The Elephant in Your Dining Room

How do you eat an elephant? It’s easy . . . one bite at a time. Take a look at the Grand Canyon. It’s really quite awesome. Yet, all that rock was whittled away one drop of water at a time, one grain of sand at a time, multiplied by untold billions of such infinitesimal events. Although most of the time, I write about so-called ‘second level’ or quantum change as the response to cultural stagnation (and social stalemate), there is an alternative kind of change: erosion. Erosion doesn’t just happen in elephants and canyons, it happens in emotions, as well. Here’s an example.

Where I come from in New England, there’s a chain of discount furniture stores that runs frequent TV commercials featuring the owner, Bob. The advertisements can be silly at best and loud and annoying, at their worst. It’s the sort of commercial that, whenever it comes on, you want to grab the remote and jump on the ‘mute’ button. These ads have been going on since the early 1990’s, and there’s a reason why they’ve stood the test of time: they work. Psychologists note that you have to see a message at least six times before it ‘registers’. If the message is annoying or distasteful, there’s yet another factor at work.

Every time you’re exposed to something that stimulates a strong emotional reaction, that reaction is lessened. You can’t sustain a powerful emotion for very long. Like a constant noise, it fades into the background and, behold! the message comes through. Emotions can be eroded much more quickly and effectively than stone (or digested more readily than the elephant). That’s one reason why the ‘straw man’ and the ‘red herring’ arguments work so well: on the one hand, we don’t pay a lot of attention to the ‘message behind the message’ and, on the other hand, even a strong negative reaction to these things are slowly neutralized over time and repetition. If you say it long enough and loud enough, it’s sure to be true.

What’s a ‘straw man’ argument? That’s when, instead of focusing on the pertinent points of a discussion, you drag in all the ‘what if’ and ‘imagine what would happen’ speculations. John Kennedy’s opponents used the straw man argument to suggest that, if he were elected, his presidency would be controlled by the Vatican. It’s the ‘soft on terrorism’ argument that’s been used so effectively to scare the American public into supporting the erosion of their civil rights under the guise of protecting them. The argument that any official running for national office could possibly be soft on terrorism boggles the imagination, but it doesn’t stop people from repeating it endlessly and, in the repetition, the elephant disappears, one bite at a time.

And, what’s a ‘red herring’ argument? That’s a logical fallacy that drags in extraneous facts (or pseudo-facts) that have no real relevance to the debate, but they’re screamed so loud that they appear important. Consider the famous ‘swift boating’ of John Kerry. Rumor, innuendo and skillful manipulation of facts served to undermine the battle service record of a man whose opponent didn’t even serve. Now, the red herring mill is at it again, so much more effectively because the Internet has (and needs) no censors and anonymity hides perpetrators from libel accountability. The religious background of one’s family and friends has no relevance in a presidential campaign, yet this true red herring is absorbing a lot of popular energy. People may start out saying, ‘This doesn’t make any sense,” but, after the hundredth repetition, the elephant is mainly gone, and only ‘there must be some truth to this’ remains.

Democracy seldom dies from outside attack or inner collapse. It gets picked apart gradually as if by one of those scalers that the dental hygienist uses to remove plaque from your teeth. Strong feelings like anger and outrage grow numb under the gnawing influence of illogic and emotionalism. We don’t buy what we think we need, we buy what we feel we need. So long as we go along our merry ways, nearly oblivious to the not-so-subtle emotional manipulation we’re being subjected to continually, we’re at risk. When the elephant has been devoured, who do you think will be next on the menu?