Could there be anything more important to individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, countries, or the world that every person can think critically for themselves? The ability to make decisions based on the facts instead of what the media reports repeatedly ad nauseum or what politicians say to get elected. Allowing oneself to be manipulated by any thought leader(teacher, politician, intellectual…etc.) can happen to anyone and is understandable but we have to have the ability to recognize when it happens and take steps to avoid falling for the same tactics over and over again. I have some clear examples from the past that illustrate vividly the manipulation of the facts to misinform the public. These are three concrete examples of false narratives that came to be accepted as truth by the public at large that were absent of facts or any real evidence to support that false narrative.
Stranger Danger. Anyone in their 30’s or older can relate. We all heard it in school. Our parents told us repeatedly to not accept candy from strangers. We have a whole generation of adults who are suspicious of anyone they don’t know or who may be even slightly different. Anytime a little white girl disappeared every major news organization repeated the story over and over until it seemed like child abductions were happening every day on every street corner. Everyone believed it was pervasive and the media reported as so without a shred of evidence to support the stranger danger narrative all for ratings. In point of fact, a child is much more likely to get abused by a friend or family member but that was not reported. Real solutions to avoid child abuse weren’t even considered while everyone focused on the fictional stranger on the corner.
Razor blade in Halloween candy. A variation of stranger danger. Every Halloween the stories would begin. Some family, somewhere, found a razor blade in an apple or a needle in a piece of candy. My parents checked every piece of candle and discarded anything even slightly suspicious. In reality, there has never been one documented case of a kid being injured or dying from a foreign object in candy received from trick-or-treating. If the media repeats something often enough people will start to believe it. The story was good for ratings.
The Tet Offensive and the “unwinnable” war.* Any objective historian will tell you that the Tet Offensive was an overwhelming victory on the battlefield for the US. By any standard, the Tet Offensive was an unmitigated disaster for the communists. The communists even knew it. According to documents later released by Vietnamese officials the plan was to spring a surprise attack in an effort to increase their bargaining power. Intellectuals of the time and the American press painted a portrait of defeat and started repeating that the war was unwinnable. Not military historians or military leaders. Linguists and journalists made the pronouncement. Once the American public was convinced it was unwinnable after being bombarded with misinformation the war became unwinnable. The war was labeled unwinnable and all who served in the military were labeled baby killers. Both gross mischaracterizations. If any journalist or politician disagreed they were shouted down, marginalized, or called a warmonger. Sound familiar? US Service members were spit on if they wore their uniforms. The repercussions are still being felt today. The insurgents during the Iraq War are known to be convinced that all they had to do was make a big enough splash and the American press will do the rest. The American press even bandied the term, “unwinnable”, and likened the insurgency to the Tet offensive. To be fair, there was plenty of misinformation coming from the Johnson administration before Tet which seriously damaged their credibility.
I am certain other, maybe better, examples exist but I hope I was able to get my point across. The important takeaway is to recognize that we have all fallen into the trap of believing a scenario to be true based on false information and we have to maintain the ability to change our position when new evidence is made available. Don’t get mad about it, realize the mistake and be careful to not let it happen again. This American experiment of ours needs citizens that are critical thinkers with the ability to think for themselves. If we are easily fooled we will be led by fools with foolish ideas. If you can think for yourself you will be a more informed citizen. An informed citizen is a better citizen who will vote for better leaders instead of charlatans. Thinking for yourself will make the world a better place.
*The idea for this article came from a video of Thomas Sowell titled, “How Intellectuals Ruin Society.” Discusses the Tet offensive at 5:58. I am sure there are journalists from that time period that would disagree but that is an attempt to re-write history to justify their own lack of journalistic integrity. There are plenty of objective historians that would support the above opinion.