Whatever else may come of it, being in the heat of local politics in Tiverton sure does bring a great deal of life experience and awareness. People across the state have reached out to say that what is happening here looks just like what happens every time a conservative — or even just a reformer — manages to get over an electoral threshold and gain public office in Rhode Island.
As somebody who believes in the organic development of human action based on incentives and free will, I’m not ready to agree that there’s some coordinated plan that springs into action in such cases. Rather, the resistance to political change seems more like antibodies acting against a new cell in the body, and in this case, the body is business as usual in Rhode Island.
One interesting illustration arose when one of the people who’s been most actively opposed to my friends and I in town posted a link on Facebook to what he implies to be a guide to our information strategy, titled “Five Current Mass Media Thought-Control Strategies.” The strange part is that we’re not doing what the list implies. In fact, it seems to me to be a pretty accurate guide to what he and his friends are doing:
- Fake News in the Post-Fact Era: Lie and Fabricate to Suit Your Purposes
- Denounce Alternative Views as Conspiracy Theories
- Blame the Russians (or any of the other invented Establishment bogeymen)
- The Hegelian Dialectic and the False Dichotomy: For the mass media’s purposes, you’re either “pro” or “anti,” “left” or “right,” “liberal” or “conservative,” and there are no other options.
- Tell People Exactly What to Think Instead of Presenting the Facts
The interesting question is whether my interlocutor knows that he’s doing the above things or genuinely believes that I’m doing them. A follow-on question is this: If we both believe that the other person is doing these things, how can we figure out which is which from within the system?
Note, first of all, that 1 and 2 can act like mirrors. A person who believes a proposition to be true will construct an explanation for it. Somebody from another town who finds Tiverton politics to be familiar might conclude that there’s some broader organization going on statewide, and that’s definitely plausible.
Beginning with that belief, he or she will cite similar activities (like disrupting meetings) and similar players (like unions or progressive activists) and make the connections. When the other side asserts that we in Tiverton are working with conservatives across the state for the benefit of the Koch Brothers, we see that as a crazy conspiracy theory to muddy the waters. Of course, they might see our similar activities across town lines as evidence of our cooperation and fill in those Koch Brothers as the uniting motivation.
Both sides can believe that they are providing information and explanations, and both sides can believe that their opponents are spreading fake-news lies and spinning conspiracy theories.
Obviously, #3 (blaming some unseen force) goes with this. If there’s a conspiracy, there has to be a conspirator, whether it’s Russia, the Koch Brothers, or George Soros.
Number 4 is similar. If you’re trying to explain something, you’ll work your way to the underlying issue and conclude that, when it’s all boiled down, there’s a pro side and an anti side. (Whether it’s the preference for lower taxes or for more school funding.)
Maybe you’ll freely admit that you’re just simplifying in order to make the underlying issue clearer. But if the other side is spinning conspiracy theories in which you’re the villain, they’re obviously ignoring the most important parts of your argument in order to pretend you’re saying something you’re not.
So, since we’re all inevitably locked within the box of our perspective, how do we tell who’s on the side of good or the side of evil in the Hegelian Dialectic? The answer comes with #5.
Who is citing facts, and who is telling people how they should feel about whatever’s said? When facts are cited, are they applicable to the subject or irrelevant? And maybe most important, does either side give the sense that they believe their facts are actually disprovable?
If I cite specific numbers as part of a budget debate and the other person says nobody should believe me because all I do is lie because I want to destroy the town in order to increase the profits of Colorado businessmen, then readers or listeners have a pretty good sense of who is deploying “thought-control strategies.” If I point out the lack of supporting facts for that theory and the other side notes that I signed on to a taxpayer lawsuit against the town a decade ago, the sense increases, because that fact isn’t relevant to the budget we’re discussing. And if the person follows that up with something actually relevant to the budget and I go and double-check my original numbers, readers or listeners will know not only that the other side is spinning, but that I’m willing to treat my facts as data, not as gospel.
Of course, these tests all apply when judging different sources of news and media rather than the sides in a local political spat. The more difficult question, I’m finding with lament, is how many people actually care who is right and who is wrong.