Democrat or republican, MSNBC or Fox News, O’Reilly or Schultz, they all seem to fall into rhetoric pits that intentionally mislead people. One of the most useful and effective ways of doing this is by focusing on a rather scandalous or inflammatory remark or action and using that in a context that was never really the intention of that person in the first place.
Political hyperbole is nothing new, but in an age of communication where social media dominates our daily news intake, this particular logical fallacy is a huge advantage to either side of the political spectrum. I’m sure you’ve seen the ads, usually involving a series of 2-3 second video clips of speeches given by the president or presidential hopefuls (or anyone wanting political power). These speeches are usually taken out of context to bolster fear or strong emotion against that particular person. Video of this person saying these things is factual proof that he or she is a horrible person!
Well, not exactly. Have you ever seen a video of one person where what they say in public is spliced and pasted together so that it seems to flow seamlessly together to say something else entirely? That’s essentially what opponents of one person or another do in not only political ads, but news blogs and political news networks. For example: remember when Rick Perry said this?
Granted, Rick Perry was probably bottom-of-the-barrel when using any kind of common sense in his political ads, but this had a lot of resonance with people of the same mindset. Yes, I just called some of you stupid in case you couldn’t follow that.
According to politifact:
“Obama said America had acted lazily in some regard. Exactly whom he considers lazy, we’re still not sure. But it’s clear that he was not wagging his finger at the American public at large. Perry’s presentation distorts the president’s remark by taking it out of context. We rate his claim Mostly False.”
This ruling was mainly because the president was talking about government and private policies on the global market involving exporting and selling what our country has to offer to others. While it is true Americans have gotten lazier and more ignorant over the decades, in this case the president was addressing government and businesses.
I’m sure it’s plain to see I’m no fan of Mitt Romney, but the poor man is taken out of context every time he opens his mouth. The newest strain of this comes in the form of his trip to the Daytona 500 last weekend. Yes, the guy is filthy rich, but so are most celebrities. The American people find their detachment from reality and the average person endearing, but you have to realize that these people are different from the rest of us in so many ways. When you have more money than you could ever spend in three or four or 500 lifetimes, there is a feeling of power that comes along with that.
When you’re rich, people treat you differently. You’re someone everyone wants to please, and this gives you power and an over-inflated sense of importance and arrogance. When you have this power, it does affect you. I don’t care if you are the most giving and generous person in the world, when you have this much money and influence, it will go to your head. It’s only a matter of time. I honestly do not believe Mitt fully intended his comments to be so condescending to the average American, but the way they were played out in the media was over-the-top contextomy.
There was also another statement by him a month or so ago in which he said:
“I like being able to fire people!”
Or at least, this is how everyone who didn’t see the speech saw it in the media the next day. If you only took that sentence and put it in a campaign ad, it would probably make an already disliked political figure even more disliked, because you are putting him in the context most people see him in. Let me make one thing clear here, the man is responsible for hundreds of thousands of layoffs over the decades he’d been in business as a management consultant, so it’s very easy to take this sentence in the context it was presented. However, here is what he really meant:
“I want people to be able to own insurance if they wish to, and to buy it for themselves and perhaps keep it for the rest of their life, and to choose among different policies offered from companies across the nation. 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. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.”
While he probably should have said “I like being presented with the opportunity to fire people who provide services to me,” his meaning was quite clear to me, and understandably so. I also like being able to fire people who are not providing services to my satisfaction, including politicians. I’m sure all of you enjoy that same opportunity, and such is the joy of living in a capitalist society! If the mechanic down the street charged you hundreds of dollars to fix something the mechanic across down would have done for a hundred dollars less and in a shorter amount of time, you’d probably fire that mechanic and go with the guy across town.
I mentioned Bill Reilly and Ed Schultz at the beginning, because they are the two pros at this type of fallacy. Watch either one of their shows, and I promise you won’t be disappointed in this regard. I’m a liberal, but when I watch liberal news I cringe when I see this done. I expect it on Fox News; in fact, in order to be a Fox News host, it seems like the art of stretching the truth or contextomy is a requirement on any resume submitted to the producers. I guess I had higher expectations for the liberal news network, but let’s not forget the whole point of these networks. It’s not to get people informed, that’s just a byproduct (or an accident if it’s Fox). It’s all about the money.
It all boils down to ratings, and obviously the more sensational, the higher the ratings. If informative news takes a back seat to profits, this type of fallacy is perfectly okay. Networks devoted to news, especially news networks that host “debates” on different political views are always biased in favor of that network’s general audience. I put debate in quotations, because nothing is ever properly debated between 3 or more people in 5 minute blocks on these networks. Time is money, my friend! And the host NEVER admits defeat when he was clearly bested by the person he cuts off early during a “debate.” Bill O’Reilly has this down to an art. Ed Schultz just likes to talk over people, always trying to keep his guests focused on the most sensational section of the topic, completely ignoring any other valid points made.
I’d imagine if these two guys ever duked it out on neutral ground, every head in America would simultaneously explode, and no one would be any more or less informed than they were before.
Rachael Maddow happens to be my most beloved news talk host on air today, but even she falls victim to the dreaded context fallacy, sometimes making topics more sensational than they really are. I forgive her though, because this is the nature of the business. Whether she goes off on a 10 minute spiel on how terrible politifact is, or when she brings positive news to the table in her “Best Thing in the World,” I can accept a little out-of-context sometimes. It’s only because I know what to look for, and if something seems iffy to me, I’ll do my own research. There are always ways to find the hidden facts from both sides, you just have to use your own judgement, and dare I say… be objective.
Don’t fall prey to these tactics, even in THIS blog. I’m pretty opinionated, and sometimes if I feel someone is absurd, I’ll find things they’ve said to back that claim up. However, just because I portray someone in a negative light doesn’t mean that person is that way all the time. Do your own fact checking, and take these blogs and news feeds as what they are… entertainment.