Column by Dan Kennedy in the Guardian about the Birthers. He begins:
Just because there are people who believe some mighty peculiar things doesn’t mean I’m obliged to pay them any attention.
And then goes on to pay them quite a lot of attention for the rest of the column. Near the end, he justifies doing so:
And it’s tempting to say that the media should simply ignore the Birthers — not to mention the global-warming deniers, the WTC conspiracists and all the rest. But given the cultural environment in which we find ourselves, such tactics would only lead to conspiracy theories about the liberal media — as if there weren’t enough of those already.
I disagree. Ignoring them entirely and attacking them are not the only two choices, but if they were, I would still vote for ignoring them. These folks have their own reasons for giving expression to their fear and anger in this way, reasons that are completely separate from the facts of the matter, and there ain’t nothing we can do or say to force them to change their minds or shut up about their screwy theories. Nor should there be, if we’re not ready yet to give up on the idea that we have freedom of thought and speech in this country.
Mr. Kennedy is correct, I believe, in saying that if we don’t attack them, there will be conspiracy theories about the liberal media. But he is also correct, I believe, in saying that there will also be conspiracy theories about liberal media anyway even if we do attack them. It seems to me that this is not much of an argument for why we need to go on the attack.
“Horrors! Contrary people might decide do contrary things unless we do something! Wait a minute, everybody, I’ve got a plan: Let’s do something that won’t stop them!”
Adopting a position of outrage just isn’t going to cause these folks to back down. Anything but. To justify their fear and hatred and anger, people like this need to prove to themselves that the enemies they’re so afraid of are not just creations of their own imaginations, because that would make them seem pretty ridiculous, even to themselves, to be so afraid of their own shadows. So for anyone to take on the role of their enemy is just agreeing to perform in this corny melodrama by the script they themselves have written, wearing their costumes and reading their lines.
Pointing out the facts is important to do, certainly, but for the sake of the less irrational people like you and me (if that isn’t too optimistic) who try now and then to reason from facts to conclusions and not vice versa. Not because we think it’s going to change the minds of the Birthers. They already know what the facts are. They have made up their minds anyway.
Giving them lots and lots of media attention, even if it’s negative, just gives them what they need to maintain their attitudes. Tells them that this issue is really important, tells them that they have important enemies, tells them that clinging to their position is what makes them important.
As Carolyn Hax has said, it’s not a tug-of-war any more as soon as you drop your end of the rope. If you have a cantankerous relative who loves to hold forth about some crackpot conspiracy theory, do you persuade him to change his behavior by arguing with him at every opportunity? I don’t think so. He wouldn’t have picked a crackpot conspiracy theory as his idée fixe if he didn’t enjoy it when people argue with him. You’re just giving him exactly the payoff he wants.
What we really need to do is stay calm, stop turning these folks into our own Others to project our fears onto, smile indulgently toward them as we do toward our own eccentric relatives (which is after all who these folks are), listen to them respectfully and patiently as they have their say once, and then gently change the subject to things that we honestly believe are important.