Spin Cycle

Several years ago, while I was still a young punk learning the dark arts of persuasion and rhetoric, I asked one my professors what propaganda was. He hemmed and hawed a bit, but finally came down to “a type of persuasion that provides a ready-made answer.” Or words to that effect. To be fair, this was a long time ago.

Propaganda, as it’s commonly defined these days, falls into a few major categories:

  • Information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.
  • The deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc.

There’s also the Roman Catholic version that pertains to the training and oversight of foreign missions, but that’s not what most people think about when they hear propaganda, and the Catholics are using the traditional Latin meaning of propaganda – to propagate – rather than the political meaning of the word.

There’s an old joke: How do you know when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.

It’s funny that we expect our politicians will lie to us, yet we are constantly surprised when they do. Of course, most of them will gleefully tell you they didn’t lie, you only misunderstood the totality of the events that lead to what you see as a lie. In the long run, it wasn’t that they lied, they were simply victims of circumstances that went beyond their control. And, besides, those other guys did it first, so it’s totally okay.

I’ve got a long and undying love of propaganda posters. The above is a great example of simple propaganda. The ape, with his fangs bared and holding a bloody stick in one hand and a swooning maiden (possibly representing Liberty) in the other tells us a lot about how the artist (Harry Ryle Hopps, c.1917) wanted the viewer to see the Germans. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and this one doesn’t have a single kind one to say about the Germans during WWI. Of course, it’s a poster that’s aiming to get people to join the Army and you don’t win a war by humanizing the enemy.

Posters like this fall perfectly into propaganda because they give us a pre-built answer about to expect from Germans; they’re brutish thugs set on crushing skulls and stealing our women. It promotes information and ideas about an entire nation that are not completely accurate. As an aside, because of images like this a lot of German-Americans suffered discrimination and beatings during WWI. Probably WWII, too.

But this is a long-term propaganda project. WWI ran from 1914 to 1918, with the U.S. being involved only in the very last part. Support for the war in United States was meager at best and it took a lot of propaganda to build up stateside interest in a war on the other side of the ocean.

In the information age, things happen very quickly. While there’s still plenty of time to ratchet up a good long-term propaganda campaign, scandals and events happen and are discovered almost instantaneously. Traditional propaganda doesn’t work in instantaneous timelines. Think about Mitt Romney’s comment about 47% of the population not voting for him because they pay no taxes or Hillary Clinton’s remark about baskets full of deplorables. These are immediate scandals and shooting out some posters or long-term propaganda efforts won’t work.

This is where propaganda twirls madly off into our good friend spin. Think of spin as propaganda light; same great taste, but it applies to more immediate concerns. Whereas a propaganda campaign may be a long-running task, spin happens in the here and now.

The Trump campaign’s response to Clinton’s comment about a basket of deplorables with immediate and predictable spin. “She thinks she’s better than you!” “This shows just how much Hillary Clinton hates real Americans.” On and on and on.

And you know what? Clinton made a huge mistake with that line. She’s a career politician and should have seen the response to her comment coming a mile away. Just like Romney should have seen the response to his 47% comment coming a mile away.

Argumentation requires a clash of ideas. I say X. You say X goes to far. I retort that your plan, Y, doesn’t go too far enough. That sort of thing is what discourse is supposed to be made of. Propaganda ignores the clash of ideas because it quashes them entirely. Spin ignores the clash of ideas of by completely ignoring the argument in the first place and spinning off into someplace else entirely. Take, for instance, Clinton’s comment about the basket of deplorables:

“I know there are only 60 days left to make our case — and don’t get complacent, don’t see the latest outrageous, offensive, inappropriate comment and think, well, he’s done this time. We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

“But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

Hillary Clinton – 2016

The spin came from focusing exclusively on part of her statement and completely ignoring the rest of the argument. Were some of Trump’s supporters sexist, racist, xenophobic jackasses? Sure. Was it half? I don’t know. I work with plenty of Trump supporters and plenty of people who fall into the second basket – the folks who held their noses and voted. They’re all decent people who didn’t think Clinton would do a good job.

The spin – saying Clinton’s comment showed her contempt for everyday Americans – ignored the entire second paragraph. It was the rhetorical version of saying so’s your face. And guess what? It worked.

It worked because we don’t want argumentation. We want immediate, crushing, bumper-sticker logic that we don’t have to think about. We don’t want “Four score and seven years ago”, we want “Hillary for Prison 2016” because that’s easier to digest.

This is primarily a writing blog, so you may be asking yourself exactly what political spin has to do with writing. Hunter S. Thompson could probably tell you why it’s important, but he was a political writer. In the world of fiction, understanding spin gives you a great way for characters to rationalize their behavior, even at the macro level.

Think about this way: if spin works well enough to determine international politics, it should work quite nicely with fictional characters and plots. If you’re writing fiction, you can use spin and propaganda techniques to your advantage.

There are always motivations in story-telling. Why does a character do something? Why does the villain do such heinous things? The cool thing about using propaganda and spin techniques in writing is you don’t have to feel like you need a shower when you’re done. Unlike the real world, using those skills in fiction only impacts made-up characters and places, so your karma will still be free of taint.

For instance: I’m currently working on Greetings From Sunny Aluna. It’s essentially a fantasy novel with drugs, religion, and real-world implications in a place where magic and mythology collide. Gutter fantasy, if you will. Very bad things are happening and the baddies need reasons to do those things and justify their actions to themselves. Even the good guys do less-than-savory things. They use propaganda and spin techniques to sell their actions to themselves and the other characters. Henchmen was basically one big propaganda and spin job with guns and cheeseburgers, but it was a pretty political novel to begin with.

Besides, if you want to see how propaganda and spin can be used effectively in story, just ask this guy.

Common Sense Says A Lot Of Things. Oh, Yeah.

rant

I was picking up my son from summer camp last year when I saw a woman in Tesla Model S talking on her phone. Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Elon Musk’s auto of the future, but the car is so advanced you could probably remote control the ISS from it. With that kind of capabilities, you’d think it was common sense that the native radio in a Model S would have a Bluetooth connection. It should also be common sense that you’d want to have a hands-free device while you’re driving a car in a crowded parking lot with a lot of kids around.

I keep hearing people say, “Common sense isn’t that common.” It’s a great rhetorical argument that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water because common sense is a constantly shifting thing; it’s become nothing more than an argumentative tactic that means about as much as velvet painting of a naked Elvis hanging in the family room.

“Let’s create a common sense plan to do x.” Where x is pretty much anything from fishing for compliments on the Internet to banning Muslims while not banning Muslims.

We tend to think of common sense as innate knowledge – that there are things that are so rational they can’t be assailed logically – but that’s not really accurate. I think the problem is we’ve – as a society – forgotten exactly what common sense even means. The baseline definition of common sense (from Dictionary.com) is:

“Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts”

Wikipedia expands on this (as it is wont to do), by defining common sense as:

Common sense is a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things that are shared by (“common to”) nearly all people and can reasonably be expected of nearly all people without need for debate.”

I’m just gonna toss this out here and say Wiki’s definition is better. But, for the sake of argument, let’s take both of them apart and see what’s inside. Dictionary.com’s definition sounds an awful lot like how people see common sense these days. Unfortunately, it’s not really common sense; it’s more akin to making a snap judgement without drilling down into the situation and that takes us from the realm of common sense into the realm of bumper sticker logic.

From there, madness follows.

Look out a window. Any window will do. Unless you’re working in a basement hammering out nuclear missile code, there should be a window handy. What do you see? Trees, birds, mermaids. Does it look flat? Flat-ish? Common sense, according to snap judgement will tell you the planet is flat. I can’t see any curvature, so it’s a sound and prudent judgment that the Earth is flat.

I’ve even got empirical evidence to back it up. I mean, just look outside. It’s obviously flat.

orlando-ferguson-flat-earth-map_edit-1

The problem is, the planet doesn’t actually look like this even though there’s a bunch of allegorical data to back it up.

Taking a simple presentation of the situation or the facts is the antithesis of making sound or prudent judgments. It’s roughly analogous to judging a book by its cover or voting for a president because he’s really, really rich.

Wiki’s definition hews closer to a useful definition. Even though most people who will tell you to use common sense are referring to Dictionary.com’s definition, Wiki’s definition is what they’re implying – the idea that something is inherently reasonable to a group of people. Unfortunately, one of the reasons Wiki’s definition is better is because it’s narrower; it implies common sense only applies to things that are common to a group of people and not really open to debate.

  • “We need clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.”
  • “The pointy part goes in the enemy.”
  • “Firefly was the greatest show ever made. Seriously, like EVER!”

226h

Common sense would dictate he’s using the right port-a-potty. See, because it’s on the right. Never mind.

The problem is all of those are open to debate. Except the Firefly one. Plenty of people will tell you clean air and water are overrated, especially where profits are concerned. There are swords that slash rather than stab. In the right collective – specifically rapiers and such – yes, the pointy part goes in the enemy, but in other collectives like scimitars, the best use is for slashing.

Almost every example you can think of where someone refers to something as common sense actually indicates a learned response to something. Even something as simple as “fire burns” had to be learned somewhere. You put your finger on the candle and – holy cow! – that doesn’t feel good. To put it bluntly, there’s no such thing as innate knowledge.

And that right there is the problem with referring to anything as common sense. In the right group, it’s just common sense that we ban all the Muslims (I don’t fall into that group, by the way). There’s not necessarily a solid rhyme or reason behind this, it just seems truthy. It ignores a huge amount of data, though.

Even some generally accepted truisms fall apart under scrutiny:

  • If you work hard you’ll be rewarded
  • You can be anything you want to be
  • Your vote counts

More often than not, hard workers are exploited by people who are better at working the system. I’m still not Batman. Tell three million people their vote counts when gerrymandering can change the results or the Electoral College can appoint a president who lost the popular vote.

263h

Common sense says you don’t wear a bunny suit to the lake. That’s a bear suit place. Duh. No wonder you’re all alone. Loser.

All too often calling something common sense is shorthand for saying, “Why can’t you understand this? Everyone else gets it, dumb ass.” Common sense has a very narrow definition and using it outside of its intended place cheapens the argument to the point that it’s little better than slinging insults at your enemies.

To go back the lady in the Tesla talking on her phone without using Bluetooth, well, apparently the Model S had some issues connecting iPhones with Bluetooth. A software patch fixed that. The bottom line is, I assumed it was common sense to use a hands-free device – it is the law, after all – but it may not have been working at the time. It’s still not the brightest idea in the world to roll around a crowded parking lot with kids everywhere, but that’s a different debate and her experience may have taught her she was safe doing it.

The next time someone tells you something is common sense, stop and think about it for a moment. Common sense to who? And why should it be considered common sense? If it’s just bumper sticker logic, nod, smile, and do whatever you were going to do anyway.

After all, it’s just common sense.

Got any examples, bones to pick, general rants of your own? Leave ’em in the comments. I love comments and usually respond to them.