When I was in college, back in the 60s, I took a speech class — Public Speaking 101. Throughout the semester students were required to write and present to the class various kinds of speeches: informative, entertaining, convincing, etc. When it came to giving a speech to convince, there were three different weapons available in the speaker’s arsenal. The first weapon was the art of argument or debate, which makes use of various techniques of logic and reason. The second was the art of performance or delivery; using the voice authoritatively, as an actor or announcer does. The third weapon was establishing the authority of your facts by documenting their sources.
We were young and not yet confident in public speaking, so our lack of polished delivery or cleverly reasoned arguments was generally forgiven. But there was never any leeway given when it came to documenting our factual statements. If any student was so unfortunate as to make an authoritative statement without citing the source for that information, the teacher would yell out, “Source! What’s your source?”, and mark them down accordingly. We all learned to document every point of fact we made, and if we couldn’t cite the source, we didn’t state the fact. Factual information was considered only as good as its source. And the source, whether it was an expert, an institution or a document, had to be substantially recognized as established, qualified and authoritative.
Fast forward to the present. If you spend anytime listening to politicians, or to the talking heads dubbed experts in their fields, you get the impression that they never took Public Speaking 101 … or never passed it. Oh, they still employ some semblance of debate, leaning heavily on ad hominem attacks. But the main aspect of public speaking today is in the delivery; how the speaker uses tone and vocal inflection, dramatic pauses, facial expression and body language. It’s all about creating an image and giving the right impression, not different from techniques used by successful purveyors of snake oils and elixirs.
Counting mainly on the ignorance and gullibility of their clientele, these salesmen pulled the wool over their victim’s eyes with impressive rhetoric. Similarly, gullible voters will inevitably give their support to candidates who promise them what they want to hear, without testing what is said against what they have done. What is particularly amazing is how these politicians get re-elected. Even when the voting public has had the opportunity to see what an incumbent has done while in office, the political record is often denied, ignored or distorted, to the effect that the voters respond more to the words of politicians than to what they actually have done.
Facts have no impact on ignorance. Snake oil venders don’t need to cite their source. Common practice today is to make statements of fact without any documentation. When a pretense is made to document facts, the source cited is often a quote of someone citing someone else who cited someone else, until you discover that “someone” just made it up. Today the scholarly checking of facts is almost non-existent.
Another common practice is to cite “studies” done by agenda-driven or ideological organizations with whom you agree. These so-called “studies” are often skewed, either by the cherry-picking of raw data or by their biased interpretation of the data. The results of such studies are pre-determined and specifically designed to be “convincing” for purposes of funding, such as grants and legislation. Watching a debate between politicians is like watching combatants in a duel taking swipes at each other. The “swords” are their chosen “studies”. Their “facts” are as reliable as the glowing testimonials of “satisfied customers” paid for by snake oil swindlers. Whether the facts are right is not at issue. It’s all about pulling the wool over our eyes.
One influence that sustains this tomfoolery is the popular concept that everything is relative. Increasing numbers of young people are being taught that truth is not absolute, but relative; you have your “facts” and I have mine. So the whole burden of determining the reliability of any statement of fact is moot. Closely related to this is the issue of authority. When “truth” is relative, there can be no such thing as an authoritative statement. Authority becomes “politically” dependent, either upon popular opinion or on dictatorial power. Since we are ostensibly a government of the people, the goal of any debate is to convincingly establish the popular will of the people, not to arrive at the truth. Thus the motto, “We report. You decide.”
Fox News describes itself as “Fair and Balanced”. That certainly sounds good, but what does it mean? If you are reporting opinions, then a fair and balanced presentation implies a representational cross section of opinions. But if you are reporting substantially documented, authoritative facts, what needs to be done to make it “fair” or “balanced”? To my way of thinking, information is either true or false. One cannot “balance” the truth with anything other than truth. Reporting facts is simply that: reporting facts. Whether or not that is “fair” is nonsensical. To think otherwise is to deny that facts are facts and truth is truth.
Those who insist that what’s true for one isn’t necessarily true for all fall into the trap of moral equivalency. As in the illustration above, where dueling politicians swipe at each other with their chosen “studies”, moral equivalency means that while you are swiping me with the idea that abortion is the murder of the innocent unborn, I can swipe at you with the idea that abortion is a choice a woman makes about her own body. You may swipe at me with the idea that we must destroy the terrorists that threaten to destroy us, but I will swipe at you that our military is killing religious freedom fighters who nobly sacrifice their lives. Fewer jobs and more taxes on Americans. Swipe. More services and benefits offered to illegal aliens. Swipe. Global warming. Swipe. Record cold temperatures. Swipe. No more drilling. Swipe. Soaring gas prices. Swipe. More government services. Swipe. Bankruptcy. Swipe.
All this fair and balanced, morally equivalent snake oil salesmanship is good for ratings, because basically, it’s all about entertainment. Keep the people distracted and charm them with your delivery. But ancient wisdom teaches, “Appearances can be deceiving” and “All that glitters is not gold.” I pray for a future in which those axioms will be taken to heart by the people. Joe Friday had it right when he said, “Just the facts ma’am.” I look forward to a time when our leaders will be held to account for what they say, not just allowed to toss off any authoritative statement they wish without scrutiny. I hope that sometime soon, the voices of everyday people will be heard demanding. “Cite your source!” And if that source turns out to be the Constitution of the United States, our future will be in good hands.