Thursday, 8 February 2018

Do You Really Think For Yourself?

Cartoon me at keyboard by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'Internet
One of the funniest incidents I've ever experienced is that time in the Techdirt comments when a right-wing zealot spat out a load of US Republican party (GOP - Grand Old Party) talking points, then added, "Think for yourself!" I nearly fell off my chair laughing. But it got me thinking...

There's a load of chatter going on about the prevalence of "fake news," by which I mean "Stories that are provably not true and are designed to persuade you to think in a particular way, usually for partisan reasons." Sometimes they're just clickbait, like the Vengeful Ex-Girlfriend Dentist. At others, they're downright hilarious — what better way to discredit the CIA than by asserting that they made one final effort to get at Castro by dropping a piano from a helicopter — on his coffin during his funeral procession? It's relatively harmless till you realise that some people take this nonsense seriously; they actually believe it's really true. That's when it becomes a problem because if people believe fake stories are true, they will be influenced to think and act in particular ways. Since we're all constantly being bombarded with information from every possible direction, including the media, how can we know whether we're truly thinking for ourselves or being led by the nose? 

Influences: separating fact and fiction

I took a media studies A level course while I lived in Birmingham. I've not forgotten the lessons I learned:
  • the media is owned by a small number of people and legal entities
  • advertisers, marketers, and influencers use grooming techniques to get us used to particular ideas
  • "gaze"
  • "paradigm"
  • sound bites, memes, and slogans

This was prior to the invention of the internet, of course, but now includes mass media. Add "memes" and "socio-political bias" to the list. Now ask yourself: do you know where your news comes from?

Media ownership

In Britain and Ireland, Rupert Murdoch owns best-selling tabloid The Sun as well as the broadsheet The Times and Sunday Times, and 39% of satellite broadcasting network BSkyB. In March 2011, the United Kingdom provisionally approved Murdoch to buy the remaining 61% of BSkyB;[80] however, subsequent events (News of the World hacking scandal and its closure in July 2011) leading to the Leveson Inquiry have halted this takeover.
Trinity Mirror own five major national titles, the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The Sunday People, and the Scottish Sunday Mail and Daily Record as well as over 100 regional newspapers. They claim to have a monthly digital reach of 73 million people.
Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) own the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, Ireland on Sunday, and free London daily Metro, and control a large proportion of regional media, including through subsidiary Northcliffe Media, in addition to large shares in ITN and GCap Media.
The Guardian is owned by Guardian Media Group.
Richard Desmond owns OK! magazine, the Daily Express, and the Daily Star. He used to own Channel 5; on 1 May 2014 the channel was acquired by Viacom for £450 million (US$759 million).[3]
The Evening Standard[81] and former print publication The Independent[82] are both owned by Russian businessman and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev. - Concentration of media ownership, Wikipedia

If that bit of information above doesn't make you nervous, it should. Knowledge is power and whoever controls knowledge — or that which is perceived as knowledge — has the power. This is why The Sun is able to cast itself as the kingmaker in British elections: anyone it's got behind tends to win. If you truly believe that you think for yourself, do you know who owns the media you experience (reading, listening, or watching) and what that person or group stands for?

Rupert Murdoch

A self-described libertarian, Rupert Murdoch is a billionaire owner of a large number of media properties promoting right-wing views. A mad fan of Margaret Thatcher, he switched support to New Labour in the late 1990s when Tony Blair embraced neoliberalism. So if you like your news right-wing flavoured with a not-really-racist edge and a cheeky bit of sexism, buy a Murdoch rag.

Trinity Mirror

The media properties it owns tend to run along left-liberal lines; while it doesn't mind a bit of social responsibility it's having absolutely none of that socialism nonsense.

Daily Mail, etc.

Right wing, racist, sexist outrage manufacturer that often makes up stories. That vengeful ex-girlfriend dentist article was one of their fantasies.

The Guardian

Trendy lefty-luvvie-liberalism with a green heart and an open mind, The Guardian helped to break the Snowden leak stories.

Richard Desmond

This drummer boy built his fortune on smutty magazines, then tried to become all respectable and stuff by swinging Tarzan-like to the hard right and worshiping Diana, Princess of Wales. He does a lot for charity, though.


So... do you let any of these people do your thinking for you? Are you sure? If you tend to be fixed in your opinions it doesn't take much to influence you by pandering to whatever you hold dear. If you've bought into the "EU is so bad we must leave at once no matter what the consequences are" trope that's possibly because you've been reading right-wing newspapers that drip-feed you stories about how wrong-shaped bananas, etc., are banned by Eurocrats. Nick-naming, shaming, and the careful deployment of a range of logical fallacies are the hallmarks of a media entity that is more about propaganda than news. If you really think for yourself then surely to goodness you've found yourself thinking "That's not right!" when reading a story in your usual source from time to time. Have you? What did you do then? Most people I know return to their usual outlets after feeling let down by them because it's a habit. Rule of thumb: if reading your favourite paper, etc., provokes an emotional reaction towards any individual or groups, you're being influenced, right there.


This story in The Mirror is repeated elsewhere, the idea being that by making the individual feel special and by encouraging them to invest in an imaginary future to the point where giving up on it is not an option, abusers win victims over. "Okay," you think, "that's how brainwashing works. I'm not brainwashed." While I don't believe in brainwashing (people choose) I do understand that people can and do let their emotions funnel their thinking to the point where that hot lad they thought was the same age who turned out to be a sixty year old perve was still a better option than turning around and legging it out the door. It's basically pride: you refuse to admit you were fooled or you insist on the promise being fulfilled (good luck with that!). What makes you think that if someone pushed just the right buttons in your psyche you wouldn't go skipping down the primrose path? There's one way to check: do you have an opinion you refuse to question or allow to be questioned? That, dear reader, is a prejudice and anyone who panders to that effectively owns you; it's the ring in your nose. I see it all the time with Trump supporters. Hillary supporters. Brexit supporters. Corbyn supporters. Rees-Mogg supporters. People who love or hate ___________ on principle. All anybody has to do is pander to your prejudice. Worried about unchecked immigration? Nigel Farage is all over that. Worried about the Tories dismantling the welfare state? Jeremy Corbyn is all over that. Worried that a Socialist government might bankrupt the country? Rees-Mogg will save you from the slavering hordes of lefties. And you'll vote for them and you'll insist that of course you think for yourself, you just find barrels really comfortable to lie draped face-down on. The trouble with grooming techniques is that they work perfectly on those who invest emotionally in their own opinions, hopes, and fears.


One of the most important take-aways from my media studies course was the concept of "gaze." I was taught that due to the all-pervasive influence of the patriarchy, most of our media is presented for a male gaze. This explains why, when I was about ten and saw a shiny red car being presented on a turntable I asked if the near-naked woman draped over it was part of the deal. "Do you get the lady too?" I asked in my innocence. I was actually seeing her as an object to drool over. The weirdness of that experience has never left me. Paintings of nude women are particularly composed with the male gaze in mind. Indeed, since many of the subjects are or were in physical relationships with the artist or the artist's patron the message is basically, "I'm hittin' that," which is particularly yuck when you consider this painting is of Freud's own daughter. Extra yuck when you realise that the only way Bella could have a relationship with her father was to be part of his art. In one case she had to lie on a sofa, her face turned away, her genitals facing forward, while he painted her for the world to see. What is that about? Why are we looking her right in the privates and not in the eye? To be fair to Freud he does this to his male subjects, too. The question still stands, though, and I won't be fobbed off by "Don't be such a prude, it's art." That's a cop-out.

In the media...

Gaze is not restricted to art; our entertainment and news media is presented primarily for a white male audience with some concessions made to others. Look again at the news on a particular channel: who does it flatter? Who does it present as the goodies? Who does it present as the baddies? Listen carefully to the words used. How does it make you feel towards individuals and groups? Even when concessions are made, it's from a paternalistic point of view. Look again at the right-on papers and magazines, etc. You can almost smell the smugness from the liberal ones. That's why reading articles from the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates can be a bit shocking sometimes. Guess what? There are other viewpoints than our own. Deal with it.



1. (noun) A framework, model, or pattern used to formulate generalizations and theories based on shared assumptions, concepts, questions, methods, practices, and values that structure inquiry.
2. (noun) A widely accepted view. - Sociology Dictionary

Paradigm plays an important role in thinking for oneself — or not. What I'm talking about here is accepted norms, or "commonsense notions" that people have about any given subject. Okay, you can think for yourself, right? Can you tell me how you arrived at your conclusions about LGBT rights, sexual identity, Islam, immigration, Brexit, the EU, feminism, reproductive rights, or any other subject we might get into a discussion about without getting all defensive about it? People who are either emotionally invested in their paradigms or who passively accept what they're told by their usual information sources tend to get defensive about it and both situations apply because they don't want to admit they just passively accept what they're told by their information sources. The ones who will admit to going with the flow tend to do so for social reasons: they don't want to stand out from the crowd, they want to fit in with their peers. It's the willingness to question your paradigms no matter how much you're invested in them that proves you can think for yourself.

Paradigm shift


Fundamental change in an individual's or a society's view of how things work in the world. For example, the shift from earth to sun as the center of solar system, 'humors' to microbes as causes of disease, heart to brain as the seat of thinking and feeling. - Business Dictionary

If you don't think for yourself and tend to go with the flow, you may find your paradigms can shift at the drop of a hat. Consider Donald Trump, for example. I was brought up in a religious household in a conservative country and am fairly certain that grabbing women by the privates, perving on adolescents getting changed, cheating contractors and workers out of their payments and colluding with foreign adversaries to gain an advantage over political rivals would have got Bill Clinton lynched back in the Nineties. As it was, he was hauled up before a Congressional hearing to answer for his conduct towards one Paula Jones — and Monica Lewinsky. Religious American conservatives have been ragging on him for sexually predatory behaviour for decades, but when Trump does it... crickets. Or "Look over there!" AKA whataboutism. They give their predators a pass. So, then, what brought about the paradigm shift on the traditional morality side of the political spectrum such that sexual misconduct is acceptable if It's Our Guy Doing What We Want? As the National Review points out, no Clinton, no Trump. What the National Review misses is the reason why Americans give their heroes a pass. It's because of their cult of individuality. When what suits you as a person is more important than what is good for society as a whole, you will give your hero a pass for as long as he (or she) does right by you. When he (or she) breaks the unwritten, unofficial contract with you, game over. Until then, this is how people who behave badly keep their people supporting them:

In refusing to step down, Moore is executing a playbook written two decades ago by the 42nd President, Bill Clinton. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton figured out that if you have no shame and ignore calls to resign, you can survive any scandal. All you have to do is lie repeatedly (“there is nothing going on between us”) and show no remorse when you are caught doing so. When more women come forward with more allegations, deny them, too, and create just enough doubt that your supporters will feel justified sticking with you. Blame your opponents for conducting a political witch hunt to run you out of office. If the evidence becomes overwhelming, then admit “a critical lapse in judgment” but declare it is time “to move on” because “we have important work to do.”

For Clinton, it worked like a charm. He forced his supporters to choose between power and principle — knowing full well that power would win out. - The end of shame in America began with Bill Clinton, by Marc A. Thiessen for the Washington Post

Your paradigms can shift very easily if you're not careful. It happens when you don't think for yourself.

Sound bites, memes, and slogans

Sound bites, and their cousin the meme, are important tools in framing arguments to win people over to populist policies. Margaret Thatcher's mastery of them has cemented her reputation as a formidable politician whether you like her or not.

Frames are often imposed by means of subtly manipulative language – Unspeak, or argumentative soundbites. (The idea that Britain should “take back control of our borders”, for example, dishonestly implied that we had no control over them beforehand.) But the same frame can be invoked by many different forms of words. Also part of the leave campaign’s “control” frame, for example, was the emphasis on making our own laws and reclaiming our sovereignty (something else we already had, as evidenced by the very fact we are able to leave the EU).

Political arguments are often conducted as a clash of frames. Control or strength? Security or empathy? And successful social and political reforms can be accompanied by clever reframings. In the US, “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage” was redesignated “marriage equality”. Now, the frame was not one of homosexuality, but one of equality: of simple fairness. And in this way, or so it might appear, prejudice was overcome. On the other hand, the faultline over abortion rights in America is symbolised by the incommensurable frames in which the issue is couched: one side uses the frame of life (“pro-life”), the other the frame of choice (“pro-choice”), and never the twain shall meet. - ‘Make America Great Again’ – why are liberals losing the war of soundbites? by Steven Poole for The Guardian

I use memes all the time to make my points. I made these myself; two from scratch using my mouse on GIMP and the others using found images on meme generators. They're shorthand for whatever I happen to be arguing against at the time. What makes them effective is the backup image.

Shocked kitty "You disagreed..."

You... you disagreed with me! How could you?! Meme by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'InternetA cat with an apparently shocked/surprised expression on its face is dismayed at being disagreed with. It's a cheeky appeal to popularity, to be fair, but memes aren't meant to be fair, they're meant to hit the spots that words can't reach. I'm usually mocking the recipient of these for casting me as the enemy for daring to disagree with them, and it does the job; it makes them think about their knee-jerk reactionism.

TTIP extortion 101 Meme by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'InternetTTIP extortion 101

The evil-looking fatcat in a suit smoking a cigar as he presents his "class" on the benefits of TTIP, an FTA fraught with problems, was effectively deployed in arguments against supporters, who were reduced to trying to defend ISDS as a matter of applying the rule of law.

Slippery slope meme by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'InternetSlippery slope

Whenever I argue about mission creep it's usually with people who favour copyright rent-seeking on property ownership/sweat-of-the-brow grounds. That's when my slippery slope meme comes out. It gets very steep at copyright enforcement, so it does.

Rape CultureRape culture meme by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'Internet

My Rape Culture meme is more of an icon, really, but the idea of showing a "negative" image of a kneeling woman with her face in her hands with a light shining behind her is to show you what it looks like to me. An emotive subject requires an emotive image, which I drew myself because I wanted to express my ambivalent feelings on the subject when I made it.

Any Philosophy...

Any philosophy... meme by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'Internet
Internet favourite Maru perfectly encapsulates what I was thinking when I coined the phrase "Any philosophy predicated on a best case scenario is ultimately doomed to failure." Saying it is one thing but seeing it... I always see Maru trying to fit in that box. He really seems to think he can no matter how many times he fails. And the boxes keep on getting smaller, too.

Automation FUD is coming meme by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'InternetBrace yourselves...

Game of Thrones character Ned Stark said "Brace yourselves, winter is coming," sparking a mad rush of memes with variations on that quote. Mine is a dig at Basic Income, the idea being that I'm not swayed by the "All ur jobs are belong to robots!" rhetoric. Life, and indeed employment, is not that simple.

Why are they so effective?

Soundbites and memes work by giving people an at-a-glance argument in favour of a particular cause. Slogans like "It's the economy, stupid!" are designed to funnel people's thinking into a binary proposition: "Do you care about the economy, or don't you? Pick one."

When Donald Trump's campaign sold "Make America Great Again" hats, the implication was that America is not great now but it was before. It was basically an appeal to nostalgia and a desire for the hope and change promised by the Obama campaign. Soundbites, memes, and slogans fasten ideas into people's heads in such a way as to encourage them to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps in information. The ones that encourage the greatest leaps in imagination are generally the most successful.

Breaking out 

There's a price for thinking for yourself: you run the risk of being unpopular, or worse, losing your place in your social circles — or even employment, depending on your level of commitment and willingness to speak out. Of course, this also depends on who you live and work with. I will never forget the employer who told me, "You're not supposed to think for yourself...!" Or the potential employer who flipped his wig when I pointed out that the "Eskimos" prefer to be called "Inuit" and discussed in detail a plan to sell ice to them. This was for an interview for a marketing job. I didn't get it. This has never stopped me from being who I am. I would rather be globally reviled yet true to myself than fake it and go with the flow. The gag chafes after a while, people. So, then, if you want to think for yourself and you're not sure how to do it, where do you start? I have a few suggestions.

1. Know yourself

Lacking self-awareness is usually due to not being honest with yourself about who you really are. This is usually due to not wanting to think badly of yourself so you present yourself with an ideal of you that makes you feel good. My friend "Mary" told me she liked to try new things till I pointed out she had told me she disliked sushi on principle even though she had never tasted any. Her perception of herself as an adventurer ran smack into the truth: she's cautious and doesn't like change. Being honest about being cautious and disliking change helped her to understand why she didn't like sushi and she resolved to give it a go. She doesn't like the taste or texture of raw fish, but fair enough, at least she tried it. The point is, once you understand the root of why you believe in a particular thing, you are more able to make informed decisions based on sound reasoning.

2. Develop strong reasoning skills

I pride myself on my reasoning skills. Although I often decry binary thinking as intellectual laziness the truth is it can be a useful tool for getting at the truth of a given situation. A common refrain of mine is, "It either is or isn't..." which is actually very useful at work. Consider this: an engineer attended a job to repair an immersion heater. He came away from it saying that all the kit I'd ordered for it was wrong and that I'd have to quote again for different things. I was nonplussed, to say the least, and ended up in an argument with a colleague over his appeals to authority (the client and the engineer) V the details I had carefully crafted into a quote that a senior engineer had provided. Using binary reductionism (it is or it ain't, pick one) we all finally agreed that D______ is not an idiot and he did provide the correct details for the job; R______ is not an idiot, he just attended a different job and that's why he came to the conclusion that the kit I'd ordered was wrong; there are two immersions on site that need repairing; and both jobs are outstanding. I use this technique in political debates all the time to break out of framing.

3. Be consistent

One of the pillars of conservatism is its insistent on promoting and maintaining traditional values, something I am personally keen on. My own values haven't changed much in thirty years. One maxim I hold to be true is, "If you don't stand for something you will fall for anything." Consider this: all those people who fall for lottery scams don't tend to subscribe to the idea that you don't get something for nothing. Mind you, I've been caught out by appeals to my generosity, so nobody's perfect.

4. Question everything

I don't just accept what I'm told. Things feel wrong when they don't jibe with facts I know to be true. Remember the immersion repair job? I know that D______ is good at his job so when the other fellow told us that the kit he had ordered via myself was wrong I double-checked instead of just accepting what R______had said. That's what got me into trouble with my colleague but I didn't back down and was vindicated in the end. It's important to question authority and to be willing to hold authority figures to account: we're supposed to be their bosses, so why not? They take our money and they work for us so it is reasonable to call them out when they misbehave. I also question my own values and beliefs from time to time in order to test their soundness. If I can't defend them on their own merits I can't defend them, so... why would I believe in them? That is how I came to change my mind on the best way to deal with drug addiction. I'd been in favour of prohibition before.

5. Be willing to stand out from the crowd

Being a Bible-believing Christian in a secular society is hard. I've got a choice between being quiet about it or talking about it. I have political convictions that go against the grain, too. Ditto. With the deck stacked against me since my birth as a Protestant into a Catholic country and my parents divorced at a time when that was unheard of, I was always going to stand out no matter what. I suppose it's harder for gregarious people who have always fitted in but since I was flippin' born and bred against the grain making a stand has never been particularly hard for me, it's my default position. It's not necessarily contrarian to stand up for what you believe in even when it's not popular, you've just got to be reasonable and consistent with it. People might not agree with you or share your convictions but at least they'll respect you. The point is not to be afraid that they won't.

6. Be informed

It's important to get our information from a range of sources. The old conservative saw "Trust, but verify" applies here. There are some websites and media sources I distrust on principle because I disapprove of their particular bias — because they've been caught making stuff up, or because their Glorious Leaders have been discredited. I've got to be careful, though, to avoid being denied information by my own personal biases. Rule of thumb: even the most biased newspapers, etc., will present facts relatively free of bias if they're not politically sensitive. Those stories that tend to get and hold your attention need to be cross-checked with a range of sources, taking their biases into account, if you want to get to the truth of the matter. Beware of stories that provoke an emotional reaction: they're the ones you need to double or even triple check. Be aware of weasel words like "might" or "may;" they're your clue to be on your guard. Take a look at this post by "Economists for Free Trade." I'm skeptical of their boundless faith in the power of deregulation and unfettered competition even in a rigged market before I even get to the footnotes where they cite themselves as a source of information. Yes, I'm a Remainer but my argument is not about remaining in the EU, it's about empiricism and evidence-based policy and these people have only got a range of logical fallacies, outright lies, and wishful thinking in that post and that's why I rejected it.

7. Be aware of your own biases

I've already warned in this post about how easy it is to manipulate people by pandering to their biases. That's how populism works. If you're self-aware you know what your biases are. I'm a communitarian conservative, moderate, religious, curious, Pirate with a creative streak. I love fantasy and science fiction. I love the internet. I love to argue. I believe in fair play and that sharing is caring and I hate being lied to. That is who I am and it's how I present myself. With that in mind I'm aware of my biases against Donald Trump and the alt-right in general, against the hard left, against trendy liberal progressive types, against neoliberalism, and against attempts to make me conform to anything that's not an anti-authoritarian fat nerd obsessed with politics and the internet. Anything that appeals to those aspects of my character can and will be used to manipulate me and I'm very much aware of that. The pro-Basic Income crowd aim at the tech-lover in me. The anti-choice brigade attempt to get me via my hatred of cruelty and injustice. The anti-NHS types use my judgementalism and love of efficiency to try to get me on board — it hasn't worked yet! The copyright enforcement people go for the creative in me using the Sunk Cost fallacy — the idea that people have a right to a return on their investments.


Thinking for yourself takes an effort of will and the risk of alienating other people is high but ultimately it is worthwhile because even when people don't agree with you they will still respect you for your integrity and your ability to state your case reasonably. It's important because, if you just accept what you're told without question, you can and will be manipulated. We see all around us the damage wrought not only by people who behave badly but by their supporters and enablers. It's too easy to jerk our thumbs at them and ask why they didn't resist. I daresay it's because they've had little in the way of an example.

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