my thoughts on a Persuasive Pandemic

I’ve been in the world of persuasion and debate a LONG time.

I debated in high school and college. I started traveling as a debate judge and coach in grad school as a part of my teaching assistantship. I continued traveling as full-time college faculty member, and was the faculty advisor for our intercollegiate debate association. I have taught public speaking on the collegiate level— which included large units on persuasive discourse. And I have continued to teach debate in my community to high schoolers while I educate my own children, and run a business from home.

Added up, that’s going on 20 years of experience— over half of my life.  And while there are people who have definitely done debate longer and have a more impressive persuasive CV, I don’t consider myself a stranger to things such as analyzing persuasive communication and wading through research and statistics to create a perspective.

The purpose of this post isn’t to convince you that our current situation is overhyped or not being presented as dire enough.  The purpose is to get you to consider the information that you are absorbing by asking it some pretty important questions before “accepting” information as evidence of what is true.

Before we continue, a word about truth.

At the risk of sounding “postmodern” (for those who view that scary), can we all agree that NO ONE knows what the truth really is in this situation— and maybe any situation?  The experts don’t know, the law makers don’t know, the press doesn’t know.  You and I definitely don’t know.  We don’t really know how the virus works, who it will affect, why some countries are hit super hard and others aren’t.  We don’t know how long it is going to stick around.  We don’t know how many people have it, how many don’t, how long it has really been here.  We don’t know how it will affect our economy long-term… or how it will affect our own little family units.  We don’t know.

We predict, project, and speculate.  And then predict, project, and speculate some more. 

And then we all act on those predictions, projections, and speculations— you.  Your family.  Your community.  Your country.

So, I’d say it’s pretty important that we hold the information we are using to gauge our actions to a pretty high test, since it affects our actions so significantly. 

“But the statistics!,” you might be saying. “Numbers don’t lie!,” you might argue.

Oh, if only THAT were true.

Anyone who has worked with numbers and heard statistics regularly knows that there is always another way to crunch the numbers.  There is always another valid statistic out there that can argue the opposite of the position that is “proven” by other numbers.  Once you really start realizing how fallible numbers and the interpretation of them can be, you really start questioning how anyone can prove anything. (It goes to show you that believing a certain statistic over another contradicting one is an act of faith versus one of logic in a lot of instances.  But that’s another post for another time.)

To paraphrase, lots of people have the pretense of knowledge— but we are lacking in actual wisdom.

With that, let’s me jump into some pretty important questions you should be asking to any post, article, news story, graph, chart, etc., that you are seeing right now.

  1. Who is telling me this information, and what do they profit by giving it to me? 
  2. Is the information being presented ethically?

The answers to these questions are telling, and should affect how much “space” you give these sources in your head and in your decision-making.

First, who is telling me this information and what do they profit?

This lesson is one of the first ones I teach when I start teaching my students how to find and use evidence. If the source you are drawing from profits from you believing their information— in power or money— you should take their data with a pretty big grain of salt.

Does this mean that they will be inaccurate and that the information is always false?  Not necessarily. But the more that they profit, the more you should question the accuracy.  The bigger the profit gain or loss, the bigger the incentive to coerce information to their perspective.  Ask yourself if other, less-biased sources have similar findings.  

Something to consider is that, in times of crisis, both the mainstream press and the political arena are good at profiting off of extremes— making something seem way worse or way better than it is.  Why?  Because extremes grab exposure.  Headlines never say, “Nothing to see here.”  There is both power and money in widespread capturing of people’s attention.  We have seen this time and time again.  

A question to ask would be, is this happening now?

Who are you getting the most of your information from?  How much of the information are they actually giving you?  Do they give you a few soundbites, and spend the rest of the time interpreting parts of the whole?  What is the purpose of their message?

What emotional, versus logical, response is it asking you to have?

That leads us to our second main question.

Is the information being presented ethically? 

Your follow up question might be, “how would I know?”  If the article is asking for an emotional response over a logical one I mentioned above, that is a pretty big giveaway.  

If a story, etc., is laced with emotionally-charged language, little red flags should be going off.  Unless it is labeled as an opinion piece or a human interest story, we should see be seeing denotative language over connotative.  

The source definitely should not be employing questionable propaganda tactics to lead their audience to a polarizing “us vs. them” conclusion by the end of their article.  

As a small tangent, let’s talk a second about propaganda.  Propaganda itself isn’t a bad thing.  It’s neutral.  You can use it for bad or for good— but it IS a PERSUASIVE tool, not an informative one.  Also, there are many types of propaganda, but two are universally seen as unethical, although many are neutral.  Those two questionable kinds are name calling and card stacking.  

Name calling is intentional use of offensive names or language to win an argument.  Card stacking is a purposeful manipulation of the audience perception of an issue by emphasizing one side and repressing another.  

Both of these can be outright or implied, but if they are in an article, you should definitely begin to question the legitimacy of the message they are asking you to accept.

How do we apply this in this situation?

Does a news source you are reading call— or even imply— that anyone that disagrees with it is absurd or immoral in some way? Are they purposefully repressing and disregarding anyone that might think differently?

I *know* I have seen these tactics from both sides over the past week or two.  People even suggest that society should open up soon, and they are cast as money-grubbers, willing to sacrifice the elderly on the alter of our economy.  On the opposite side, people who are advocating for shelter-in-place or more stringent social distancing are portrayed as weaklings who are willing to rip up our rights as Americans and gladly become a communist country.

I would like to say that my language in the above paragraph is exaggerated for dramatic effect, but I’ve basically read those very words recently. I have seen them implied WAY more— not just in the comment sections of people’s posts— but by people and entities that are supposed to be representing facts.  

Those sources cannot claim to be unbiased in their reporting while simultaneously using questionable propaganda techniques to help support their conclusions.  But they are.

What’s worse? These articles are being shared. And shared. And shared again.

There’s one more facet to this “ethics” question that I’m going to mention here.

Let’s go back to debate. 

While making and arguing cases and points, good debaters use a lot of evidence.  Some of it can get deep and honestly, hard to listen and process— which can be a problem when you are wanting a judge to understand your point at one listening.  So, debaters do this thing called “tagging evidence.”  Basically, it’s a one sentence summary of what the judge can expect to hear in the evidence coming up.  Think of it like the evidence’s thesis statement, if you will.

Now, here’s the thing.  Some debaters want the judge to believe something, but can’t quite find the data to prove exactly what they want the judge to believe.  So, they will mis-tag the evidence, with the hope that the judge will write down and accept the tag without actually analyzing the data in the evidence itself.  It’s definitely a no-no in debate, and the other side can call out the misidentification and call into question the ethos of the team using those tactics.

So why risk this credibility blow?

Because a lot of times, it isn’t caught by the opposing team or the judge.  The team gets away with it and might even win the round because of it.  

What is very frustrating to me is that I see this “mis-tagging” happening over and over and over in news articles.  The titles of the articles have this attention-grabbing “fact” in it… but when you click the article and read it?  You find the information in many articles don’t actually say what the title suggested it should.  You realize that the article includes disclaimers and details that neutralize the sensationalism that the headline suggests.  

We don’t realize that right now, we are in the middle of a huge debate round as well as pandemic. We are the judges, listening to evidence come at us in such uncomfortable speeds by people who want us to believe them, that we just remember the “tags,” and don’t have time to dive deep into the details of all the information being shared with us.  So, we use the tags to convince us, one way or the other, of which side to believe. 

And ultimately, which side to act on.

There’s so much more I actually want to say, but heavens.  This post is already a novel. 

We are living in a time where it is easy to grow fear— of the unknown or of a virus or of losing jobs and freedoms.  Our fear actually makes it harder to analyze what we are reading and hearing, but it is more important now than ever.

I’ll be honest. I’m tempted to fear. I don’t like it when experts contradict and stats aren’t consistent, and logic isn’t easy, and people resort to name calling and card stacking to get points across. 

I don’t like knowing the truth about everything that is happening, either.

But I keep coming back to some bigger truths that sooth my soul, even when nothing else makes sense.  My faith grows clearer when facts become more elusive.

I know that I’m not supposed to have a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.

Making sure that I’m reading and sharing things that are as factual, unbiased, and not needlessly creating fear is doing my part in having “a sound mind” in the middle of a restless world.

At the end of the day, I ultimately know that there is One who knows the truth about all of this.  About all of everything.  

And that belief in the midst of crazy provides the soundest mind of all.

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