Monday, September 5, 2011

What Judge Judy Can Teach Us About Finding the Truth in Politics

2012 elections are coming.

Nobody’s happier than me, and nobody’s dreading the onslaught of misinformation more than I am. I’ve already started building my 2012 Election Survival Kit—I’ve got Tums for the little irritations, Pepcid for those that bug you all day, and Prilosec in case the burn goes on for days.

What hope do we have for improving our sorry state of current political affairs, when there isn’t even agreement anymore on what constitutes “The Truth”?

Luckily, help is out there in surprising places, if you’re paying attention.

Judge Judith Sheindlin, known as “Judge Judy,” has been presiding over small claims court cases in front of a national television audience for 16 years. She is, without question, bold, opinionated and outspoken, and she pulls no punches in questioning those who appear before her. Her style of questioning can be abrasive, shrill, terse, rude, judgmental (well, she IS a judge, after all), largely unsympathetic and not terrifically endearing – it’s rare for her to step outside her role as arbiter and try to offer helpful insights or advice. Not much in the way of warm fuzzies here.

A lot of people, including John Shannon, hate her show, and it’s easy to understand why: a typical episode includes a parade of unsympathetic, overdramatic and irresponsible idiot litigants who are trying to stick it to whoever they feel owes them. They range from just plain stupid to devious, and their problems are often petty and their behavior outrageous.

So why DO people watch? I wouldn’t call myself a rabid fan—I catch a little of her show here and there, but certainly don’t set my schedule by it. But I admire her skill at cross-examination, and, outside of the vicarious release from watching her ream a moron or liar, I believe there is some value there. Believe it or not, there might be a few things we could all learn from her about finding the kernel of truth in a mountain of muck.

So what are the lessons there we can all use to find our way to the truth in an increasingly divided political climate?  

People Lie (or Forget). A Lot. If You Don’t Require Proof, You’re Buying Someone Else’s Baloney

Whether by omission, by accident or on purpose, people lie. Not all of it comes from the desire to be evil, but when you’re looking for the truth, you have to take any assertion with some skepticism, because they may be dead wrong. “Show me,” should be the first request after anybody makes a statement of fact, regardless of whether the person stating it seems truthful or not, or agrees with your views or not.

If you’re saying it’s true, prove it. Not eventually, not maybe, but right now – I’m not accepting your conclusions until I know the facts behind it are true, and I’m not judging you credible until you show me the evidence. As Judge Judy might say, “No proof? No case.”  

Tune Out the Noise

It’s actually relatively rare for any politician to give a straight answer nowadays, even when the facts are on their side. Talking Points are now the substance of the conversation rather than guideposts to frame it—watch any interview on any channel anytime and you’ll see this is true. If the speaker ever even comes close to answering the question, the answer will be buried deep at the bottom of a pile of seemingly-related yet irrelevant crap.

Judge Judy’s response when she gets information that’s not relevant to the issue at hand? “I don’t care.” We all need to get better at ferreting out what’s important and what’s designed to redirect, distract, disguise or confuse us. Much of what you hear that’s supposed to obfuscate is emotionally-charged—there’s no better way to interrupt rational thought than to arouse someone’s emotions. But if you disregard the inflammatory and stay focused on what’s really key to the issue at hand, you can see beyond the smokescreen.

Don’t Kid Yourself-- It’s Always Ultimately About “Me, Me, Me”

There is no such thing as a totally unbiased individual. So give up the fantasy that anyone is going to give you all the information you need to make a judgment just because it would make your life easy. And just as everyone else has biases and agendas, so, too, should YOU – other people are worried about their own lives way more than yours, and you need to look at every issue from the standpoint of “Is this going to be good for me?” before you make a final judgment.

It doesn’t make you “selfish” to look at issues with your own self-interest in mind—it makes you SMART. You can rest assured that’s all those feeding you the facts are doing, and so should you.

It’s also human nature to make future judgments that are consistent with prior thoughts and actions, so if you make snap judgments based on emotionally arousing rhetoric, your mind may be closed to additional information that could be determinative—and that’s what political rhetoric is designed to do.

Don’t make judgments beyond initial impressions until you see ALL the facts. Anyone who’s trying to get you to reach a foregone conclusion without giving you time to consider things is trying to manipulate you—don’t let them.  

Always Apply the Sniff Test

There is bull being bandied about that doesn’t even come close to matching reality, but because we’re scared and want answers that make sense, we don’t even bother to apply common sense before accepting it as offered. My personal favorite Republican talking point that doesn’t make sense ON ITS FACE: The assertion that “Tax cuts create jobs.”

If tax cuts created jobs, then the last 10 years, culminating in the lowest tax rates since the 1950’s, would have created loads of them. But that’s exactly the opposite of what the Bush tax cuts did. So this assertion is completely D.O.A. based on recent history with no further discussion, yet there are still people claiming we need more of the same to spur job creation right now. It’s patently ridiculous, and anybody with the facts can sniff this one out, if they take the time to do it. So DO it!

Fasten Your Seat Belts...

Even though I understand why some people can’t stand Judge Judy, I, for one, will probably be tuning in periodically during the 2012 election season. It reminds me the truth IS there, if you dig for it, and when I get really aggravated with the inflated and blatantly false rhetoric that’s sure to come, there’s no better way to vent your frustration than watching her grill the deserving mercilessly before summarily dismissing them. Nobody does THAT better than Judge Judy.

How do you separate the wheat from the chaff, and how do you blow off steam when you hear a bunch of blatant falsehoods?  Please let me know - I need all the help I can get!

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