People Power: The power of skepticism and winning the battle of your mind - Dec 2020

By Sam Allman

Some days I feel like I am fighting a battle that is unwinnable. My enemy is relentless: defeated one day but back the next. I am bombarded daily. I take measures to protect and isolate myself, but the bombardment is more effective than my shields and armor. Fifty years ago, this battle was easier to fight. Today, the enemy has an infinite number of soldiers and weapons. The fact is, you and I are outgunned. Yes, you are in the battle, and if you are not aware, you should be.

It’s a battle that requires significant self-discipline and character, a war of personal freedom and choice. We can choose to live our lives our own way or allow others to choose for us. It is a battle for influence. Who will have the greatest influence over our minds and our thinking? You may think it sounds like we are in the middle of a science fiction movie or a brainwashing, but this is real life.

Am I paranoid? Maybe a little. Daily, I am bombarded with messages from all types of media soliciting my attention. They know so much about me; it’s scary. Recently, I clicked on a social media post about hearing aids, and before the day was out, I had several messages in my email and social media accounts about hearing aids.

It’s like a constant flow of salespeople knocking at my door. I unsubscribe, refuse permission to receive information, post no solicitation signs, but they keep knocking. This onslaught of marketing messages is relentless. Marketing is not a competition of products; it’s a competition for the customer’s mind, say Al Ries and Jack Trout in Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind.

Let’s face it, sales messages are usually spun truth. We expect salespeople to lie. We’ve all heard the saying, How can you tell when a salesperson is lying? His lips are moving. But the battle is not just against a barrage of sales messages-it’s against falsehood and deception. We live in a world of spin. “Spin” is the polite word for deception. It bombards us in the form of misleading commercials for products and political candidates and about public policy matters. Millions are deceived every day. Spinners mislead by means that range from subtle omission to outright lies. Spin paints a false picture of reality by bending facts, mischaracterizing the words of others, ignoring or denying evidence, or just “spinning a yarn” by making things up, according to UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. The trouble with a spinner is you never know what’s real and what’s made up.

Spin is a contemporary term for a form of propaganda that relies on deceptive methods of persuasion that are often characterized by exaggeration, euphemisms, inaccuracies, half-truths and excessively emotional appeals. It worries me how I listen to and integrate the messages I receive into my mind. Deliberateness and a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish propaganda from casual conversation or the free and easy exchange of ideas.

I have often wondered how the German people were duped into accepting the vision and ruthlessness of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. The simple answer is the Nazis were controlling the messages in the German media. Shortly after rising to power in 1933, Hitler created the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (RMVP), headed by Joseph Goebbels. Nearly all aspects of German culture were subject to his control, including films, theater, music, the press and radio. Utilizing modern techniques and technologies, Goebbels quickly began to indoctrinate the German people in Nazi ideology and to influence the behavior of the entire nation. The principles of Nazism were incorporated into nearly every newspaper, radio broadcast and film produced in the Third Reich. These carefully crafted messages were designed to manipulate the German population to support Nazi efforts, including the deportation of Jews and others to concentration camps.

Referring to freedom of speech, Goebbels once said, “This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.” Germany was a democracy before it became a Nazi-controlled dictatorship. Using propaganda to control the masses is an “effort to strip them of their individuality, to paralyze them as personalities, to make them into unthinking and docile cattle in a herd driven and hounded in a particular direction, to turn them into atoms in a huge rolling block of stone,” notes Propaganda, Persuasion and the Great War by Pier Paolo Pedrini.

Today, propagandists are working hard to sow disinformation and social discord in our country. I believe that is the main reason the people of our country are so divided. In social media, we share items before even reading or analyzing them for validity, in part, because people react emotionally, not logically, to information they come across. That’s especially true when the topic confirms what a person already believes. Research has confirmed that?lies spread faster than truth, mainly because lies are not bound to the same rules as truth.

Since the day we were born, there have been those trying to control us and influence our actions. First, it was our parents; then maybe other family members like grandparents or older siblings. Thankfully, they usually had our best interests in mind. We didn’t like being told what to do; we still don’t. Some of us rebelled or quit listening. But that’s part of learning to become an adult and growing up: thinking for ourselves. Deep down, we have a psychological need to feel in control of our choices and actions. As we mature, we learn that sometimes it is in our best interest to listen and be influenced by wiser and more knowledgeable people. You may have allowed coaches, mentors, teachers or friends to influence you, as I have. But it had to be people we trusted; it had to be our choice; and it had to be people we felt cared about us. Over time, we have learned that not everyone has our best interests at heart.

The easiest part of our battle is to turn off and ignore the barrage of messages. Just slam the door, hang up the phone, fast forward past the commercial or delete the email. If we don’t listen, the message doesn’t enter our brains. Sometimes that makes sense but not always. There are messages that could be extremely beneficial for us. Sometimes it behooves us to listen, like when getting advice from a wiser and trusted resource. The harder part of the war is how we integrate the message into our brains. If we are going to listen and stay in control, we have to analyze it and make a judgment.

We have to decide: Is the message true? Is it worth integrating it into our minds? Is it distorted or spun? Is it just a plain lie? Is it garbage, and will it distort clear thinking?

Why analyze and make the judgement? Because we do not want to be “stripped of our individualities and turn into unthinking, docile cattle” herded in a direction someone else chooses.

By definition, those with “people power” think for themselves. They control the messages their brains receive by judging, evaluating and using the information as they see fit. Once judgment is made, the messages can be filed appropriately in the brain for use when needed. People who think for themselves are not easily deceived and don’t waste their time with distorted truths and lies. They choose what works best for them and what is consistent with what they value. True knowledge is power because it increases the pool of choices. If you know only one way to solve a problem, you are not free. The more “true knowledge” you have, the freer you become.

Critical thinking relates to the analysis of information to form a judgment. The subject is complex, and several different definitions exist, which generally include rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence. (Consider my March 2018 column, Are You a Critical Thinker?)

Skepticism is at the core of critical thinking. Skepticism is an attitude of doubt or a disposition toward incredulity either in general or for a particular subject or message. Generally, it’s a questioning attitude. Skeptics suspend judgment before jumping to conclusions. Skeptics want more information about a subject before making a judgment of it. Skepticism can protect us from being duped or deceived. It protects our minds from propaganda and spinning. Skepticism facilitates our thinking for ourselves.

Whether you are reading a book, browsing the Internet, reading a press release, listening to a commercial on the TV or radio, or listening to a salesperson, you should at first have a questioning attitude; be skeptical of their messages. If the message is worth integrating, it may motivate you to do more research and to seek additional information to verify its claims. My skeptical questions would be:
• Who said it? Is this person a reputable expert and a person of ethical character? Does he/she have a track record for honesty and truth telling? Do you have personal experience with this person?
• What is the source of the information? Reliable, respected and nonbiased sources are best. What is the source’s reputation? Do your research; you may have to review a source several times before making a judgment.
• Is there a hidden agenda? Why was the message published? Was it to inform or influence? Identifying the why unmasks the agenda.
• What was the original context of the message? Was the information taken out of context? Taking words out of context is a major tactic of spinning.
• Is the message too good to be true? If it is, then your research should be more extensive, and you should become more skeptical.
• Do you need to do a fact check? There are a lot of reputable fact-checking organizations, like Snopes and FactCheck. It’s easier to do your own research than ever before. It’s just on the tip of your fingers.
• Do you agree with the message? “The habit of an opinion often leads to the complete conviction of its truth, it hides the weaker parts of it and makes us incapable of accepting the proofs against it,” said Jons Jacob Berzelius, one of the founders of modern chemistry. At times, you should be skeptical of your own opinions. Rarely is truth one-sided. Failing to be skeptical of your own opinions means you may not be open-minded enough. Maybe you should listen more to the opposite viewpoints; maybe you need a new perspective.

There is power in skepticism. It bolsters people power, but most of all gives you better control of your thinking and your mind. Protect yourself and those in your social and professional networks. Be vigilant. Don’t share anything unless you’re sure it’s true. Spinners and propagandists are trying to turn us into unthinking cattle who can be led anywhere. Don’t help them. Listen with skepticism and share wisely.

Copyright 2020 Floor Focus 

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