They need help

They need help October 10, 2008

Snopes.com is necessary, but not sufficient.

That's one of the things I started out wanting to say. Then I got a bit distracted as that thought was reinforced by the dismaying spectacle of Sarah Palin's unconditional admirers — their admiration only increasing with every Katie Couric interview and every repeated, documented lie — and that initial thought led to others and those led to others, and puzzlement led to exasperation and then to pity and then to resolve and I never quite came right out and said exactly what it was that I had initially wanted to say as precisely as I'd wanted to.

And that again was this: Snopes.com is necessary, but not sufficient.

If you're not familiar with it, Snopes is an indispensable resource, one of those Internet tools that it now seems impossible to imagine living without. They deal with rumors, urban myths, legends and idle gossip, addressing every case with an open mind and subjecting it to a simple test: Is this true? What are the facts?

Facts matter. But facts are, in themselves, rarely persuasive.

The last time I had occasion to consult Snopes involved an acquaintance who is, in many ways, a likable enough person. But he also seems to hear and absorb a lot of information that ain't necessarily so.

This time it had to do with Target, the nationwide discount retail chain. He refuses to shop at Target because they hate veterans.
I hadn't heard that. It seemed implausible, since hating on veterans would be just about the most self-destructive PR strategy one could imagine for a retail chain. Plus I know a lot of veterans and I've never heard about this from any of them. Those I know best, in fact, shop at Target all the time.

But OK, I said, let's look it up. And we went to Snopes and there it was. Snopes explains that this rumor is not true. They provide the background of the rumor and trace its history back to a single e-mail from a single person. They cite that person and his retraction and apology. They cite official statements from Target and evidence of the company's support for veterans' causes. They cite veteran's groups gratefully attesting to that support. This is all sourced and linked back to sources and in general a devastatingly thorough and altogether Snopes-like job of debunking and rebutting the rumor.

The result of this, of course, is that the acquaintance still does not shop at Target because he still chooses to believe that they hate veterans, and now he no longer believes anything from Snopes.com because, he says, this proves they can't be trusted.

This might have gone another way. Had this guy merely been misinformed, the Snopes data might have been persuasive. If the root of his problem were only a matter of bad information, good information might have resolved that problem and he could have walked away knowing something true instead of having to manufacture new falsehoods to reinforce the old ones.
But misinformation was not the root or the source of his problem, so supplying him with the correct information was not, in itself, sufficient to help him.

And that really is my goal here — to figure out some way to help this guy and others like him. To figure out some way to help these poor bastards and others like them.

They need help. They need, frankly, liberation.

The weird rumor about Target or the even weirder rumor about P&G are somewhat trivial examples of this, but basing your life on things that aren't true, that aren't real, is a kind of bondage. In simpler, more pragmatic terms: Unreality doesn't work. It is unsustainable. It is a recipe for unhappiness.

The reason I've been writing about/obsessing over things like the P&G rumor or the usefulness of Snopes is that I'm trying to figure out how to liberate the captives of unreality. (I doubt they'd appreciate my stating it that way, but there it is.)

Part of that task, obviously, is to provide them with a dose of reality — to supply good information that might replace the bad, to offer them facts as a better option than lies. That's necessary, but not sufficient. That throws open the gates, but can't convince them to walk out into the world. Providing information offers the opportunity to choose reality, but it cannot compel or persuade them to take that opportunity or to make that choice.

That's what we're dealing with here: choices. My Target-boycotting acquaintance is making the choice to believe what he prefers to believe, irrespective of whatever the facts might actually be. That's a lot of hard work on his part. It requires an ongoing and exponentially multiplying set of fabrications to maintain. It involves an ever-expanding web of things that he can't allow himself to think about. It has to be, on some level, exhausting.

Take a look at those videos linked above (via). These people have fabricated imaginary monsters that, at some level, they know aren't real and yet they've put those monsters in charge of their lives. They're driven by fear and hatred — fear and hatred of things they know don't really exist. They are, for whatever reason, choosing bondage to that fear and hatred and it's making them miserable. It's stunting their humanity. It's confining them. It's wearing them out.

They need help.

I'm sure help isn't something they'd welcome. And it's probably not something they'd want (although what they really might want is a more complex question). Whether or not it's something they deserve isn't for a wretch like me to decide.

But it's not about welcome or want or deserve. It's about what they need.
They need liberation. They need help. And we're going to have to figure out how to help them, soon, because many of the people in those videos seem to be on the threshhold of real violence and the kind of ugliness that will make it even harder for them ever to escape.

I heard an interview with Don Cheadle recently in which he said, "You can't play down to the cynics." That's an actor's advice, but he wasn't talking only about acting. Ours is a cynical time, and in such a time I realize that any expression of concern will sound to many as merely concern trolling. Attempts to diagnose will sound to many as mere attacks or accusations. But I'm not concern trolling here and I'm not attacking or accusing. I'm just trying to figure out what has gone wrong with these people and why, because allowing them to continue along the path they have chosen would seem, for lack of a better word, cruel.

Information — facts, reality, the rebuttal and debunking of lies — is one kind of help that the captives of unreality need. That information is necessary, but not sufficient, for those who have chosen their own captivity. What else is necessary, and what might be sufficient to help them choose not to make that choice, is something I want to continue exploring.

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