Many people labor under the erroneous assumption that questions are essentially innocent. To the extent that this is true, these people open themselves up to a kind of manipulation that is insidious to the point of being vicious. The asking of a question – any question, really – presupposes an enormous amount of background information in order for the question to even be meaningful, much less answerable. When that background information assumes as given fact matters that are in reality untrue, then the fallacy of the complex question has been committed. Groucho Marx famously posed the question, “Are you still beating your wife?” But this question cannot be answered unless it is first true that the person being asked is, or at least was, a wife beater. But if that condition is not true, then there is no way of answering the question, since either a “yes” or a “no” answer amount to the assertion of a falsehood. Which is to say, in answering a question, one is tacitly agreeing to the background assumptions.
One can be at once variously innocent seeming, and yet aggressive, in how one poses a loaded question, depending on how utterly lacking in integrity one happens to be. Thus, for example, in politics one often encounters what is known as a “push poll.” Disguised as a questionnaire, a push poll’s real intent is not to learn what people believe, but to actively manufacture that belief. The seeming innocence of the push poll is in its sheep’s clothing as a questionnaire; the aggression comes in the implicit posturing as essential democratic process: failure to answer the question is a failure to participate in democracy. Which brings me to the Congressional Representative for my district in Illinois, Mike Bost.
I received an email from Rep. Bost the other day (an image of which is included below), in which he posed the “question”:
Do you believe the United States should stop the flow of unscreened Syrian refugees across our borders?
- Not sure
It is difficult to understate how perfectly despicable this slimy attempt to manufacture opinion really is. As anyone with even the barest possibility of cognitive processes is already perfectly aware, there is absolutely no such thing as a “flow of unscreened Syrian refugees across our border.” There is hardly even a detectable trickle, and those vanishingly few are – as everyone who’d trouble to even glance at the situation would already know – subjected to a rigorous and detailed screening process by Homeland Security. To date, there are fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees in the United States, and this is out of millions. The numbers that the Obama administration has agreed to let in amount to something between one quarter and one half of one percent of the total number of refugees.
But Rep. Bost would foist upon his constituents the impression that there is this unchecked flood of Syrians pouring into the country, willy-nilly and without so much as a “by your leave.” Given the indisputable facts of the matter – facts which involve (a) no difficulty to learn, (b) no problem to understand, and (c) no trouble to accurately report – what conclusions are we to draw about Rep. Bost and his ham-fisted attempt to fabricate belief? This much is clear:
- Insofar as the question is genuinely innocent, Rep. Bost lacks a grasp of logic that any Freshman in a 100 level Critical Thinking course would be expected to have mastered after the first week of class; moreover, his understanding of basic facts is less than what any remedial 8th Grader could achieve in 30 seconds on a web browser.
- Insofar as the question is not innocent, it is a deliberate attempt to manufacture opinion while at the same time hiding the fact that that is what it is doing, which makes Rep. Bost a bald-faced liar.
Neither of these possibilities speak well for Mike Bost as a person, much less as an elected representative.
What makes this so deeply problematic is that it is quite possible, even likely, that this grossly misleading push poll of Bost’s will successfully mislead many of his constituents, especially those of an Authoritarian (RWA) frame of mind. The rampant falsehoods that form the context of this push poll are just the sorts of fear-driven misrepresentations that RWA people often devour uncritically, and act on without thought. This, of course, is most certainly Rep. Bost’s intent.
An image of the received email is here: