Do Our Biases Rule Our Intellect?
In 1915 D. W. Giffith produced a movie called “Birth of a Nation.” It was based on the “The Clansman” a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr. The movie was set in the post civil war reconstruction period and provided a blantantly racist depiction of ex-slaves. While the movie was soundly criticized by many for it’s racist content, for many others it served it’s purpsoe of glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and justifying Jim Crow laws.
For those who were already biased against Negroes and saw them as a threat, the movie reinforced their mindset. Unfortunately, it also created bigots out of some who were previously undecided.
This is not the first or only time a movie, novel, documentary or supposed work of non-fiction has been created for the purpose of moving public opinion in a certain direction. Nor is it the first or only time that the direction was nefarious in nature and in need of substantial distortion of facts to achieve it’s purpose. Such distortions, when accepted as fact, inevitably lead to uncivil discussions between those who accept the distortions and those who don’t.
Some examples of such works include: “Unsafe at any Speed”, a book by Ralph Nader published in 1965, highly critical of the safety of General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvair. His criticism was refuted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1972, well after the publicity generated by the book destroyed the reputation of the car and caused it to be discontinued by GM. With the help of this book Nader made a reputation for himself as a champion of consumers and went on to make a career attacking various corporations and capitalism in general.
“Bowling for Columbine” a movie Michael Moore produced in 2002 attacked the National Rifle Association and political conservatives with misleading statements, dishonest editing and complete falsehoods. Nevertheless, the distortions of fact were skillfully presented and broadly accepted receiving an Academy Award for best documentary although it did not fit the nonficition criteria established by the Academy as a documentary. It is widely accepted that the movie is most appropriately categorized as satire.
“Inconvenient Truth”, by former Vice President Albert Gore, became a bestselling book in 2006 and was made into a movie. The book contained so many false claims and distortions regarding the cause of global warming that it was removed from some school’s approved reading lists. Even though the author refuses to be questioned on the content of the work, the bias against energy producers and consumers is so strong that it received not only an academy award but Mr. Gore was given a Nobel Prize for his efforts.
“Gas Land”, another movie falsely presented as a documentary, was produced by Josh Fox in 2010. The film created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust around the development of shale oil and gas deposits. The distortion of facts did not deter the producer of this film from claiming that the hydraulic fracturing of gas bearing shale deposits would cause widespread contamination of domestic water supplies. The acceptance of his claims led to a moratorium against the practice in some areas.
These are just a few examples of books and movies that used bias to drive political action through fear. The strategy in these cases is through exaggerations, spin and false information to stimulate the bias against specific industries, corporations and captalism in general.
There are enough real corporate sins to bring to public attention that making up new ones only serves to cast doubt on legitimate grievances. In fact, like the boy who cried wolf, lies and exaggerations about racism, the environment, gender discrimination, gun violence, etc. devalues the truth when it emerges and it will not be given the attention it deserves.
Why would anyone deliberately produce a film or book that leads public opinion away from the truth and toward support of dangerously wrong headed policies? The quick and obvious answers are money, political influence and fame. Other answer are more complicated. If you could answer the question: Why do hackers expend vast amounts of work and creativity to plant a mischievous virus into the computers of total strangers, you may have a peek into the minds of some of these authors.
Unfortunately there is no anti-virus software to protect us from opportunistic slander, we have only our own intellect and common sense to guide us. If, for example, you have a bias against energy companies and you are strongly tempted to accept anything negative that you read about them, take the time to set yourself straight and check the facts with an unbiased source of which there are many on the Internet.
Biases are a part of our nature, we all have them. A responsible, fair minded, thinking person tries to keep them in check. Ralph Waldo Emerson said in an essay on self reliance, “A foolish consistency is the hob goblin of a little mind adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines.” Little minds will always be among us, pray that we will not be in their number.