Subtle headlines and deeper psychology:
language used in reporting of the retweet scandal
Donald Trump has expertly grabbed the headlines again, this time retweeting
old videos posted by a small, far-right group in the UK. Unlike many others, who
strongly criticized the president, Prime Minister Theresa May rather weakly just said
it was 'wrong'.
Rather than go into the sordid wrongness and international damage of such
leading Republican Paul Ryan seems appalled), let's look at how the major UK
newspapers reported this, on Thursday, 30 November, 2017. In particular, it is
interesting to look at the subtle effects of different wording.
The Telegraph: May attacks far-Right Trump tweets
The Times: May criticises Trump over far-right video tweets
The Guardian: May condemns Trump's far-right retweets
The Financial Times: Trump rebuked by Downing Street for retweeting posts by UK
First, look at the main verb. The Telegraph is a conservative newspaper,
which is perhaps surprising as this is the most aggressive wording, with the
language of war in 'attack'. The Times is more clinical, using 'criticises'. The
Guardian uses the language of a judge condemning a prisoner, framing May in a morally superior role. The FT
also places May in a superior position, but
now as a parent rebuking a child.
As well as war language, the Telegraph has an embedded indictment of
'far-Right Trump'. This seems unlikely to be editorial accident as it aligns
Trump with the extreme racists he retweets. Interesting also is the capitalized
'Right' (unlike other headlines), giving this extra significance as a proper noun.
The Guardian has the shortest headline. Brief headlines can add punch, while
longer headlines, like the Financial Times, engages you for longer, giving more
time for the message to sink in.
Three papers name the prime minister as 'May'. Using just the surname can be
more depersonalizing and pejorative (this insult is frequently used for
'Trump'), although depending on context it can also lend authority (which seems
the case here). The Financial Times interestingly uses the indirect
'Downing Street', in the same way that 'The White House's may be used, sending a
signal that this is a criticism from the whole UK Government, and not just
Headline writers know what they are saying, including from these serious
broadsheets (the tabloids were more interested in local gossip). This analysis
will not be a surprise to them. It is useful for the rest of is to watch the
detail of language used and wonder about the subtle intent behind the words.
The illusion of confidence and the road to
Confidence is a watchword of our day. We learn at home, school, work and with
friends that confidence is cool and cool is confidence. It is considered an
attractive attribute and a basic essential for success in life.
But what exactly is it? You can't put it in a bag and you can't buy it. One
way to understand it is that it is the opposite of self-doubt, awkwardness and
not knowing what to do. Often, a lack of confidence is based on a fear of
criticism by others. Conversely, confidence implies being sure of one's own
ability and being less vulnerable to social manipulation.
A problem with confidence is that it easily assumes certainty, stability and
detailed knowledge which leads to a state of wilful blindness or blissful
ignorance whereby that which is not known is not needed.
And it works. Better than self doubt, at least. It activates you, getting you
to at least try when you might otherwise be paralyzed by fear. Confidence also
reduces doubt in others as they mistake certainty for knowledge or competence.
It is not surprising that it is considered an important skill for leaders.
Yet fake confidence cloaks doubt, which can stubbornly cling on as we project
confidence while hiding our uncertainty. But this can cause unbearable inner
tension that needs an escape. We want to be confident. We act confident, but
doubt. And eventually our minds concede and believe our own propaganda. In this
way, we gain real confidence that is not justified.
Overconfidence means ignoring risk. Pride goes before a fall and failure may
be denied even as that walls crumble. But what then? If it can't be me, it must
be others or external factors. To sustain confidence, we excuse ourselves and
Confidence does not give space for learning. Or does it?
It seems that doubt is bad, unhelpful and unhealthy. And it can be. Yet it
can be healthy too. Healthy doubt does not undermine confidence. Indeed, it
makes a great, if paradoxical, partner. It adds realism, humility, and a pause
that gives time to consider alternatives.
To be properly confident means taking time to acquire knowledge and skills.
It means a long apprenticeship that leads to real mastery. Even then, real
confidence means being realistic about failure, indulging in neither excessive
doubt nor prideful certainty. What mastery gives is the confidence to cope with
variation, surprise and even failure. When you know from experience you can
handle whatever happens, you can then be truly confident.
Reconnecting: a natural response to
A relative recently became more friendly they have been in the past and I
wondered what was up. Did they want something from us? No, didn't seem so.
Notable, perhaps, was that they had been unwell a couple of times. Hmm. This
could be a case of hedging ones bets in case of future need.
Being sick, suffering losses or otherwise experiencing problems, makes us
feel vulnerable. And, while we may not like to impose on others, it can make us
realize that we may have to in the future if things become more problematic. A
natural response to this is to re-evaluate our relationships, thinking about who
are our 'real' friends and who we could depend on in an emergency. A result of
this thinking is that we turn down attention to more frivolous friends that,
while fun, are less likely to help out when we are in need, and turn up the time
spent with those who seem likely to be more empathetic and who would offer
Reviewing relationships is a good idea for many of us in any case. You don't
have to wait until you are vulnerable before standing back and taking stock. It
doesn't mean ditching all your fun friends, but you might want to wonder who
would step up if you fell down. This is not necessarily an easy task. My
daughter has been through many ups and downs and has been surprised by who
turned out to be fair weather friends and who really cared about her.
Life is a game of give and take, though some take more than they give.
Figuring out this balance in people is a useful skill. If you are feeling really
brave, it can be a challenging task to look in the mirror and ask: Am I giving
as much as I am taking? Pragmatically, you also need to ask if you are giving to
the right people, because if you are giving only to takers, when you need to
take, there may be nobody to give.
The madness of Brexit and blind, belief-based
I was listening to a podcast recently by a reporter who was covering the UK's
Conservative party conference. She noticed there a particularly alarming
attitude towards 'Brexit', the exit of Britain from the European Union. The
Conservatives used to focus first on the economy, but now they seem to have
developed a mad obsession with Brexit. And not just a negotiated, gradual exit
but the 'hard Brexit' where we leave completely, overnight. And not even just
that, but we should be putting up two fingers as we leave.
The chaos that this would cause may delight the ultra-right and survivalists
who can grab power or hunker down, but it would be disastrous for the vast
majority. As the borders slam shut, yes, excess immigration would be addressed
at a stroke. But so also would other imports be halted, resulting in empty
supermarket shelves and long queues for fuel. And this would just be the start.
Europe also would be seriously affected as British funding dries up and trade
tanks. Yet there is also a madness there, as they refuse to progress talks until
a massive 'divorce bill' is agreed. It probably doesn't help that we have a long
history of conflict with them.
Further out, this extreme, polarized, intolerant approach is appearing
elsewhere. Even within terrorist groups, it is not whether you believe, but how
ardently and blindly you believe, even to the ultimate madness of
What causes this madness? How do people get so fixated on one issue? How can
suicide seem so attractive?
A. starter is discontent. A person is unhappy about something in their lives.
They may lack purpose. They may have difficulty reaching their goals. Whatever
it is, they are unhappy.
The next step is simplification and blame. They reduce the problem to simple
issues, then blame others for this. Very quickly, this becomes an us-and-them
polarization. They get together with like-minded people and create amplifying
echo chambers of agreement.
After this comes organization and status, which means social games come into
play. Within this group, status comes from holier-than-thou purity, of who
follows the ideals more closely. Which means more extreme simplification and
blame. And to gain the ultimate status position of hero, it means turning
extreme views into extreme action.
And so we stand on the brink. Perhaps we will jump. Perhaps we will wake up
and step back. These days, there are no guarantees.
Poundland Boris, Trumpelthinskin and the
corrupting fascination with narcissists
You can hardly look at the news these days without seeing reports of the
latest faux pas of those in power. Two in particular come to mind. In the USA,
Donald Trump has been expertly vacuuming up air time and column inches for over
a year now with his attention-gathering tweets and alarming statements. Here in
the UK, our own cunning buffoon is Boris Johnson, recently and scurrilously
described as a 'Poundland Trump'. The insult is that Poundland is a low-cost
store and infers that Boris' attentional efforts, while somewhat effective, are
not in the same league as Trump.
Both reflect an alarming modern pattern where narcissistic people gain the
public eye and somehow seem to get wide approval for doing things that you or I
might get thrown in jail for doing. It's a bit like that cool kid in school who
could get away with things that would get lesser kids into deep trouble. We
wanted to be like that kid but didn't dare be that bold, so instead we extended
our identity to encompass them, vicariously enjoying their chutzpah. The
underlying dynamic for the narcissist is about power. Powerful people
deliberately break rules to demonstrate and strengthen their grip on control.
The narcissistic lock is that power feels good as the resultant attention boosts
their sense of identity.
Is this what we want? To be ruled by blatant rule-breakers? It can seem
attractive, that those in charge can cut through all the red tape and get things
done. The trouble comes, however, when power corrupts or when the
already-corrupt seek power by dishonest means.
When the corrupt and selfish are in charge are they going to act for the
greater good? Only if they have to, and then in a minimal, lip-service manner.
They may indeed make grand promises, but the reality will be delay and dilution.
For every good they do, they will take far more. They may set up apparently
social systems and generous laws, but they may also make these deeply
corruptible, filled with the loopholes that lawyers love. Perhaps worst of all,
they weaken and dismantle the institutions that make the nation great,
especially where thinkers can see what they are doing and call them out.
In this way, we may allow democracy fall into autocracy, where rulers become
untouchable as they bend the rules to enrich and protect themselves. We also
must accept our part in this. If we become fooled or corrupted by their
promises, if we put fascinating narcissists into power so we can goggle at their
antics, if we place our hopes in those who are so patently in it for themselves,
we may enjoy the ride but will be ultimately and bitterly disappointed.
A free and honest media. A fair and independent judiciary. A challenging
education system that teaches us to think. These are signs of a great nation,
not braggodocio and bullying. It is also why the discipline of voting is so
critical. It is said that we get the government we deserve. One vote seems a
drop in the ocean, but it is so critical that each of us listens, thinks and
votes for the people who make sense, not for those who promise and lie.
Elitism, literature and identity: how we all
like to feel special
Elitism is a common cry these days as we point collective fingers at the
super-rich fat-cats. That 1%, or maybe 0.001%, are ruining the world with their
ostentatious greed, we say. They have so much, why don't they give it away? But
hang on -- many of the pointers are themselves so much better off than millions,
perhaps billions, of others. Who should be casting the first stone here?
The root cause here is not money, nor envy, though these have a part to play.
Digging deeper, a key way we construct our sense of identity and self-respect is
by comparing ourselves with others. We like to be better, somehow, and though
money is a handy metric, it is not the only way.
In fact if we narrow our scope enough, most of us can find something where we
are better than others. This is a reason why we take pride in our jobs, so even
a plumber can feel good as they point out how they are paid to know just where
to tap the pipe (which, by inference, their hapless customers do not know). Even
though plumbers may jostle for superiority amongst themselves, they all know
that any one of them is better than any householder.
Like plumbers and bankers, we associate with named groups so we can borrow
their status and collective power
All this came out of a conversation with my wife about literature, and
whether authors like Terry Pratchett's and J K Rowling will be considered great
authors in the future. This question depends on those who decide on greatness,
which is not necessarily connected to book sales. This group of academics and
critics, who hand out prizes, teach students and write reviews, form a literary
elite, whose views are respected by the media and who enjoy the power this gives
them, even as on-the-ground English teachers like my wife consider them arrogant
idiots. Her identity is bound up in teaching expertise and I'm careful not to
gainsay her on matters of literature (like she does for me on matters of
psychology and science).
In changing minds, this offers a useful approach. When you want people to
feel good and like you, flatter them by praising their ability in some subject
that seems important to them, but which is not significant for the matter at
hand. Then claim your own superiority in a small but critical point. Basking in
the warmth of your elevating them to elitehood, they may more easily cede the
point and so let you convince them.
Climate change, Pascal and belief
I went to an interesting local talk recently about climate change. It was not
so much interesting because it presented a convincing argument. The more
interesting aspect was the use of
fallacy and the
way that the audience reacted.
The presenter took the controversial position of denying climate change,
showing some graphs that suggested that carbon dioxide is a tiny aspect of
atmosphere and the human contribution to it as miniscule. He also suggested that
evidence for climate change was shaky at best. For example noting that, in the
Communist era, Siberian meteorologists got a greater fuel allowance if they
reported that it was cold, which was removed after communism faded -- as a
result the early falsified readings contrasted with the truer later readings
made it seem as if the temperature had increased. Stories such as this are
beautifully convincing, but are full of holes. For example we do not know the
number and duration of reports, nor can we see isolated data to prove the
In the ensuing heated argument, I interjected with the comment that this was
much like Pascal's dilemma. This created a pause, as intended, which gave me
space to explain my odd comment. Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher
whose famous dilemma was about the puzzle whether he should believe in God. If
he believed in God there would be a cost over his lifetime in going to church,
and if God didn’t exist he would have wasted his time. Yet if he did not believe
in God, he would spend an eternity in damnation. Overall, it seemed, it was
safer to believe in God (or at least act as if he did).
The same argument applies to believing in climate change. If I choose to not
believe then I will not act to reduce my carbon dioxide footprint and otherwise
try to save the planet. If climate change is not happening or is not caused by
human activity, then this is not a problem. But if it is, then the result of my
denial could be calamitous. More to the point, if many people act this way, and
especially those in power, then their negative belief could kill us all. So,
like Pascal, it seems a better bet to accept that we should act to reduce our
energy consumption and general carbon production.
So how do we decide what to believe? The first step is about sense. We gather
data and listen to argument and decide whether it seems to make sense, at least
on the face of it. The other factor in deciding whether to believe or not is in
our assessment of those who already believe. On one side of the climate debate
we have a few scientists, a number of politicians and even more business people
who have something to lose if we cracked down on carbon creators. On the other
side are many, many scientists including high-visibility people with a lot to
lose if they are proven wrong.
Hmm. I think I'll side with the 'believe in climate change' people.
Drink and disorderly: the case of the
confusing wine menu
I was at a restaurant last night, looking at the wine menu. It was my wife's
birthday and I got to choose the drink. Like many other people, I didn't want to
spend too much money (very easy with fancy wines) but also wanted to avoid
appearing to be a cheapskate. So I started looking a few bottles down the list,
keeping a health eye on the price.
It was then that I noticed something odd.
Most wine lists are sorted from cheapest to most expensive. I've wondered
about this. If the restaurant owner wants you to buy an expensive wine, wouldn't
it be a better idea to start with the most expensive and gradually get cheaper?
Like a reverse auction, readers go as far as they dare and then stop. Most would
never get to the end and the restaurateur would make more profit. But then some
customers would baulk at the high prices and abandon the wine for something
cheaper. Maybe, even, they would not return to the restaurant.
Another method would be to use a random sorting, so customers would have to
hunt for the cheaper bottles, but this again could cause irritation and
The restaurant I was at did neither of these. Instead, it had the wine list
sorted roughly into price order, from lower to higher, but not strictly
so. Towards the beginning were cheaper bottles, not quite in price order, and
further down were kind of more expensive bottles.
Hmm. I thought. What's going on here? This slight disruption was not enough
to annoy me (not hence make me disloyal), but it did disrupt the 'second or
third in the list' strategy. I ended up being a bit less careful about price and
a bit more attentive to the wine type. Which was probably more profitable for
the restaurant owner.
The wine, by the way, was delicious, and my wife had a very happy birthday.
Tragedy, Opportunity, Privatization and
When New Orleans flooded, economist Milton Friedman declared it a tragedy,
but also an opportunity. Though opportunities for some can lead to problems for
others. Schools, for example, became highly privatised as the government balked
at the cost. Landlords rebuilt high value housing. Those with money made more
The same principle applies widely. Chaos is a gravy train for contractors who
profit from rebuilding and restoration. Have a war; rebuild after the war.
Government contractors benefit from both. Natural disaster; rescue and rebuild.
More profit. Economic collapse; bail out the 'too big to fail' banks and prop up
bonuses. Problems in government policy; call in the consultants to sort out the
mess. Criticize a public broadcaster as biased; cut its headcount and force
outsourcing. Run down a government service; declare it incompetent and further
The list is long and riddled with corruption. Why? Because the separation of
government and private profit is breaking down. When people from industry are
employed in supporting government. When government officials are allowed private
incomes. When those letting contracts are friendly with contractors. These and
more are opportunities for corruption, for secret and even brazenly open
It is human nature to put me and mine above you and yours. We are naturally
selfish, which is a key reason why we need laws and a moral society. Sure, we
can also be altruistic, but when there is a big pile of money on the table in
front of us and we think we will suffer no consequence for picking it up, many
would reach forward and try not to think about where it might come from or where
it might take us. This is the basis of corruption.
And if governments and officials become corrupt, even in small and
understandable ways (and we all excuse ourselves from blame), then society pays
the price. Because the result is trickle up of money to the few and declining
standards for the many.
There are three ways all this could be avoided.
One way of containing all this without swinging to the hard left (which is
still a distinct possibility) is the principle of 'fair profit'. Accept that
governments will employ private contractors, and that private industry needs to
pay both its bills and its shareholders. But constrain the profits that they can
make. Define a 'fair profit' and include it in the contract. Then require full
financial transparency that prevents creative accounting.
The second lock against corruption would be to prevent those in public
service from ever gaining personal profit out of their work. Again, this would
need transparency and due scrutiny. This is not a new idea. Plato identified
'philosopher kings' as an ideal governing system, where officials were paid
modestly and forbidden from gain.
A third leg is leadership and culture. There are many public servants who
still believe in public service, but when whistleblowers risk their futures and
power is casually abused, keeping your job means keeping your head down. An
honest, caring culture starts from the top, where leaders set the example and do
not tolerate corruption of any kind.
Will this happen? It seems unlikely, because it would require that
governments restrict their personal income and turkeys tend not to vote for
Christmas. Yet a continued swing towards elitism, privatization and 'fat cats'
will leave increasingly more in the dirt. And when people feel they have nothing
to lose, they take radical action. Trump is a step on this route, voted in as a
populist rescuer. When he fails, the replacement may be more radical and more
Until eventually what? New politics? Revolution? I guess we'll see.
Capitalist Carpe Diem: Hedonism and Despair in
the Modern World
Do it now, say the adverts. Buy it now. We live in a capitalist culture that
thrives on accelerating spend, where having drives status and dreams are sold on
shelves, online and on every possible occasion. We live in an apocalypically
intense time, where pleasure looms large. And so also does threat, as danger and
death are shockingly peddled by monetized pages in our clutching hands.
Experience it now, say the young Millennials. Let us drink and be merry for
tomorrow is hopeless. We will have no houses, no pension. Our Boomer parents
have broken the world so let's have fun while we can. We work for it, though.
Oh, how we work for our perfect careers that never happens. We were told we were
wonderful and would have it all, but why is it so hard?
Ski, reply the Boomers. Spend the Kids' Inheritance. Vacation, cruise, again
and again. We've worked hard all our lives, for what? Our profligate kids? We've
given them our all, so now it's our turn. We silver surfers, we band of Peter
Pans. We stave off age until decrepitude forces lavish care upon us, lapping up
the last of our fortunes.
Or else we Boomed but never shone as jobs slipped through our fingers, as
technology, elites and migrants stole our futures. We have struggled too, and
every day we seize what we can, as our broken dreams fuel impotent fury. Why us,
we silently cry. Who will save those left desperately clinging on?
Seize the voting slip, say the populists. We understand your woes. We name
the elephant in the room. We will fix the unfixable. We will borrow, build,
bring back jobs and make those who are not like us pay and pay, or else we will
send them away. Listen blindly to our trumpeting platitudes. Vote, not really
for change, but for numbing your existential agonies.
Oh Ozymandias, do not weep. No matter who you are, Utopia beckons, today.
Just grab the promise and forget the cost. You may be lost, but all is not so.
Close your eyes and believe, as hard as you can. You are not to blame -- they
are, so take glorious vengeance in the moment. Eat, drink and fake merriment,
for tomorrow is unthinkable.
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