Sunday, January 29, 2017

How much is lying part of our ordinary lives?

This post is prompted by something odd that happened to me yesterday.  Sometimes after reading a piece published in a popular outlet and written by an author with an academic pedigree, I will write to that person by email, giving some reaction to the piece.  I don't do this very often, probably less than a dozen times in total.  I did so yesterday, and got an almost immediate response from the author, somebody I had a previous exchange with a couple of years earlier.

The issue is that the title of the piece (which was about facts) suggested some tie in to the current political controversy, while the piece itself had no such connection.  The author, in his response, expressed disappointment at the title of the piece, which he did not choose.  It was imposed, apparently, by an editor/marketer whose job it is to get more eyeballs to look at the content that this periodical distributes.  My complaint should have been directed toward that person.  But that person was entirely invisible to me.  The author, who gave me a brief explanation of what had happened, mildly scolded me at the end of his message for being duped by the title.  I should know better.

I actually wasn't duped, as I've had this experience before, though the first time without the other author scolding me.  The irony, of course, is that periodicals like this one are taking Trump and his administration to task for all the lying, while they are under assault from this administration for performing hatchet jobs in their coverage.  And then there is the question of how this is supposed to work with readers like me.  If I feel disrespected by the way that title misrepresented the contents of the piece, what will that do to my relationship with the periodical and whether I continue to read stuff they produce?

It occurred to me to think this through from the point of view of the editor/marketer who made the decision.  Did this person perceive the act simply as doing the job, with little to no duplicity in the process?  It also occurred to me to ask whether this person is one and the same as the person who chose to make this piece featured in the online offerings of this periodical, which is a general interest journal.  If an appropriate title for the piece had been chosen, did the piece merit interest from a reader like me?  If not, and if many other readers would react similarly, was this piece appropriate for the intended audience?

In considering my own behavior, I definitely do not adhere to all the rules that are imposed on me.  Speeding is the quintessential example.  I asked myself whether speeding is tantamount to lying. After a while, I concluded that it is not.  The last time I recall being stopped on the road, which was on I-80 in Indiana while returning from a trip to Ann Arbor to visit my brother's family, the highway patrol officer asked me how fast I was going.  I told him.  He thanked me for being honest, cautioned me to drive slower, and did not give me a ticket.  I did drive slower for the remainder of that trip.  Although I still have memory of that incident, it doesn't seem to have any impact on my current driving.

There is also the issue of expedience as the prime determinant of behavior.  When I go to the liquor store the person at the checkout will invariably ask, did you find everything okay?  Sometimes the answer is no, but I don't say that. At this point I want to complete my transaction and leave.  Saying that I didn't find something would prolong matters.  Why bother?

People who are in a sales or marketing job may view their work the same way I view driving or talking with the guy at the checkout.  A little breaking of the rules is to be expected, isn't it?  What's the big deal?  And yet it seems that more and more of our lives as taken up with people who are trying to sell us something.  (Here I include trying to capture our attention, even if we don't directly pay for that.)  In turn, we spend more of our own time marketing ourselves.  Sometimes we do this, I believe, entirely unaware that we're engaging in self-promotion.  The lack of awareness, however, encourages mild forms of misrepresentation.

Earlier this week I became captivated by this promo from Forbes, Ten Guaranteed Ways To Appear Smarter Than You Are.  It is both humorous and frightening.  The piece is offered up earnestly, without any hint at it being ethically challenged or, for that matter, without any consideration of why the behavior it recommends will or will not be effective.  (My interpretation is that it is really about conforming to workplace norms and expectations, so is about confirmation bias in others at work.  Therefore, it might work, but it might be better for all if it didn't.)

A few years ago I wrote a post called Gaming The System Versus Designing It.  It started out that we've all gotten more proficient in manipulating the system to our own advantage.  One of the examples given was commercial standardized test preparation, such as training offered by Stanley Kaplan.  At root, is there any real difference between taking an SAT prep class and following the suggestions given in the Forbes promo linked above?

There is also the famous Lord Acton line:

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”

Lying may have become more normalized as elites distanced themselves from the rest of the population.  It's hard to know this.  The Gulf of Tonkin incident happened in 1964.  Nixon became President in 1968.  Did that mark a departure from the Eisenhower years or not?

Even Leave It to Beaver had Eddie Haskell.  But Eddie Haskell was such an indelible part of the show because he stood in contrast to the Wally and the Beaver, who were much more earnest.   Now, has each of us turned into Eddie Haskell?

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