A lazy way to think, and dangerous, too

“Americans demand that ...”

“Farmers care about protecting the land and the water.”

“Muslims believe in violence.”

“The media want you to believe that ...”

Claims like these seem to be more common than ever these days.

It’s a trend that sadly must be working, or it wouldn’t be so widespread. It doesn’t speak well for the judgmental capacity of the American public.

A basic practice in propaganda is to lump together everyone in a certain group, and then to paint all those members with the same brush. If you’re trying to move public opinion to favor your group, you decorate that group with an admirable quality.

If you’re trying to turn the public against a group, you connect the entire group with an undesirable quality.

It’s an easy practice to spot, and people should see through it. But its increasing use appears to suggest that a significant number of people don’t.

An example is the all-encompassing statement by a number of ag organizations, and their political and governmental supporters, that farmers are concerned about conservation.

Some are, and some aren’t.

Studies show that a significant number of farmers employ some practices that reduce water pollution; and a significant number don’t.

So why not just say something like, “We thank farmers who spend time and treasure to keep the state’s waters safe. We urge all farmers to learn what works, and to do it, for their families and all of us.”

It’s disingenuous at best, and misleading at worst, to suggest that Iowa’s ag community is united in pursuit of conservation.

A frank, straightforward picture of how much is currently being done in practice, and how far we have to go, would be refreshing and enlightening.

Another example is the statement that “Americans (or Iowans) believe (or are tired of, or demand, or want) that government should (or shouldn’t) ...” (you fill in the blank).

That ploy is heard several times a day in Congress and the Legislature, and from members of the executive branches as well.

Reporters hear it all the time.

U.S. Senate leaders Mitch McConnell (Republican) and Harry Reid (Democrat) have been particularly prone to use it. That’s ironic, because the American people couldn’t possibly believe what both of them claim we do, since they often ascribe diametrically opposite beliefs to the same voting populace.

The gold standards for discerning what people believe are Nate Silver of the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight polling operation, and Ann Selzer’s work for the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll.

And they never ascribe universal belief to any group that they poll; it’s “most,” “some,” “a minority,” etc. In their accuracy is found the truth of what people believe or practice, rather than in the all-or-nothing claims heard all too frequently today.

I attended a statewide education conference last week in Des Moines.

One of the presentations took a look at four age-related demographic groups: Traditionalists (born before 1945), Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964), Generation Xers (1965 to 1980), and Millennials (1981 and after).

The presenter then ascribed certain personal characteristics to each group, making no effort to caution that not everyone in a group shared those qualities. It was therefore a much shallower session than it might have been.

Painting everyone in a group with the same brush is the basic precondition for prejudice. It’s intellectually lazy as well.

We need to recognize it for what it is, and to call it out.

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