The Zapping of the American Mind

In Chicago some years ago, a controversy arose within the police department about its normally energetic and successful drive for employee contributions to the United Way. That year, many police officers decided not to make their usual generous donations. The cause of this mass defection was a United-Way-funded program making an attorney available by telephone to consult with people who have just been arrested for any misdemeanor or felony. The time frame in question is the interval between arrest (and the concomitant, mandatory recitation of the Miranda warnings in the suspect’s primary language) and the arraignment/bail hearing. And the purpose, according to the proponents of the program, was to make sure the suspect really understands that he has the right to remain silent.

Many police officers were outraged at a program which virtually guaranteed they would get no information from criminal suspects. Since that is precisely the point of the Miranda warnings–with which the police have coexisted more or less comfortably for over forty years–I find it hard to sympathize with them (although, of course, they have every right to choose not to fund such a program.)

But as an English teacher, I am deeply concerned by the necessity of such a program. Face it, by the time an offender is old enough to be tried as an adult (even in Illinois, which sometimes allows such arrangements for 12-year-olds), he has probably heard the Miranda warnings recited at least fifteen hundred times on prime-time cop shows and in movies, quite aside from any occasions on which he may have heard them “live” in the course of personal encounters with the law. If he still needs a lawyer to tell him that “you have the right to remain silent” means “shut up until your lawyer gets there,” that says something very disturbing about the way the average American processes information.

This problem arises in plenty of places other than police stations, and is not confined to poorly-educated people with scanty knowledge of standard English. In one of my college classes, an intelligent, literate student who speaks standard English with no accent whatever barely escaped disaster on my one-hour midterm exam. The instructions indicated clearly that questions 1 and 2 were 15 minutes each, and question 3 was 30 minutes. The student told me afterward that she read the instructions carefully (which I always remind them to do), including the time limits–and then spent more than 50 minutes on the first question.

In my other incarnation, as an attorney, I once had a client who promised to make a substantial payment on fees he already owed me, if I would represent him in a pending hearing. After the hearing, I asked him when I could expect the payment. He said something like “I won’t be paying that.” I asked him whether he recalled making the promise–he did–and then I asked him what he had meant by it. “I don’t know what I meant,” he replied. Now, that may have been only his rather ungraceful way of avoiding admitting that he had made that promise solely for the purpose of inducing me to represent him when he really needed it, and had never had any intention of paying me. Which, however disturbing it may be, is a problem in ethics, rather than in processing information.

But I have seen too many parallel cases to believe that. The problem–which probably has some Greek-root neurological name known only to Oliver “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” Sacks–is not a perceptual disability, but the inability to allow information to influence behavior, even in the most crucial situations (like that of the recent arrestee in the first example.) Socrates, who held that all evil results from ignorance, would be dumbfounded.

Or is it inability? Is it perhaps a habit, long-hidden from consciousness and therefore almost impossible to break, a habit of resisting the impact of information on our behavior? Is it, perhaps, a necessary but overused defense mechanism arising out of a culture in which we are bombarded with constant demands that we stop, go, don’t smoke, see, hear, visit, buy, above all buybuybuy? Is ignorance the last refuge of the free mind? That would certainly explain the fact that most Americans–even highly educated intelligent people in intellectual occupations–will not admit to having learned anything in high school. And indeed, most of the first two years of college in this country (unlike the rest of the world) for all but the smallest elite, consist of a hasty review of what the students were taught in high school, precisely because they either did not learn it, or because they felt obliged to forget it immediately upon receiving their diplomas (in rather the same way the Pythagoreans postulated the soul, going from its previous incarnation into rebirth, was required to forget everything it had learned in its previous lives.)

There is similar resistance to allowing oneself to be influenced by religious objurgations. (Indeed, the willingness to actually pay attention to “preaching” and change one’s behavior as a result, is often regarded as proof positive of having joined a “cult”) and political speeches. Jurors regularly ignore judicial instructions (though studies indicate that may really be a problem of comprehension), and many of them also ignore evidence.

Unfortunately, of all of the sources of information in our universe, advertisers actually seem to have done the best job of circumventing customer resistance, apparently by casting their message as much as possible in terms other than informational. They try to provide either a non-cognitive esthetic experience which leaves the customer with a good feeling about the product, or a non-cognitive bonding experience which–especially among young male customers–builds loyalty. Information is not only irrelevant to those kinds of messages, it actually gets in their way.

Another source of such resistance may be the American legal system, with its proliferation of unenforced and often unenforceable laws. “It’s none of anybody’s business how fast I want to drive!” one respondent was quoted as saying in a newspaper article on people who drive 55 mph in the left lane (Chicago Tribune, Section 2, p. 1, 5/1/95). “It is…judgmental to decide how fast another driver should or should not travel. If and when I am stopped for speeding, I have no quarrel with receiving a ticket….However, I don’t appreciate another citizen justifying traveling just the speed limit in the passing lane in order to keep my speed in check.” Another respondent said “If I choose to risk a ticket by traveling at a more efficient rate of speed, the only people who need be concerned are myself and the local state trooper. To those who mistakenly believe that they are in danger simply because I am going faster than the arbitrarily-set speed limit, all they need to do is move over. To those who feel it is their job to keep me within the limits of the law, butt out!”

If, for instance, Chicago’s ban on downtown street parking (in effect for the last fifteen years) had been enforced, there would be no need for the various physical barriers erected outside the federal building after the Oklahoma bombing to prevent car bombings. Similarly, there have been numerous cases of a legislator proposing a criminal statute, only to find out (usually from his embarrassed research staff) that the conduct it would penalize was already forbidden by another law currently on the books but long forgotten. The NC-17 movie rating (not a law, but a voluntary regulation of the film industry) essentially means “R–but we really mean it this time!” If they had really meant it last time, it would be unnecessary. We try over and over again to command changes in behavior, and the only result is the piling of one ineffective prohibition on top of another (something the behaviorally savvy Jewish tradition specifically forbids, by the way. If you are going to eat bacon, you don’t have to have the pig ritually slaughtered.)

“Preaching,” “scolding,” and “nagging” are the words we use for any kind of discourse intended to change our behavior when we don’t want to change it. But ultimately, all information gets treated like “nagging” by most people most of the time.

And, as noted earlier in the case of the Delinquent Defendant (the Cashless Client?), this resistance to information affects not only how we deal with what we hear, but also what we say and how (if at all) it relates to what we mean. If I will not change my behavior because of what I hear or read, I also won’t change it because of what I say, nor will I expect you to pay any serious attention to what I say. (In the words of the old song, “How could you believe me when I told you that I loved you, when you know I’ve been a liar all my life?”) Probably the most outrageous example of this phenomenon in recent legal history was a case in Juvenile Court in Cook County, Illinois about twenty years ago. The state’s child welfare agency sent two neglected children who were in its wardship to an out-of-state foster home, and then made virtually no attempt to oversee their care. They kept filing reports, though–based on absolutely no information–that the children were doing well. A couple of years later, one of the children died as a result of abuse by the foster family, and the other was hospitalized with severe injuries. The office of the Public Guardian sued the child welfare agency for gross negligence in failing to check on the children regularly and report accurately. The child welfare agency responded by challenging the right of the Public Guardian’s office to bring the case, on the basis of a conflict of interest, because the Guardian’s office had believed the reports! (The Court didn’t buy the argument, fortunately.) We seem to have accepted all too readily the oriental maxim “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Anybody fool enough to believe anybody about anything (even once) deserves to be deceived, exploited, and railroaded. The deceivers are merely doing business as usual and cannot be held responsible for the consequences of the behavior of others who choose to believe them.

I have spent a fair amount of time in class explaining the legal consequences of various kinds of mendacity in the media, and my students have no trouble grasping that what Rush Limbaugh says about Hillary Clinton is probably libellous and what Ronco says about the Vegematic is probably fraudulent. But most of them have real trouble grasping why it matters. “Of course people lie on television,” they tell me. “That’s what television is for.” Which is a close relative of the old joke about how you can tell when (name your favorite crooked politician) is lying–”His lips are moving.” The medium is the utter absence of any reliable message. Orwell’s prediction of Newspeak–the total corruption of language to make a vehicle of political control–turns out to have overshot the mark. In our efforts to avoid Newspeak, we have turned American English into Nospeak–a vehicle of nothing at all. To choose to believe any communication, and modify our behavior in accord with it, is a tremendous and terrifying leap of faith, which most of us make once or twice in a lifetime, at most.

What, if anything, can a teacher do to breach the barrier between perception and behavior? How do we get across to students hardened against “nagging” the antiquated notion that letters have sounds, words–and combinations of words–have meanings, and it really matters whether you say “uninterested” or “disinterested”, “lie” or “lay”? Does repetition do it? (Probably not, or they’d come out of high school knowing a lot more than they do.) Is there a way to slip under the barrier, using the techniques of advertising? This is precisely what “Sesame Street” has done, with pretty good results. Can an individual teacher, without the high-powered special effects and resources of a national television show, do nearly as well? Or can a more subtle esthetic approach quietly dissolve the barrier, without the student even realizing it? I have known this to happen, often under the influence of poetry (either reading/hearing it or writing it.) “To every door,” says the Talmud “there are many keys, but the greatest key of all is the ax.” Or do we just keep throwing out bits of information and hope that some of them stick? The barrier is almost never completely impermeable (that way lies autism), but the things that penetrate it are likely to be an oddly-assorted and not especially useful conglomeration. Merely throwing out as much high-quality information as possible in hope of raising the quality of the total mix is too haphazard to be satisfying to most teachers (or for that matter, preachers, writers, poets, and politicians.)

Most commentators who predict the demise of literature, or of a particular literature or language, have done so largely in hope of getting credit for single-handedly reviving it. The current generation of English teachers and professional “naggers” has no such high-flown expectations. Most of us would be happy if high-school graduates would remember their sixth-grade grammar long enough to complete a sentence whose subjects and verbs come out even. We pity the high school teacher whose job seems to amount to painting the Mona Lisa on sand. We try to talk faster, so as to keep our instructions within the limits of our students’ current attention span, but we are not yet capable of being the “One-Minute Teacher,” and it’s probably just as well. Long ago, an unnamed talmudic wise guy asked the scholar Hillel to tell him the whole law “while I stand on one foot.” Hillel actually had an answer: “Love the Lord your G-d with your whole heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the whole law and the prophets. Everything else is commentary.” But he could not resist adding, “Go and study it.” Presumably sitting down.

Jane Grey


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