WASHINGTON, March 1, 2016 — Distressing news shakes our foundation and threatens what we value. A friend tells us our spouse is unfaithful. An HR colleague lets us know we’re getting fired. The doctor says the lump is malignant.
We have four options when confronted by a bad message:
The first? Bury our heads in the sand. But ignoring bad news magnifies the problem even for ostriches. The affair continues. We lose our job without landing another. We delay radiation and chemotherapy and wind up dead.
The second approach? Kill the messenger, once a sport of kings and churches.
Muhammad XII, last Sultan of Granada, beheaded the unlucky courier who reported the Christian reconquest of Andalusia in 1489. In 1600 the Catholic Church burned Giordano Bruno for espousing the Copernican theory that the earth orbited the sun. But soon all Moorish Spain was liberated, and Galileo took just 20 years to prove Bruno right.
Killing the messenger is just a violent variant of the ostrich strategy.
The third option? Engage the message with facts and logic to solve the problem.
To anthropogenic climate change alarmists, for example, note that the earth has undergone huge climactic variations since long before humans existed, that solar cycles produce temperature fluctuations, and that volcanoes emit more carbon than humans.
When labor activists demand a $15 per hour minimum wage, point out that businesses will replace workers with kiosks, prices will rise, and the lucky few who keep their jobs will have reduced buying power.
And when progressives defend ObamaCare, stress that premiums have risen 50 percent, deductibles cost as much as used cars, and it’s harder to find a doctor.
However, with truth the first casualty of information warfare, the fourth response to an unwelcome message—discredit the messenger—has replaced baseball as the great American pastime.
Two tactics discredit a messenger.
First, call him a liar, whether he is or not. It’s terribly effective. For if a messenger can’t be trusted to tell the truth, we needn’t—and shouldn’t—listen to anything he says. Every one of his messages is now presumptively false.
The charge alone sticks like tar and hurts our love and career prospects. And if the messenger is a polarizing public figure without resources or a platform to defend himself, his innocence is irrelevant to those who hate his message. The sentence—the shredding of his reputation by cyber cockroaches cum character assassins—will be executed on Wikipedia and scratched like graffiti on other virtual bathroom stalls. Only his professional crucifixion will satisfy his political enemies.
Sometimes shouting “liar, liar, pants on fire!” fails.
Case in point: Trump repeated the obscene far-left claim that “Bush lied, people died” concerning the Iraq war. Yet all intelligence agencies upon which W relied believed in good faith that Iraq possessed WMD. No U.S. elected official disputed it. Best of all, in 2003, Trump hailed the wisdom of U.S. military intervention. W stands vindicated.
And liberal media tried to smear Dr. Ben Carson into quitting by claiming he lied about a scholarship offer to West Point. But facts prove Gen. Westmoreland told Carson he could attend West Point for free if only he applied.
Yet in the court of public opinion, a lack of quickly available rebuttal evidence is spun into proof of a “lie.” The GOP Big Three debates, a sewer of unsubstantiated, even speculative, charges that each is a liar, illustrate this.
Rubio accuses Trump of lying about Trump University. Trump and Cruz accuse Rubio of favoring amnesty for illegal aliens on Spanish language television. Trump accuses Cruz of lying about his eligibility for office and falsely claiming Carson was exiting the campaign in Iowa. Cruz accuses Trump of lying about his intentions to repeal the Second Amendment and defend ObamaCare.
But where’s the beef?
And while it is easy to know whether Rubio defended amnesty by viewing the video, it is impossible to know if President Trump would curtail the Second Amendment. Trump might not be as strong a gun rights defender as Cruz, but when Trump calls Cruz a liar for alleging Trump will grab our guns, how can Cruz defend against a hypothetical?
Hillary watches the GOP circular firing squad, beaming and emailing.
More difficult still for an accused liar is establishing the non-existence of an alleged fact, otherwise known as “proving a negative.”
Take unicorns. A true believer says he’s seen one. Why isn’t it enough to scour the entire earth and find no live unicorn, no fossilized unicorn bones, no pictures of unicorns? Is one who disputes the claim a “unicorn denier” and a liar?
And how does a person prove he did not say, do or believe something when there is no evidence he said, did or believed anything save for a claim by a motivated, even anonymous, third party who is the real liar? Even if one chronicles everything he did, everywhere he went, everything he said, everything he thought, everything he wore and everyone he met, does his diary rebut a malicious rumormonger? No.
How can W prove he believed Iraq had WMD in 2003? How can Carson prove what long-dead Westmoreland told him about West Point? How can Cruz prove he did not instruct staffers to report Carson’s campaign withdrawal?
Can anyone prove he didn’t dance nude in Rome’s Trevi Fountain sometime in the past? Can anyone prove he didn’t wear a Silver Star? Can anyone prove he never had sex with someone else’s spouse? No. That’s the point. You can’t prove most negatives. The charge convicts. Denial is a “lie.”
The straw man trap is even worse. To the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” if the accused says “yes” he’s a former wife beater. “No” and he’s a current wife beater. If he challenges the false assumption, he’s a wife beater and a liar.
Democrats’ whole platform is a straw man claim that the GOP will hurt the middle class, women, children, the planet and progress. The GOP either lets Democrats implement their agenda or are branded liars when they deny the false assumption that they hate America. And GOP elites employ straw men too, asking when Trump became a conservative and calling him a liar when he says he has always been one.
Smearing a messenger as a liar is good, but the best way to destroy the bearer of bad news? Call him crazy. It completely neutralizes the message. The mentally ill cannot differentiate fact from fiction. Unlike alleged liars, who can try to mount a defense, the crazy are disqualified from making a case. The Soviets made an industry of this, institutionalizing perfectly sane critics of the Communist regime.
But how do you pull it off with no psychiatric evaluation of the messenger?
Recall that facts are irrelevant. Just combine a message threatening enough to make a recipient play the crazy card with a Greek chorus of evil family members, a corrupt organization or biased media that echo and validate the approved narrative.
Women, vulnerable to sexist claims of hysteria for ages, often get one-way tickets on the “crazy train.” Want to strip child custody from a fit mother of limited financial means? Find a lawyer who, for $400 an hour, will sell her as crazy to a corrupt judge. Need to shelter Bill Clinton from another rape charge? Have Hillary call the woman crazy, send private detectives digging for dirt, and feed scoops to the pliant media.
Liberals, for generations, have used this tactic against conservatives. The Left has branded conservatives “politically incorrect”—code for crazy. Critics of gay marriage, climate change, $15/hour minimum wages, identity politics, safe spaces, the peacefulness of radical Islam, or the holiness of Barack Obama? They’re crazy. Donald Trump, frontrunner for the GOP nomination? You’re crazy.
Then the right retaliated. And public life became a nasty back-and-forth where left and right reference scientific studies, psychiatrists, pundits and anecdotal evidence that the other side is crazy.
Yet can liberalism and conservatism both be mental disorders? Is the entire U.S. population mentally ill?
No. Most who would propose and implement solutions are neither liars nor crazy. Vigorous debate in a marketplace of ideas is healthy. Character assassination, the labor of cowards, reveals an ailing republic.
But America has problems. Radical Islam. Open borders. A crumbling economy. Collapsing morality. And it’s past time to engage messengers and their messages using facts, logic and reason to solve our problems.
That requires a seismic cultural shift. It takes work and patience to think, assemble facts, develop arguments, and attempt, with civility, to persuade others.
Yet almost no one wants to do that. It’s easier, faster, and more viscerally satisfying to ignore facts and destroy those whose messages we don’t like. We demand blood. Let truth, justice, and everything else be damned. Wikipedia is but a click away.
Hate this article? Call me a liar. Better yet, call me crazy.
But be glad they’ve outlawed dueling.