This afternoon, I got a “forwarded” email message from a cousin of mine that my spam filter marked as junk mail, but whose discretion I chose to ignore and read the message anyway. It was a mistake. The message, to me, seemed like a blatantly racist attack on illegal immegrants, particularly those from Mexico. Ordinarily, I’d delete the junk and be done with it, but it was one of those messages that concluded with a ukase to forward it on to as many people as you know. I felt that was too much. I needed to correct some of the misinformation, but more than that, I needed to demonstrate that you simply can’t believe everything you read. So I replied to the message.
The focus of the message was on illegal immigration and the woes that it causes. Illegal immigration is a problem, no doubt, but the message to me implied that it was more about who was crossing the border than the fact that the border was being crossed.
The message listed 10 “facts” “according to the L.A. Times. It did not cite articles in the Times, but instead listed the facts, things like 40% of the population of L. A. County get paid cash under the table, primarily because they are illegal immigrants. I checked the Times against several of the “facts” and couldn’t find any article matches. I pointed this out in my resonse as being highly suspicious. I also looked up demographic information and showed that 7% of L.A. County’s populationis potentially illegal immigrants. I pointed out that if this was the case, the 33% of people still getting paid under the table were “legal” and many of them were probably not even Latino. But I also pointed out that even if the “facts” really did appear in the L. A. Times that was no reason to take them at face value.
This is just one example of many that I addressed in my response. I am always supremely disappointed in people’s inability to think critically, to question “facts”, to be skeptical. To gain a better understanding of our world requires a drive for the truth and the only way to get to the truth is to demonstrate that all other possibilties are false. If you find a “fact” that can’t seem to be demontrated to be false, then, for the time being, you can assume it is true. But these politically tainted email messages the people who send them don’t seem to be able to conceive of this.
This isn’t the only mail of this kind that I see. As a Democrat, and in particular as someone who has given money to the Demoncratic party, I get email fairly regularly from various party members, and they often seem just as vitriolic and unreasoned as my cousins racist message on illegal immigration. I imagine that if I were a Republican, I’d see the same kind of email from Rublican party members.
Something has been lost, or perhaps I am being naive and we never had it to begin with. The goal should be to persuade through reason and facts, not through emotion and fear. The problem is fewer and fewer people can reason competently, while fear is an easy emotion to stimulate. It is to the shame of Democrats and Republicans alike that they stoop to this level, just as it is to the shame of my cousin for forwarding on a racist email message without thinking it through. My cousin didn’t write the message, but she clearly didn’t stop to call some of the facts into question.
We do ourselves an enormous disservice when we use emotion and fear to sway people on important issues. We use emotion and fear to persuade people that abortion is evil. We use emotion and fear to persuade people to fight for their right to control their bodies. We use emotion and fear to persuade people that the ice caps are melting. We use emotion and fear to persuade people they are not melting. We use emotion and fear to keep our troops in Iraq and to argue for getting them out of Iraq. What is missing from all of this is an equal dose of reason and logic.
The problem is that our ability to think critically is atrophying. I’m not saying it’s been lost completely, or even diminished significantly (although it sometimes seems that way to me). But it is melting away (along with the ice caps). Trying to argue through reason and logic these days seems almost paramount to settling a dispute via a duel. People shrug, or laugh, or say things like, “I don’t care what logic says!” Feelings and emotions are certainly important but if those feelings and emotions are not based upon a solid foundation of reason, then our outlook is bleak.
Racism is all about fear and emotions. As I pointed out in my response to my cousin, people are “afraid” of illegal immigration, not because of the $70 billion/year price tag (which, by the way, amounts to $2.46/day per tax payer). Indeed, the “cost” of illegal immigration is used as an excuse to end it. People are afraid of it because they feel that they are losing something. Someone is taking jobs away from them. Someone is taking advantage of them. Someone is getting benefits that they are not getting. The fact is that much of it is shrouded in myth. To some extent, illegal immigration is the natural result of a free market economy. If there are people out there willing to work for very low wages, the market place will find them. One way of eliminating illegal immigration would therefore be to lower wages. But what American would stand for a pay cut? People are simply unreasonable, they want it both ways, and they whine and complain when they can’t have it both way, as if the Universe cares.
Where does emotion play a role? $70 billion per year is a lot of money to spent on something for which you receive little or no obvious benefit. (I say obvious because I don’t think most people make the connection between the workers in the fields and the food on their tables.) In fact, it would be an act of charity and altruism, both of which are emotionally important, to spend that kind of money to make some people’s lives a little better. Maybe not much better, but perhaps better from where they came.
Where does emotion play a role? The email in question stated that 53% of people in L. A. County spoke English and 38% spoke Spanish. In my response, I pointed out that when I lived in L.A., I was among the 53% who spoke English, and among the 38% who spoke Spanish. Americans seems mortally offended when someone speaks a foreign language in front of them. If I beleived in Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, I might argue that they have an inferiority complex. Instead, I’ll stick with the simple argument that Americans are instead, lazy. When I don’t understand something, I do my best to learn about it so that I can understand it. Don’t like that people all around you are speaking Spanish? Get off your lazy ass and learn the freakin’ language!. It used to be (and probably still is in Europe) a sign of intelligence and culture to be fluent in several languages. But forget that: learning a language enriches you. You can read literature in that language and learn things that you never before knew. It opens you up to conversing with people with whom you might never have otherwise spoken. How’s that for emotion?
I was furious when I finished sending my response earlier this afternoon, and that anger did not cool off as it normally does, after I clicked the Send button. That’s why I decided to put my thoughts down here. In part, I was disappointed to know that my cousin was forwarding on email messages like that. It demonstrated poor judgment and unnecessary cruelty to people. But it also reminded me how important it is to get people to think and question and not blindly accept every bit of information placed in front of them.
I don’t know that there is an answer to any of this and mostly I am just venting. We’ve really got to do better.