As we become more and more absolute in our convictions, more and more polarized from and stigmatized by the other half of society, we no longer have minds that are open to facts.
April, 5, 2008 — I recently received an email message from one of my more-conservative thinking friends. It contained a forwarded story, an allegory really, about birds flocking to free food. The birds in the story were obviously a metaphor for illegal aliens. My friend invited me to read the story then respond with what I thought of it. The original message, the one passed-on to me, encouraged recipients to pass the story on to others in chain-letter fashion.
My response to my friend began, “Interesting that you should ask this now, Bobby (not my friend’s real name); I’m teaching a lesson to my economics students tomorrow entitled, ‘Social Goals vs. Market Efficiency’. Social goals include things like equal justice, quality education for all, gainful employment for all who are able and willing to work, freedom from crime, and security in our old age. I think I’ll share this story with my students and ask them what they think.”
What follows next is the story as it was originally forwarded to me.
I bought a bird feeder. I hung it on my back porch and filled it with seed. Within a week we had hundreds of birds taking advantage of the continuous flow of free and easily accessible food. But then the birds started building nests in the boards of the patio, above the table, and next to the barbecue.
Then came the poop. It was everywhere: on the patio tile, the chairs, the table…everywhere. Then some of the birds turned mean: They would dive bomb me and try to peck me even though I had fed them out of my own pocket. And others birds were boisterous and loud: They sat on the feeder and squawked and screamed at all hours of the day and night and demanded that I fill it when it got low on food.
After a while, I couldn’t even sit on my own back porch anymore. I took down the bird feeder and in three days the birds were gone. I cleaned up their mess and took down the many nests they had built all over the patio.
Soon, the back yard was like it used to be…quite, serene and no one demanding their rights to a free meal.
Now let’s see… our government gives out free food, subsidized housing, free medical care, free education and allows anyone born here to be an automatic citizen. Then the illegals came by the tens of thousands. Suddenly our taxes went up to pay for free services; small apartments are housing 5 families: you have to wait 6 hours to be seen by an emergency room doctor: you child’s 2nd grade class is behind other schools because over half the class doesn’t speak English: Corn Flakes now come in a bilingual box; I have to press “one” to hear my bank talk to me in English, and people waving flags other than “Old Glory” are squawking and screaming in the streets, demanding more rights and free liberties.
Maybe it’s time for the government to take down the bird feeder.
The rest of the response to my friend read as follows:
“The market can very efficiently make some of us very rich while leaving the majority of us in poverty, or it can raise the standard and quality of life for all. I know that this sounds like socialism, but that’s an extreme I do not advocate. Neither do I advocate laissez faire politics wherein the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. No serious student of economics believes in laissez faire anymore; that’s survival of the fittest — jungle rules. So, we can either invest up front in human capital (head start programs, education, health care, etc.) or we can accept the consequences of higher high school drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, declining economic growth, and growing crime rates in our inner cities. For me, it all boils down to a choice between near-term investments vs. long-term expenditures.
We are not birds — we are human beings, charged by our common Lord to love one another.”
I did share this story and how it came to my attention with my high school economics class seniors the next day and the next (our school is on a block schedule). I didn’t lecture them or lead them to any particular conclusion about it. I just read the story then let them respond and discuss their varying attitudes about it. A few laughed and indicated that they thought the story was very astute, representing as it were an obvious truth about lazy, unethical people in our society, especially illegal aliens. About an equal number of students argued that it was an ugly, unfair generali- zation about poor people and that it speaks more to a prevailing attitude of selfishness. Some said they thought most immigrants, legal and otherwise, have come to America, not for a free ride but for opportunities to better themselves. Most students, however, offered no opinion at all, perhaps fearing criticism from me or from their peers.
In retrospect, I see this story, and the way that it has been circulated, as an example of how political opinion is and has been shaped in this country since the advent of mass communications, especially television and the Internet. I consider this kind of thing to be Viral Disinformation as it is originated and spread from one individual who is infected with biased, adamant, unreasoned beliefs to many others who share or are susceptible to the same frame of reference. Not willing to discuss our beliefs and doubts with those who disagree with us, we have become intellectually lazy, taking in, first, “sound bytes” and now “video bytes” ala YouTube from entertainers who bill themselves as being well-informed, experts on any number of different subjects.
In the twenties and early thirties, the sound bytes were from entertainers like Will Rogers. Today the bits and bytes are coming from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Keith Olbermann on the television, radio, and over the Internet… and from charismatic preachers in places of worship too. In some cases, this can perhaps be the most virulent source of dis- information. This kind of thing, according to Susan Jacoby in her book, The Age of American Unreason, is “infotainment.” Rather than reading newspaper editorials – point and counterpoint – as our grandparents used to do, then discussing things with our friends and our neighbors in pubs, schools, parks, and other community places, we sit in air-conditioned homes alone after work and on weekends in front of the television or computer digesting only those sides of things that resonate with us. We become more and more absolute in our convictions, more and more polarized from and stigmatized by the other half of society.
We no longer have minds that are open to facts. In fact, if the facts conflict with the dogma we have already adopted, we reject them entirely notwithstanding the majority convictions of intellectuals like our scientists, doctors, and academics – the freethinkers. We choose to believe instead, whichever politician curries our votes by agreeing to something we consider sacrosanct, like the literal, absolute truth found in the Scriptures, for example. In this way we become victims to pitfalls of objective thinking: biases, loaded terminology, and the fallacies of composition and causation.
Hmmmm… I wonder if I am not playing into viral disinformation myself by writing and posting this article to The World According to Opa. Let me know what you think by posting a comment.