The best thing about the truth is that it’s easy: when you tell the truth, the world is there to back up your claim. When you tell a lie however, you have to carefully maneuver reality to align with the fly-by-night narrative you’ve created. It’s a wearying endeavor.
As all politicians have discovered however, sometimes it’s just more effective to broadcast a widely held myth than it is to showcase your strengths. Unfortunately, there are entire industries that specialize in exploiting this fallacy, of shaping content to fit the erroneous assumptions of the crowd instead of fortifying messages with the truth. Ever wonder why PR gets a bad rap?
Selling myths in 2012 is as big as ever, and the reason is simple: nonsense can make for a good fantasy. And sometimes it’s not just that incorrect information can have allure, but that the alternatives — in other words, reality — can be downright threatening.
To give you an idea of how often myths are used as a rhetorical strategy, here’s a brief tally of some of the better bogus claims made by Presidential hopefuls in recent months:
While discussing healthcare reform on the campaign trail, Rick Santorum said elderly residents in The Netherlands are regularly euthanized when they arrive at hospitals for routine procedures. When a Dutch reporter several weeks later asked Santorum’s Communications Director why he would say something so ridiculous, she responded by saying that Santorum was simply speaking “from his heart.”
Newt Gingrich in December said federal laws ensuring the separation of church and state prohibit the President from using taxpayer money to send Christmas cards. Gingrich then vowed to serve as a champion to change this nonexistent law.
Ron Paul in January claimed a recent national poll concluded that “the majority of the American people” want to revert our currency to the Gold Standard. Paul was later asked to produce evidence of this study. Not surprisingly, he was unable: no such poll has been conducted.
At the Iowa Faith and Freedom conference in 2011, Santorum referenced a non-existent abortion bill that Obama allegedly supported, where “any child, prior to nine months of gestation” could be terminated. A brief history of modern political theater will show you that no matter how absurd it is, “_________ kills children/seniors” remains a surprisingly popular debate tactic.
Gingrich has made it a point to repeatedly refer to Barack Obama as “the food stamps president.” He even falsely told an audience that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.” In reality, about a half-million more Americans received food stamps under George W. Bush’s tenure than Obama. Gingrich later elaborated on this apocryphal claim by telling a crowd in Council Bluffs, Iowa that the federal government has now replaced the traditional food stamp with a credit card.
No matter how ridiculous these claims are, more frightening is what their seamless embedding into common parlance says about us. No matter how blatant the lie, people will believe what you say if it aligns with their core beliefs. Indeed, it’s the reason why myths still hold such prominence today, even when we possess the informational means to easily dispel so many of them. People want to be right — even when they’re wrong.
Studies show that most people rarely change their beliefs when presented with an opposing outlook, no matter how compelling, detailed and airtight the alternative might be. In fact, when you think you’ve “proven” someone wrong, you’ve probably only served to strengthen your opponent’s beliefs, because he/she will now spend further time devising ways to counter your arguments.
In psychological terms, this is called cognitive dissonance. It means that instead of altering our beliefs to accommodate new information, we instead concoct any number of variables to allow our preexisting beliefs to adapt and survive alongside new information. It might seem easy to convince that crazy uncle of yours that Obama is not building gas chambers for the elderly. In fact, it’s a nearly impossible task, because for him to accept the truth involves changing a portion of his identity.
The fact is, we’d experience greater personal freedom if we didn’t inexorably bind ourselves to beliefs we acquired when we didn’t know better. In short, we’d all be a lot happier if we allowed ourselves the ability to be wrong every once in a while.