Editor’s Column: Why do we believe what we believe?

Voltaire, writer and philosopher during the French Enlightenment, said, “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.”

Who has that power over you?

It’s a question we all need to ask ourselves. Who has power over us to make us believe anything? What voices do we trust, and why do we trust them?

As I wrote last week, a lot of what we believe is tangled up in family history and traditions. We first learn to trust our immediate family, and we tend to believe what they say implicitly. I long believed state patrol officers were mean. A year or two listening to the scanner has given me clear comprehension as to why troopers sometimes come across as cranky. I’d be annoyed—and so would you—if you kept having to clean up accidents and talk to the families of victims of careless, selfish drivers who speed, drink and drive, text and drive, eat and drive, and otherwise don’t pay much attention to driving. It’s enough to make a cheery person downright grim.

We tend to believe people we perceive as having more education and more experience. This is normal. It makes sense to trust someone who has been through eight or 10 years of schooling to get a valued degree, or someone who has 20 or 30 years of experience in a particular field. That’s why we listen to our doctors and our mentors. If I have questions about something in my life, I try to seek out people I know with expertise in that field, whether it’s essential oils or business ethics.

And so we come to the news. When I was a kid the news took up a deathly dull half hour or hour in the evening, usually during dinner. Then the news ended and we had a game show or two, followed by regular prime time programming, which back in the day was pretty light-hearted, at least until 9 o’clock, when “sexy” shows like the Love Boat and Dynasty aired. We didn’t have cable (living in a rural area, we had three channels on a good day), so we didn’t know about CNN when it came out in 1980.

Here’s what I didn’t realize then that I see now… While there was still only an hour or so of actual news on which to report every day, CNN figured out how to stretch that hour into 24 advertising-supported hours. They did it partly by repetition (repetition is the motor of learning, you know) and partly by inserting hours upon hours of pundit testimony about whatever was going on at the time, whether a bombing or a plane crash. Fox News came along in 1996 (it’s barely a year older than my youngest kid) and copied CNN’s business model, only with even more opinion-based programming.

What’s a pundit, you ask? Someone who is an “expert” in a field and can be called upon to share his or her opinions. No one seems to bother to verify if a pundit is actually an expert, or really defines what an expert is, either.

That’s what’s so disconcerting about the quote from Voltaire. Are we giving pseudo-experts power over what we believe because we’re solely plugged in to Fox, CNN, MSNBC or any of the other corporate media megalodons? And if we’re giving them power, what injustices are we committing as a result?

Why do we believe what we believe?

Please say it’s not because we saw something online or on cable news or because grandma said so. Accessing truth has to go beyond the easy sources of social media, TV news and myopic family traditions.

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Happy 29th anniversary Monday to my husband, Pat. I keep wondering how we got this old, don’t you?

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We have an early deadline for next week’s paper, as Caitlin Walker and I are headed to Denver for the annual Colorado Press Association convention. Not having to cook, clean or make the bed makes it a vacation, as far as I’m concerned, even if it is work-related. Keep in mind the paper will be going to the printer early Wednesday morning, instead of Wednesday afternoon!

By Niki Turner | niki@ht1885.com