathered to express their views, police gathered in response to perceived threat, looting occurred, police presence escalated, the people felt threatened, there were clashes between police and gathered people, many were arrested
This scenario may bring to mind specific situations, but truly describes a myriad of protests and demonstrations dating back to the French Revolution. It is a common enough set of facts. What you will read or hear in the media will rarely present just the facts. You will have pro-demonstrator media decrying police overreaction. You will have pro-police media decrying protestors wreaking havoc. You will have pro-business media outraged that no one protects their interests. You will have as many perspectives as you have players in the game.
Expect it, and look for this kind of spin in everything you read and hear from media outlets. It is no longer a tactic used for wartime, or even for campaign season, but has become standard operating procedure.
The use of polemics is undermining our ability to have civil discourse on virtually any topic today. Unless we can recognize and sidestep the invitation to allow emotionally manipulative language to shape our views, we will find ourselves immobilized and unable to accomplish anything except lobbing verbal bombs at the other side. This is already happening in much of our government at State and Federal levels. Politicians are so busy fighting each other that they have let the good of the nation go by the wayside.
You do not have to buy in. You can choose to be a fact-finding sleuth and form your own opinions on the issues of the day. You might even be able to sort out a solution that would benefit everyone.
Sidestepping polemics to become part of the solution.
Now that’s ReFreshing!