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Are You a Spin Doctor?

During the O.J. Simpson fiasco and then during the brouhaha over Bill Clinton's impeachment I watched plenty of shows like Hardball and became familiar as I never had been before with that variety of "handlers" and political shills we now know so well as "spin doctors." What they all have in common, the reason they all exist, is to shamelessly promote the party line of those they are paid to represent. They make their boy (or product or party or cause) look as good as they can in the face of the most shocking and shameful disclosures. They try to make it plausible that black is really white, that wrong is really right, and the odd thing is that they do not and cannot believe there is any difference in the first place. They observe a double standard. In practice, argument is merely propaganda. Sentences have no informational function but only a manipulative function. Not to convey facts but to minimize damage, to obfuscate, to exculpate. But all such efforts would be in vain if spin doctors did not pretend to hold to a very different belief, that there is truth and that they want to see it established.

It is exactly like the revisionist Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984. As thought policeman O'Brien, himself something of a spin doctor, tells our man Winston Smith, it is precisely because of the axiom "history cannot be changed" that it can in fact be changed! Only given the supposed immutability of the past is it possible to insist upon the reality of a newly-minted "history" that never happened. The spinmeister is doing the same thing, though of course we are some eighteen years after 1984, and the art has only been improved since then. And since then I have been noticing how spin doctors are lurking everywhere I look: in church, in academic debates, even in the mirror if I'm not careful.

Are you a spin doctor? You just might be. Did you arrive at your present position (on pretty much anything, take your pick) by making the best informed judgment you could? Or did you just absorb your beliefs from your peers by osmosis? Or by catechism from parents or priests? Or by contrast, do you hold your beliefs tentatively? Provisionally? You know you have changed your mind before, and on lesser matters, so how can you be so sure you won't need to again? The only way to avoid such an embarrassment is never to open your mind to reconsider any question! That's what the spin doctor does. All right, you can't sit on the fence forever and sometimes you just have to pay your money and take your choice. But that is a risk precisely because you cannot know with certainty that your bet is the right one, and so you need not pretend to!

Do you find yourself in the middle of a debate marshaling every argument you can think of for your position, whether or not they are consistent with one another? If you are a spin doctor, the only consistency you notice is that they are all pointing in the same direction. But you would notice the inconsistency in a second if your goal was really to find the truth. You notice it readily enough when your opponent is inconsistent.

Do you find yourself unwilling to entertain an opposing argument? Is it self-evident to you that your views are right--simply because they are your views?

Do you view truth as something you are looking for, or something you have found and must defend?

Do you have a vested interest in your present beliefs being true, so that job one is to try to defend them at any cost? Or do you feel more duty to yield to the best argument, to admit it when someone else has a point, in other words, when it starts looking like you may be wrong? When that point comes, do you automatically go back to the drawing board to find better arguments? Or to see if maybe instead you've been barking up the wrong tree?

Do certain arguments, certain readings of the data, including certain interpretations of Bible verses perhaps, look good to you only because, if true, they would tend to support what you want to believe?

Look to yourself! You just might be a spin doctor. But it's not too late to stop spinning. Even a gyroscope stops eventually.

Robert M. Price



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