The Critical Gap: Spin, Out of Control
We should have seen it coming. The human race is developing and spreading weapons of mass destruction far ahead of its capacity to defend against or control them. There’s a growing defense gap.
We could have seen this coming too: The world supply of crazy leaders doesn’t seem to be in decline. We haven’t found a way to stop them from rising to power. Put two and two together and it was inevitable that we’d end up with nuclear-armed crazy leaders.
Crazy leaders need followers, which also seem in limitless supply. Here we see another growing defense gap. A critical gap; a gap in critical thinking skills that is growing not because we are getting more gullible but because the spin is getting so persuasive. Con artists are evolving more rapidly than their marks. People’s capacity to resist the powers of persuasion aren’t keeping pace with advances in spin, rhetoric, and propaganda techniques. There’s a sucker born every minute—but a good spin technique lives forever. No matter how skeptical you get, you just can’t keep up.
As I see it, spin is anything meant to imply meaning where meaning isn’t. Spin is contrived pseudo-significance: a false positive (saying yes when the correct answer is no) on the question “Is this meaningful?”
Most spin is a significance bleed-over effect. The spin is meaningful, just not with respect to the subject about which we think it’s meaningful. To say that a congressman voted no on an anti-flag-burning amendment signifies that he voted no on an anti-flag-burning amendment. But it doesn’t indicate, as the spin-doctors would like us to believe, that he hates America . Or, as I saw on Fox News today, the fact that Al-Quaeda members are now hoping for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq does signify an Al-Quaeda stance, and perhaps an earnest one. But it doesn’t mean, as Fox News implied, that we must therefore stay the course, or that the Democrats are in bed with Al-Quaeda. Spin is the deliberate employment of undicators—red herrings—seeming indicators with no real bearing on the subject at hand.
By my broad definition, spin includes more than political rhetoric. It includes all sorts of signs deliberately planted to persuade us of something that isn’t necessarily true.
To take just one example (and I bet you can’t take just one), I love Cool Ranch Chips. They taste nutritious even though they aren’t. My taste buds interpret the MSG in these chips as signifying that they’re really good for me. The MSG is a kind of gustatorial spin. MSG came to market during my lifetime, as did a growing number of other processing techniques and food additives that convince my body I’m eating something good when I’m not. Rising obesity rates are evidence of the growing critical gap regarding gustatorial spin. Tasty food that’s bad for us is improving faster than our capacity to resist it.
And it’s not just food either. Across the spectrum of human endeavors, persuasion improves faster than resistance to it.
Closing the Gap
I see three main ways to try to close this critical gap.
1. We could try to limit the use of spin to worthy causes.
2. We could try to stop everyone from using spin.
3. We could try to improve people’s ability to see through spin.
None of these techniques are very promising, but I’d bet primarily on the last one. First a word about the other two:
Limit the Use of Spin to Worthy Causes
As far back as Socrates, spin was cause for concern. Through Plato we hear Socrates criticize the Sophists, Athenian spin-doctors for hire. Sophists taught rhetoric—how to spin one’s preferred argument. They didn’t teach how to decide which argument was preferable, and that bothered Socrates. Athens was a democracy. We hear Socrates arguing against the democracy’s moral relativism, insisting that absolute moral truths exist and can be divined if one goes about the divination in the right way. Indeed, correct divination would allow us all to discover the same moral truths—truths as absolute and universal as the laws of geometry.
Socrates’ early attempt to close the critical gap didn’t work out so well. Some of his most attentive students, including Plato’s own cousin, formed a tyrannically anti-democratic government, slaughtered most of the democracy’s leaders, and took their property. Exiled democrats fought back and the democracy was restored. Some scholars today believe that Socrates was sentenced to death in part for his role as guru to the tyrants—tyrants who, like all tyrants, were certain they had discovered absolute universal truths they should impose upon others.
Our constitutional right to freedom of speech stems from a wariness of efforts to give the power of spin to a designated few who are certain they’ve got it right. In parallel, our second amendment right to bear arms was in part Jefferson ‘s way to prevent a defense gap from growing between a tyrannical government and an unarmed populace.
Stop People from Using Spin
Our commitment to freedom of speech makes banning spin impossible. Spin control would therefore have to be voluntary.
I love the saying, “Never speak more eloquently than you can think.” I think the saying is more eloquent than it is thought-out, but I love it all the same. It reminds us that there’s a difference between eloquence and careful thought.
It’s good advice but people won’t heed it for several reasons. First, as individuals, we might pledge not to speak more eloquently than we think, but we’ll forget the pledge. Like a lot of good adages, this one is easiest to follow when you need it least. In a serious pinch we’ll use whatever rhetorical power we have at hand. And of course there’s someone in a pinch in every crowd, so at a population level you can’t expect people to stop using spin. In a pinch or a pop, spin happens. Besides, it’s unimaginable that anyone would say, “Oooh, I can’t say that. That’s too eloquent for the quality of my thought. My thought is too dumb to be conveyed using this powerful spin technique.”
Besides, spin is some of the fun in life. It’s not all bad. It’s indeed wonderful. I use spin sometimes when I need to convince myself of some iffy proposition. Spin can’t be regulated because it is so subtle and so often useful. The Sophists were right. No one has yet found Socrates’ dream method that would enable us all to agree on morals and virtues. Short of that we are best off sustaining a democratic forum in which all arguments can be heard and all arguments have access to state-of-the-art spin techniques
Improve People’s Ability to See Through Spin
The trick is improving your ability to see through all spin but judiciously allowing some of it to influence you. Enjoy and be influenced by the spin that moves you in the right direction, dismiss the spin that moves you in the wrong direction.
That’s different from following your gut on spin. After all, plenty of spin feels right but is wrong. Think MSG.
Finding useful ways to close the critical gap has become my life’s work and play. Mind Readers, the college courses I teach, my weekly radio show on Progressive Radio Network are all attempts to help myself and maybe others keep up with the rapidly evolving world of symbols, significance and spin.
In all formats, I try to cultivate critical thinking skills that enable us to see through the spin. But I also cultivate spin-doctoring skill so we can give as hard as we get in this spin-rich world. And moral philosophy so we can at least try to approximate Socrates’ ideal, picking really good causes worth spinning for.