Reflections and Deflections

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman      August 6, 2021

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Reflections and Deflections
“The cliché is the handrail of the crippled mind,” the British comic actor and writer Spike Milligan has said. That may be true, but clichés—like leaders—are made, if you will, not born. They earn their dubious status not because they’re original, but because they’re true. How many times have we heard about the metaphorical “tipping point,” when public sentiment, like an object’s center of gravity, shifts decisively in a different direction? A policy issue reaching “critical mass”? An ”inflection point” in the public debate? A “hinge moment” in history? Buzzwords and catch-phrases all, lifted from physics, nuclear engineering, mathematics and aviation, legitimately describing an instant when change or transition becomes inevitable and irreversible. As public discussion roils and churns in the wake of the current pandemic surge, I’ve been pondering another idea. I can’t claim credit for coining the phrase, but I will claim credit for coining the usage: I introduce to you the deflection point, a claim made in bad faith, intended to redirect attention and turn aside an argument without directly responding to or effectively refuting it. It’s too new to become a cliché, so remember that you read it here first. CLAIM: There is too much ignorance and misinformation circulating about the coronavirus pandemic. DEFLECTION: “It’s all Facebook’s fault, because they’re spreading misinformation purely for profit. Government needs to regulate their content and tell them what messaging to put out.” A BETTER RESPONSE: Facebook’s algorithms are designed to maximize user engagement, that can unintentionally result in elevating misinformation at the expense of facts. Facebook purposely moderates user content as little as possible, and tries to strike a defensible balance between promoting freewheeling, wide-open discussion, and corporate responsibility to protect a safe and healthy community. There is little the government can or should do without violating free-speech protections under the First Amendment. CLAIM: We don’t know for sure where the novel coronavirus came from. DEFLECTION: “It must have leaked out of the Chinese research lab in Wuhan, and the government and medical community are lying to us about it because they’re covering up their own involvement in funding and possibly creating it.” A BETTER RESPONSE: There is very little circumstantial evidence to suggest even the possibility of a lab leak, although this remains a subject of investigation, but there is very strong evidence against the idea that the novel coronavirus was deliberately engineered through so-called “gain of function” research as a bioweapon. And there is no credible evidence of any U.S. funding for this purpose or a subsequent coverup of American culpability. CLAIM: Vaccination rates in the U.S. have almost flattened out over the last two months, with only half the population now fully vaccinated. DEFLECTION: “It’s all the fault of people who refuse to get vaccinated, and public health officials who aren’t doing enough to promote it. We must force everyone to get their shots, and fire all those government employees who aren’t doing their jobs.” A BETTER RESPONSE: People have not yet been vaccinated for a variety of reasons, including worries about taking time off from work to receive the vaccine or recover from its side effects; ignorance about its safety and its effectiveness; personal medical conditions that preclude vaccination; historical mistrust of government in communities of color; susceptibility to misinformation and even disinformation about the vaccine; and misguided partisan opposition to proven public health practices. Public health authorities are virtually unanimous in their support for widespread vaccination to achieve a herd-immunity threshold of 70%-80%, but there is virtually no popular support (or legal authority) for compulsory vaccination. Instead, many health experts advocate vaccine mandates that would require people to show proof of vaccination or be denied access to public accommodations. But as a practical matter, that is a policy decision for elected officials, not public health authorities. CLAIM: The pandemic is surging again, with dangerous new variants emerging that put public health and the economic recovery at risk. DEFLECTION: “It’s the fault of the politicians who have mismanaged this crisis from the beginning, and the lying media who put out fake news to confuse and mislead us.” A BETTER RESPONSE: While some electeds have certainly acted in bad faith for political gain, others have tried to respond conscientiously in the face of changing scientific developments, shifts in public opinion, and competing economic and political pressures. New variants of the virus are emerging not because of governmental incompetence, but because mutations are inevitable in any viral outbreak, and trying to keep up with them is always a challenge. Similarly, media coverage has been driven by a combination of factors, including responsible efforts to report the truth as well as traditional motivations to maximize their audiences for the benefit of advertisers. Whatever disinformation might be promoted by bad actors such as foreign adversaries, hyper-partisan ideologues and propagandists, or just internet trolls, virtually no so-called “fake news” comes from mainstream journalists and their news organizations. Effective communication is a never-ending struggle, but it’s profoundly unhelpful to talk around the problem instead of confronting it directly. In this I’m guided once again by George Orwell, who in his famous essay Politics and the English Language deplored the decline of clear thinking and clear writing, identifying it both as a result of bad politics, and a contributor to it. “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks,” Orwell wrote. “It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Were he still with us today, I’d like to think that Orwell—who abjured clichés and weak arguments, and whose writing remained both original and true—would also consign any such deflection point he encountered, along with every other “lump of verbal refuse,” to “the dustbin where it belongs.”
Joel Bellman

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