It’s hard to wring out the truth

“Flight MH17 went down over territory controlled by self-defense forces of the autonomous regions …”


“There are now thousands of mosques throughout Europe. With larger congregations than there are in churches. And in every European city there are plans to build super-mosques that will dwarf every church in the region. Clearly, the signal is: we rule.”

The first passage above refers to the crisis in the Ukraine. The second comes from a speech urging support for Israel in the Gaza conflict.

They are very different in content, but they share at least two characteristics. First, both passages come from material sent to me by e-mail. Second, and much more important, both are carefully crafted to reflect the political biases of their creators.

(I won’t presume, on such slight evidence, to speculate more on the politics of the people who sent them to me, as the senders are not the authors of the pieces.)

Look at the language of each passage.

The first passage is from the opening sentence of a news article. The key phrases are “self-defense forces” and “autonomous regions.”

How differently would the sentence read if it contained “insurgents” and “rebel-held areas” instead? Ironically, the article as a whole stresses the unfair bias of Western media reporting of the situation in the Ukraine. Can the writer really be unaware that his or her own language expresses just as much bias? Wouldn’t you rather be a member of a self-defense force than an insurgent? I would.

The second passage is from a speech in support of Israel. It’s filled with words that denote threat and invasion: “thousands,” “larger,” “super-,” “dwarf” and “rule.”

There aren’t just mosques in Europe; there are thousands of them! Their congregations are larger than those in Christian churches. The buildings themselves are larger. The obvious conclusion is that Moslems want to “dwarf” existing European cultures in order to “rule” over all of us. Pretty scary, isn’t it? That’s the intent, of course.

The point of all of this isn’t really that there are apologists for Russia, or that there are people who see Israel as the front line of defense against the Moslem hordes.

The point is that it’s hard to find any print or online source that doesn’t reflect one set of biases or another.

And that’s perfectly natural. We are taught from birth to favour our own group, our own moral code, our own way of life over all others. Our political lives are no different. Our values are true values; our truths are true truths. Our people are virtuous; our goals are admirable, our methods justified.

For many years, I included in my senior English classes a unit on persuasive writing. We looked not only at the obvious things, like the half-truths that power advertising. (No laundry detergent has ever been proved to work better than ours! In fact, none of them are any good, but we aren’t going to say that.) Or the informal logical fallacies. (He’s wrong because he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.)

We also looked closely at the brute fact that everyone, including those with whom you agree, is spinning — consciously or unconsciously, maliciously or unwittingly, but always, always spinning.

To some of my students, especially those who were the most effectively indoctrinated already, this was a hard concept to accept. To others, the idea just confirmed what they had already suspected, that the adult world was full of crap.

The point, I think, is more than that where you get your news and opinions matters. The point is that wherever you get them, they’ve been thorougly processed before they get to you.

Their content may not be all wet, but it has been through any number of wringers.

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