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Selective Attention and the Politics of Hypocrisy

By Howard Ross, Founder and Chief Learning Officer

The past weeks have been filled with tragedy and the requisite reaction to those tragedies. The Paris attacks followed by the assault on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs this past Friday have once again given us a chance to look at the way we respond to our world.

The terror in Paris has led to dramatic reaction on the part of many, including several candidates for President of the United States. Public attacks on Muslims have escalated. Decrying incidents of “Islamic Terrorism,” statements have included the call for the closing of Mosques, the notion that Muslims should not be allowed to be President, and wholesale registration of Muslim Americans. Correspondingly many have cautioned against the wholesale bigotry of these remarks, comparing them to the attitudes towards Jewish immigration around the time of the Holocaust and to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

imagesThe attacks on Planned Parenthood have brought up condemnation of anti-abortion rhetoric and the effect that it has had on the attacks on abortion clinics and providers. This has brought a counter-reaction from some of the most vociferous anti-abortion voices. Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee telling CNN, “I think that’s a little bit disingenuous on the part of Planned Parenthood to blame people, who have a strong philosophical disagreement with the dismembering of human babies and with the selling of body parts, to say that we would like to retaliate by sending some mad man into a clinic to kill people.” And Carly Fiorina denounced “typical left wing tactics,” telling Fox News, that the “tragedy” was caused by a “deranged” gunman, going on to say, “This is so typical of the left to immediately begin demonizing a messenger because they don’t agree with the message.”

How can we live together in a world that we see so differently from each other?

Facts can be helpful, and also illusive in a world in which they seem to matter little to most people. Statistically where does the danger actually live? Even the language is difficult to nail down. We, of course, have all seen and heard the controversy as to whether or not Paris was “Islamic Terrorism” or a terrorist act committed by people who are Muslim. After the latest Planned Parenthood attack, news services seemed to be bending over backwards trying not to describe it as “Christian Terrorism.” As Brian Williams said,  “See, when a Muslim extremist does something violent, we can point out how they’re a Muslim and how people should be afraid of Muslims and everyone is okay with that. But when it’s a Christian terrorist, it’s important for us to note how he was just one lone-wolf rotten egg out of millions and that he’s a mentally ill monster.”

Statistics are thrown around like Frisbees, all too often the result of somebody going on to the Internet and pulling them down with little attention to the source. Each side armed with “facts” that justify their point of view. And these facts then get repeated, over and over, as new memes that said, enough, become “truth.” As Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, the bigger the lie, the more power it may have: “a lie so ‘colossal’ that no one would believe that someone ‘could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.’” And with the advent of the internet, that same lie can now be circulated millions of times within hours.

This pattern is reinforced by the bifurcation of media. As opposed to the past, when we watched a fairly homogenized central news, most of us now get our news from segmented sources that reinforce our point of view on TV, through Facebook, through certain bloggers, etc. And so, of course, we gather the information that supports our point of view, discarding that which might refute it. We are actively participating in “brainwashing” ourselves. This creates a pattern of inconsistencies that can often occur as hypocrisy.

For example, a majority of Americans, according to the latest polls, believe that racism towards whites is now more of an issue than racism towards people of color. A large percentage of Americans believe that “Christianity is under attack.” And many believe that being gay is somehow preferred in today’s world. Yet, according to the FBI, over the past 20 years 93% of the religious hate crimes in this country have been committed against groups other than Christians (mostly Jews and Muslims), 80% of race-related hate crimes have been directed at people of color, and more than 98% of crimes related to sexual orientation have been directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

In fact, since 2001 more Americans have been killed domestically by white supremacists or domestic terrorism by Whites, than they have by Muslim extremists.

And was the Colorado Springs attack “an isolated incident” by a “deranged loner”? According to the National Abortion Federation, since 1977 in the U.S. and Canada there have been 7 incidents of murder by anti-abortionists, resulting in at least 11 deaths. In addition, at various woman’s health clinics around the country there have been 17 attempted murders, 383 death threats, 153 incidents of assault or battery, 21 people wounded, 100 butyric acid attacks, 373 physical invasions, 41 bombings, 619 bomb threats, 1630 incidents of trespassing, 1264 incidents of vandalism, 655 bioterror threats, 173 incidents of arson, 91 attempted bombings or arson, 655 anthrax threats, and 3 kidnappings committed against abortion providers.

And yet, depending upon which news sources you watch, there is a “War Against Christianity,” a “War against our traditional way of life,” and a “War against the unborn.”

There is no question that some of this rhetoric has been escalated because of the current Presidential campaign. We are clearly living at a time of the “politics of the extreme.” It seems like the more extreme politicians are, the more interest they garner among their “base” voters. Incendiary remarks by Donald Trump fill the airwaves seemingly every other day, but he is not alone. It has been called “the politics of rudeness, and can be easily misunderstood as the result of bad behavior on the part of a few. But, in fact, it is a conscious and active form of hate-mongering that is as old as politics. By focusing on “the other” as the encroaching enemy, the hope is that voters will see a particular candidate as the “savior” who will protect them.

It is as dangerous as it is cynical, and as toxic as it is despicable because it is the antithesis of the notion of bringing people together to solve our common challenges.

However, in observing this cynical manipulation of the electorate one might miss a deeper, much more universal truth: that human beings see very little of the world around us. Psychologists call this phenomenon “selective attention.” You have undoubtedly experienced it. You and a friend are watching some event, but one of you sees something that the other does not. Not because the other couldn’t see it, but because they didn’t see it. We know that we are exposed to as many as 11 million data points at any one time (neuroscientists can estimate this based on open neuro-receptors), but we absorb only between 40-50 and probably less than 10 consciously. So our minds are always sorting out the things we see from all of the information in front of us. We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are. And this is not the exclusive domain of any one political party or philosophy. It happens to all of us.

This is especially dangerous when we are being swept away by politically oriented campaigns that are designed to convince us how to believe. It is especially dangerous when we are dealing with serious political issues that breed antipathy that can easily slide into violence. And it is especially dangerous when we are trying to develop policies to deal with issues, both locally and globally, which impact people’s lives at the most fundamental level.

We have to watch what we say and how we say it. We have heard constant attacks lately against “political correctness,” and I agree that we have gotten somewhat overly sensitive to the point where it is almost impossible to discuss certain things. However, railing against political correctness is often used as a canard against being held responsible for language that is intentionally incendiary and hurtful; that fans the flames of intolerance and violence.

So what can we do? It starts when we decide that we are not going to allow ourselves to be blindly led like sheep into believing everything we are told by anybody. We can choose to be more consciously open-minded. That doesn’t mean that we cannot have a point of view. We may have a very strong point of view. It means that we must see our point of view as a point of view, and not as an absolute truth. It means watching the “other” news stations, reading the “other” blogs, and listening for the deeper concerns that are underneath people’s points of view. It means having something be more important than just being right.

Of course we will have our own emotional reactions, but if we are to continue to be able to live peacefully in a pluralistic society we have to recognize our reactions as reactions and stop demagoguery in whatever form. If we have a point of view to express, can’t we do it without inciting hatred and violence?

Words matter. Choose them wisely.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @HowardJRoss.

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