Rhetoric versus reality

Consulting the facts should always be your first step in making a decision

FOR THE MOST part, humans are an ill-informed group. Because there is more information available to us than we can possibly absorb and retain, our clever little simian brains have developed some workarounds to allow us to function in that environment.

For example, when we need it, we have an ability to focus on something of importance to the exclusion of almost everything else. And, we can make assumptions and form opinions without feeling any compulsion to first find and review the relevant facts.

This allows us to function, but the emotional confidence it can generate is no protection from reality. Just ask Don Quixote. Even so, the prevalent use of emotion in forming opinion (especially in politics) is so common, we generally ignore the negative effects of relying on casual observations and peer-group prejudices.

Here’s an example: I know it’s not Canadian, but it is in the news and clearly illustrates my concern. I make no comment about Donald Trump except to note he recently made an off-hand comment that he was America’s top law enforcement official. Dozens of his high-profile political and media detractors took the next several days to repeatedly denounce his statement as a “lie” and an effort to increase his own power, ignore the U.S. Constitution, etc., etc.

When people allow themselves to be influenced by the unexamined prejudices of others, especially in politics, what does that say about them and the value of their opinions?

They were righteously indignant, but were they right?  It took me less than five minutes to locate two copies of the Constitution online (I needed more than one source for proper verification). I eventually consulted a third, printed version just to be safe. All plainly said the president has both the power and the obligation to appoint “officers” of the government who report to him, a list that includes the attorney general. The president also has the ultimate responsibility of ensuring the laws established by the legislature are faithfully carried out. Under the Constitution, the attorney general has authority over the nation’s entire federal law enforcement apparatus, but it is also clear that the president outranks every member of the executive branch. Ipso facto, the buck stops at Trump’s desk, not Bill Barr’s. “Orange man bad” or not, Trump was correct, if a bit fuzzy.

Why should we Canadians care about such a partisan American story? Because it provides a dramatic example of the importance of using your mind, not your emotions. The president’s attackers substituted their personal bias for the facts of the situation, which they could easily have verified. As a result, millions of people were misinformed and I’d wager many of them likely took up and shared the comments of their favourite pundits without feeling any need to examine the facts for themselves: “We both hate Trump and you say he’s done something wrong? Must be true, then.” But in this case, it wasn’t. Millions of people were deliberately misled, and the story illustrates — pretty effectively — why consulting the facts should be your very first step in making a decision.

I know I’m not a celebrity and I don’t work for the CBC, so my political opinions probably don’t count for much. But it seems to me that it’s a very bad idea to confuse rhetoric with reality, and emotional preferences with facts. When people allow themselves to be influenced by the unexamined prejudices of others, especially in politics, what does that say about them and the value of their opinions?

The fact is, there are very few things we do in our lives that are as dangerous to our own peace, welfare and future prosperity as ignoring facts in favour of emotions. The sadly predictable result is that too many people in Canada and elsewhere take a stand and cast their votes based largely on the unvetted opinions of others whose motives they don’t truly know and can’t be bothered to investigate. It just “feels” right.

The monkey brain strikes again.

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