Propaganda Forwards from Dad

A few days ago, my dad forwarded me an email. I don’t know why I opened it. As expected, it was propaganda.

Now bear this in mind: my dad was in the military for his entire career. He is intensely patriotic, and a die hard Republican. He despises the Clintons and thinks Barack Obama is a muslim hell bent on imposing sharia law and bankrupting the USA. Given all that, this email was beyond the pale – even for dad.  Here it is:

Remember this guy?
Khizr Kahn and his wife – the “Gold Star” family who caused such a commotion denouncing Trump for his stand against Muslim immigration at the DNC convention?
Now we learn that not only did the Dems pay actors to fill up seats at their convention, but they paid Khan $25,000 to make that speech. (Which was, by the way, not written by him, but two DNC staffers).
Remember the copy of Constitution he held up? (Bought by a staffer two hours before speech).
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
FIVE Gold Star families turned down the DNC’s request to speak at the convention. Khan’s law firm is in debt $1.7 million and owes back taxes of over $850,000 plus penalties. (Which the IRS has put on hold since his convention speech). In addition, the DNC paid him a bonus of $175,000 for his “media effort.” AND…CNN paid him over $100,000 for his interviews.
Now who’s dishonoring his son’s memory?
Talk about a soulless bastard!! But then again he’s a lawyer!
VADM N. R. Thunman USN (Ret.)
1516 S. Willemore Ave.
Springfield, IL 62704217 971 9667 Cell

I sighed, and thought to myself that I should ignore the email. But no, I diligently went through each paragraph and researched the claims. Here is what I wrote back to my dad. I took the half dozen other people off copy, but cc’ed my brother – you know, for a second opinion from someone who hasn’t yet joined the cult.

Dad,  When I’m forwarded an email like this, my assumption is that the sender believes everything in it. So I’m assuming you 100% believe everything in this.

If on the other hand, you’re not sure, but you forwarded with the thought “eh – maybe there’s a grain of truth in this” – then even if there is one grain of truth – among a bushel of lies – then you are spreading propaganda. This is beneath you.
In the future, if you honestly want to fact check an email like this, forward it to me alone with a note asking me to assist you with the fact checking. I will help you find credible sources against which to compare some of the claims. Otherwise, do not forward these emails. As for me, I would never forward an unsolicited email that I’m unwilling to fact check. I would expect the same of you. Forwarding lies dishonors us all.
Just as an example, I picked a claim made in this email, (that Mr. Khan’s speech was written by DNC staffers), and fact checked it for you … Who wrote the speech?  Mr. Khan did.
Here is Mr. and Mrs. Khan in an interview discussing the speech. They specifically discuss writing the speech (and the constitution in the pocket) after the 12 minute mark. Furthermore…

“The Clinton campaign offered to put him in contact with a speechwriter. He declined. He knew what he wanted to say. He practiced at home with his family, leaning on 40 years of experience as an attorney that taught him “how to control my thoughts, my emotions and my message.” –

Mr. Khan’s son Humayun died fighting as a US soldier in Iraq. They are our fellow Americans. We should stand with them. Watch Mr. Khan’s full DNC speech to hear the values we’re talking about: .
To hold conservative principles is fine – necessary even. I would suggest forwarding emails that have to do with values and policy, not distorted versions of the circus show.
These propaganda emails are written with one goal: to divide us. Here’s the thing, we’re not on teams. We’re all on the same team – we’re all Team America. Stop giving these propagandists your attention. Their goal is to rip our country apart. Their goal is to make you discount the consideration of half of your countrymen – your daughter included. And you know what – it’s having the converse effect as well. When you forward these emails, it lowers your credibility in the eyes of your very own daughter. Is this what you want?
United we stand, divided we fall. I’m witnessing the deliberate dividing of the USA – and members of my own family are actively taking part in the destruction. It’s disheartening, to say the least.


How did my dad respond? … He wrote,

        What’s ever a hundred per cent, Laur????? – Dad.
He hadn’t read past my first sentence. Ergh.
I know better. I know better than to reply to these email-forwards. I know better than to spend hours thoughtfully crafting an email, citing first person sources, laboring to keep my tone even and calm. I know better than to open his emails in the first place. He just confirmed – yet again – that he’s part of a cult. The Republican cult that uses Soviet propaganda tactics to inoculate its members from outsiders – their own daughters included.
How’d my brother respond? With a link to this video:
I’m not 100% sure who my brother thinks is Earl Weaver and who’s the ump in this scenario. But hey, nothing’s ever 100%, right?
Having read Dark Money, understanding the implications of Citizens United, and the lapse of the Fairness doctrine under Reagan, I feel like a Cassandra. I can call out the propaganda all I like, but the people who are buying into it don’t want to listen.
This timeline sucks. I want to start over under Jimmy Carter – when we had solar panels on the roof of the white house. I don’t want the current time line where the solar panels represent a road not travelled. I want the timeline where it’s 2017 and we’re at carbon neutral energy, dominated by renewables, and where the news is produced by professionals who are independent and proud to produce a public good, and where propaganda gets called out for what it is: lies.

My Aunt Hates Me – Because I Oppose Trump.

After the 2016 US election, my aunt heard from my sister that I was grieving over the outcome of the election. On Facebook, I’d said I didn’t want to hear any gloating – and anyone who gloated would be dead to me. In response, my aunt sent me a hateful email that made me cry.

Just a few weeks ago, out of the blue, she sent another:

Subject: Fan of Bernie and …
Democratic Socialist shoots Republicans practicing for charity baseball game – From guilt motivated condescending limousine liberal elitists to pouting, tantrum throwing election losers to total obstruction of anything for the people being done in Congress to fake news of NYT, and total bias Washington Post to supposed 1st Amendment supporting fascist shrieking hyenas preying on the handful of Conservatives who dare to demonstrate in the street or make a speech at a University to liberal, “caring” hypocritical Hollywood purveying violence in order to maintain opulent lifestyles to Kathy Griffin’s symbolic beheading of our President to blood and gore in Shakespeare in the Park to cowardly protesting Democratic Socialist Hutchinson shooting Republicans playing baseball for charity…

My, what company you keep!

Holy run on sentence!

I guess my response is best summed up by the following, inspired by redditor u/OriginalName317…

Aunt ______,

I don’t know anyone who rides in a limousine, let alone anyone who feels guilty about it.

I don’t personally know anyone who threw a tantrum over the election, though I am personally upset by it. As you know, I didn’t want to hear any gloating. And I grieved deeply for the wound inflicted on our country. It should be okay to have feelings about the outcome of the 2016 election.

I’m not aware of any obstruction going on, and I’m unclear how the party so clearly in power could be unable to move their agenda simply because of the minority party’s opposition.

I’m pretty sure that when the Republicans were being obstructionists over the last eight years, you didn’t have a problem with that. This feels like a double standard.

The WaPo and NYT, as far as I’ve seen, have accurately reported what people have said and done in this administration. If you know something different, please share it with me. They may be biased, but they don’t publish lies. Maybe you and I have different definitions of fake news. To me, fake news are the rabid right-wing propaganda emails that dad forwards to me. Emails that, after five minutes of basic fact checking, are easily debunked.

I am unclear how a fascist can support the first amendment. Also, I have seen both conservatives and liberals participate in demonstrations, though I’m personally aware of more and larger groups of liberals doing it right now in response to this administration’s policies.

If you’re referring to Milo Yiannopoulos, he’s admitted to being a troll, which means he’s not using his right to free speech to tell the truth. He’s most likely doing it to make money, much like Alex Jones. Of course, he’s still free to speak, but so are the people speaking out against him. I hope you don’t take him seriously, as he’s trying to sell you something. Also, I would never speak to you in the horrible way Milo talks about people he disagrees with or uses opportunistically. That’s because I believe the best about you, and I care about you.

While I don’t agree with Kathy Griffin’s locker room talk, don’t you think it qualifies as free speech? Do you wish her first amendment right could be taken away, but not Milo’s? Who should get to decide that?

Shakespeare’s plays are often political and violent, this is not news. Also, Julius Caesar has a long history of being re-imagined to reflect contemporary politics. Would you be surprised to know the main character has been portrayed as Hillary Clinton, Mussolini, and Obama? Were these other portrayals also unacceptable? This sounds to me like selective outrage. Not to mention that this is also free speech.

Do you think I support someone trying to shoot a politician? That would tell me a lot of what you think about me. I don’t think that about you, because I believe you’re a good person who just happens to believe they’re under attack. I’m not attacking you.

I don’t keep company with murderers or people who deny inalienable rights to others. If I see the opportunity, I try to share my ideals of compassion and inclusiveness, unity, caring, personal responsibility, integrity and moral strength. I don’t always have the courage to do it, I’m sorry to say. But today, I’m sharing those ideals with you. What you wrote sounded like you hate a lot of people, including me. I choose not to return that hate to you. I think more highly of you than that. I believe you’re better than that. I hope you believe the same about me.

Wrestling Truth beyond Identity

Asking questions that elicit truthful answers, listening with skill, and allowing oneself to hear the truth of another person’s perspective … these are skills I studied, experimented with, and shared during my career in product planning at Altera Corporation. I documented many of the techniques that worked best in a book that’s due out in fall 2017 (“Align”, Dover Publishing).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a phenomenon that runs counter to these techniques. It hinders both truth telling and truth hearing. While I encountered it a bit during my career, it seemed a minor factor in decision making. It never occurred to me to tackle it. But now, as I read the news, talk with friends and family, and track social media discussions, I see this impediment everywhere.

The culprit: IDENTITY

Identity becomes a handicap to truth seeking when we make the mistake of yoking our identities to our arguments. This primes us to dislike others who take up opposite positions as they seem to be attacking us personally. In defending our identity/position blockset, we’re quick to judge our opponent as a duped idiot.  It entrenches us in our views, and can even make us unwilling to re-evaluate our premises (backfire effect).

Essentially, I’m contending that the more we tie our identity to our initial position on an issue, the more we blind ourselves to seeing the full truth of that issue. We put on blinders, if you will.

What blinders? Oh these? They help me stay focused on the truth.
I can see the truth just fine! Stop attacking me!

Erin Meyer, in her thought-provoking book, The Culture Map, sheds light on what’s going on here. She opens a window into cultures that seem to separate identity from argument without effort or thought.

Consider the French

In her work, Ms. Meyers has encountered loud, contentious arguments among French people – both in private and public forums. These debates felt like dog piles of personal attacks. However, once the topic moved on, the formerly fired-up French became amiable. Indeed, they often complimented each other for making insightful arguments.

For them, vigorous debate was an obvious method for truth seeking. In fact, they practiced in school. Ms. Meyers notes that they’re explicitly taught to disagree openly and from multiple vantage points:

“French students are taught to reason via thesis, antithesis, synthesis, first building up one side of the argument, then the opposite side of the argument, before coming to a conclusion.” – The Culture map, p. 201

In other words, to find the essence of a matter, the French train themselves to inspect from many perspectives, and then compare. This makes intuitive sense, does it not?

We Are Our Arguments(?)

By tying our identities to our initial positions, we render the French debate technique impossible. We stop ourselves before we begin. We remain stuck, anchored to our original opinion. After all, in this paradigm, to abandon our viewpoint is to denounce our very selves. That’s a painful step to take.

On top of that, our natural propensity toward confirmation biases bolsters our intransigence. Furthermore, our tribes paint each other as evil, overreaching, idiotic, misguided monsters with hidden, oppressive agendas. Once adopted, that narrative neutralizes any and all arguments emanating from the other team.

Especially unsettling, to me at least, is that often our initial positions are seeded by the tribe we’ve chosen to identify with. The effect is that we hand over enormous power to the thought leaders of that tribe. For further reading down this rabbit hole, consider cracking open Dark Money by Jane Meyers. Strap in, while it’s written well, the revelations make for a rough ride.

If you’re American, I imagine you recognize what I’m talking about. I used to believe that a legislature full of conservatives and progressives was a good thing. It guaranteed a debate of enlightened “reasoning via thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” But it no longer seems the case. I suspect that much of the dysfunction has to do with the degree to which we Americans, and tie identity to opinions.

Don’t think your identity is tied to your beliefs or your political party? How’d you feel when I mentioned a positive example of French thinking? Did you give it extra credence because the French are champions of progressive politics? Or did you chafe slightly at the thought of looking to the commie socialist French for wisdom? Neither? Good for you. But can you think of someone you know who might react in one of these polar ways? They’ve likely tied their identity to a tribe that has expressed opinions about the French. In my view, this is an impediment.

What Can We Do?

I think the answer is to detach your identity from both political positions and tribes. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Adopt Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance
  • Cultivate Unlimited Positive Regard
  • Argue the Other View
I know not my gender, race, tribe, class, position in society, bank account balance, neighborhood, tribe, nor identity.

I recently discussed this topic of identity with my high school classmate, Paul Mariz. He suggested looking into philosopher John Rawls, and Rawls’s concept of a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’  Essentially, Rawls suggests that the goal of policy makers is to craft competent and fair policies. To accomplish this, he suggests they start at an ‘original position’ behind a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’ In this initial state…

“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”

In other words, forget who you are. Imagine that, before entering society, you role the dice. Your gender, race, class, connections, and bank account balances could come up as anything. At that point, it’s easy to imagine any identity.

The other technique is to stop seeing tribes and start seeing people. Adam Savage, of Myth Busters fame recommends adopting the mindset of a psychiatrist. When they work with patients, they adopt “an unlimited amount of positive regard for the other person.” (t=9:50 on the ‘With Friends Like These’ podcast “If you’re worried about the future, look at the past”.)  While the ‘veil of ignorance’ removes your identity, cultivating positive regard for your opponent removes their identity from the debate.

Withe identities removed, it’s possible to focus on the veracity of premises, and the validity of viewpoints.

Time To Find the Truth

Lately I’ve had a hard time talking with many members of my family. While I get their viewpoints to a degree, I see their affiliation with a tribe, and imagine that they are, how’d I put it before? Oh yeah, “evil, overreaching, idiotic, misguided monsters with a hidden, oppressive agenda.”  Okay, that’s obviously not how I regard my family.

So I’m going to put my hypothesis to the test. I’ll skype with a family member who has opposing viewpoints to mine on some issue. I’ll let them choose the issue, but they have to agree to adopting the veil of ignorance and commit to cultivating unlimited positive regard for me. That should be easy for them!  After agreeing to a set of premises, we’ll argue each other’s sides. I’ll check back with my results.

What do you think?

Do you agree that tying identity to political positions impedes us? Are we joining tribes? Does membership put blinders on us?

What about the techniques I describe for removing identity from political discussions? Do you have any other suggestions?

Do you want to test this experiment with a person who holds opposing political views too? If so, please report back and tell how’d it go? What discoveries did you make?