August 31st, 2016 // 1:24 pm @ Oliver DeMille
“Sometimes the wicked man undergoes a change for the better,
but the fool never does.” —Anatole France
Seen and Unseen
“Perception is reality.”
“It’s just business.”
Indeed, these two popular sayings are usually voiced precisely to justify doing something wrong. Or mean-spirited. Or both. The truth is that reality is reality; perception seldom is—especially in the age of modern media. And “business” is never a valid excuse for being unprincipled, no matter what the media tries to tell us.
For example, in the 2016 movie remake of Tarzan, the bad guy (a social-climbing bureaucrat whose role is to represent his European king in Africa) kidnaps John Greystoke’s wife Jane, tries to “seduce” her through manipulation and threats, and kills those who try to defend her. Then he sets out to sell her to Greystoke’s enemies. Not a nice man.
Perhaps the most poignant scene in the movie comes after a dinner where Jane refuses his advances and then leaves the room. Once she has departed, the kidnapper notices that her silverware isn’t properly placed on the plate—so he quickly remedies the situation, showing that he has the perfect table manners of the European royalty.
The irony couldn’t be more striking. Such perfect table manners in a man who is a slaver, murderer, thief, racist, and would-be rapist. He has all the appearances of nobility, but no actual nobility. Perception and reality are, in his case, polar opposites. He is the worst kind of degenerate—the kind who hides his decadence behind carefully polished surface appearances. He is Iago. Wickham. Tartuffe.
In this man’s case, perception is the opposite of reality. And to him the phrase “it’s just business” means corruption and debauchery are not only acceptable, but preferable—and routine.
Love and Freedom
The French playwright Moliere (“France’s Shakespeare,” as some literary experts argue) captured this all-to-human flaw in his most famous play, Tartuffe. This classic contains an important warning for today: The way most people gullibly accept the influences of media in modern life is a serious problem.
If any institution sets out to make perception seem like reality, and to justify all manner of questionable things in the name of “it’s just business”, it is modern media. From aggressive paparazzi stalkers to “gotcha” bullying in the name of investigative reporting, to exposés and even seemingly credible reporting that play to an agenda, in spite of available evidence – today’s media has, in large part, abandoned its role as the conscience and “watchdog” of society and become part of the bigger problem. Indeed, much of media is a contemporary Iago, daily whispering the wrong things in the ears of citizens and voters. Sadly, many people seem as willing to listen as Othello or Orgon. Moliere summarized:
“People whose own conduct is the most questionable are always readiest to criticize the behavior of others.”
But Shakespeare and Moliere aren’t done with their scathing critique. In both Othello and Tartuffe, the power of the villains is based on pretending to be loyal, credible, dedicated to the truth, always genuinely helping the people. But appearances can be deceiving.
Not that anything is wrong with real faith, true commitment to what’s good and right. To the contrary. As Moliere wrote: “I have wit enough to distinguish truth from falsehood. And as I see no trait in life more great or valuable than to be truly devout, nor anything more noble, or more beautiful, than a sincere piety, so I think nothing more abominable than a pretended zeal…”
A few journalists get it right. They truly serve us all by doing things the right way. But the overall field of media is too often overrun with pretenders—like Iago, Tartuffe, and their peers—doing business instead of journalism, emphasizing headlines, ratings, and sales rather than what really matters. In Orwell’s famous Animal Farm, for example, the media icon is pig- aptly named “Squealer.”
The only solution to such media agendas is a populace made up of citizens who think for themselves. “Love requires a firmness of mind,” as Moliere assures us. The same is true of freedom.
Too often, especially during elections, voters let media spin guide them. Like the character Orgon, deeply caught in the web of Tartuffe’s lies, tells Cleante—who has pointed out that Orgon should be wiser, not so easily swayed:
“Brother, your advice is the best in the world. It is very rational, and I highly value it. But you must not fret if I don’t follow it.”
Seriously? How often do we listen to Wickham’s silver tongue even when we know inside that something is wrong? Why do we let Willoughby, dashing Willoughby, sway our minds? A smile, a frown, or the seemingly-credible assurance of a popular Network Anchor. We swoon and follow.
“How strange these humans be! They choose the path of fools, though they know it lead to ruin … Emotion rules their ways.”
In the Moliere play The Would-Be Gentleman, the characters heatedly debate whether M. Jourdain is a good man and should be accepted into their society. Some criticize him; others praise him. But one comment sways a number of people. Dorante simply describes Jourdain as:
“A very polite man.”
This is the high art of media spin. Use exactly the right words to convey a certain impression—one that convinces, and lasts. Yet media commentary on candidates is far from objective. It is almost always steeped in some agenda.
Success and Rules
Best-selling author Neil Pasricha noted that in his industry, writing books, there are three types of success:
- knowing that your book is excellent and helpful to people
- selling lots of books
- getting lots of praise from book reviewers and critics
He then wrote: “Here’s the catch: It is impossible to have all three successes.” If you can get one, great. If you can get two, wonderful. But he’s never seen anyone get all three, largely because if you achieve any two of these, they will get in the way of the third.
The election process is similar. If a candidate gets lots of votes and knows he/she is truly trying to improve the nation, it’s almost impossible to also get the support of the political media. You can aim for two, but if you aim for all three you’ll likely weaken the ones that really matter.
For this reason, what the media says about elections is often (usually) off on election night. Marketing experts Ries and Trout made it one of their famous 22 Rules of effective marketing that whatever the media says, it is always wrong in some way—and wise people know it and look for it. They take media reports with a grain of salt. Always.
In elections, specifically, the forecasters are notoriously inaccurate. Why? They pay attention to others in the media, not the masses. Studies show that people answer surveys and polls differently than they vote, so studying the actual intentions of the masses before an election has proven very difficult.
Wisdom or Wisdom
Pasricha also noted that common wisdom is often confusing:
- Birds of a feather flock together vs. Opposites attract
- Nothing ventured/nothing gained vs. Better safe than sorry
- You get what you pay for vs. The best things in life are free
- Good things come to those who wait vs. The early bird gets the worm
- The pen is mightier than the sword vs. Actions speak louder than words
In short, we don’t really understand how elections actually work. Sure, if they’re fixed, or manipulated, or rigged—that’s one thing. But a truly free election is nearly always a surprise. Madison called every free election a “peaceful revolution.” Not truly predictable. We have to wait for the people to actually vote to know what they’re really thinking.
This will probably be even more the case in an election where the two candidates (Hillary and Trump) are so hated by so many people. A lot of voters won’t cast a vote for either. We won’t know…until we know.
In this election, perception isn’t reality. Not even close.