Fool Me Once



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Most folks, I think, are familiar with this self-admonition: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  There is some truth to it, insofar as we should definitely be more wary of being conned or scammed by the same person a second time around.

But there is another caution to which we might well pay heed, this one written by Mark Twain: It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.

I’ve been fooled a few times in my life by refusing to acknowledge something later shown to be right.  But such situations were usually the result of my own miscalculation, not a nefarious attempt by another to deceive me.  On many of those occasions, it was harder to admit my mistake, as Twain suggests, than to concede that I had misled myself.  Over the years, I’ve learned that I ofttimes find it easy to believe the things I think.

 More sinister, however, are those times I’ve been bamboozled into accepting something that ultimately proved false, the victim of a deliberate attempt by malicious actors to mislead me.  I console myself that, in the grand scheme of things, those turned out not to be life-altering mistakes, and those same people didn’t fool me twice.  But on every occasion, it took me a good long while to admit I’d been duped.

Today, we—all of us—are subjected non-stop to claims we either believe or not, assertions on abortion rights, censorship, climate change, education and schools, freedom, gun control, healthcare, pandemic disease, political corruption, widespread war, and what can seem like a zillion other matters.  And where, we might well wonder, lies the truth in all of these assertions?

Are we being fooled?  More than once?  And if so, by whom?  For what purpose?  How will we know if it is so?  And will we ever be able to admit it?

The World Health Organization has stated we are living in an info-demic world, defined as: an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for us to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when we need them.

We are constantly subjected to a sweep of mis-information—the spreading of false information, such as rumours, insults, and pranks—and its more dangerous subset, dis-information—the creation and distribution of intentionally-false information designed to fool us, usually for political ends, such as scams, hoaxes, and forgeries.

Sander van der Linden,  professor in social psychology at Cambridge University, has identified six degrees of manipulation commonly used by purveyors of falsehoods—impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling—to spread misinformation and disinformation.  For instance, a false news source may quote a fake expert, use emotional language, or propose a conspiracy theory in order to manipulate its intended audience.

Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, has established five filters people use to decide whether information is true: compatibility with other known information, credibility of the source, whether others believe it, whether the information is internally consistent, and whether there is supporting evidence.

Thanks to the work of these men and others in the field, there are ways we can try to cut through the morass of conflicting claims, to ascertain the truth.  One effective way is to identify the sources from which information emanates, and to examine their credibility.  Do those sources provide authoritative citations or evidence to back up their claims?  Have those sources been accurate in the past with respect to other claims they’ve made?  Who owns or financially supports them?

Another way to cut through the miasma of misinformation is to help people learn to think analytically and critically about what they see and hear.  Help them learn how to question things, not belligerently or ideologically, but clearly and with a view to illuminating the issues central to the claims being made.  This could mean providing people with valid questions to ask about particular issues being debated in the public square, so as not to send them unarmed into the fray.

It is not unwise to question everything.  As Rudyard Kipling wrote long ago: I have six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who…

Yet another way to get at the truth is to apply one’s common sense to what is being presented, the personal smell-test.  If it walks like a skunk and stinks like a skunk, it’s most likely not a striped pussycat.  Common sense, alas, is not standardized across our random population, not universally reliable, so some caution is required.

A more controversial way to deal with mis- and dis-information is more fraught with the potential for abuse, and would need to be addressed carefully.  Perhaps we need to consider attacking the propagation of falsehoods at their points of origin, act pre-emptively, to prevent the sowing of mistruths.  Critics will claim, of course, that such censorship must never be tolerated, that it would contravene the very notion of free speech so enshrined in our history and culture.

I’ve long upheld that view, too.  But recently, ‘midst the plethora of damaging information that inundates us, I’ve begun to consider the wisdom of somehow regulating the relentless spewing of falsehoods, particularly from online sources.  Our minds are being poisoned, and those of our more malleable young people.  There is nothing included in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects free speech of a sort deemed anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, hate-filled, Islamophobic, life-threatening, misogynistic, racist, treasonous, or in any other manner harmful to our collective notion of peace, order, and good government.

Would intelligent regulation, impartially applied within the context of our national ethos, amount to unjustified censorship?

There are two other maxims I finish with.  The first is lightly-edited from Thomas Friedman, an American journalist: When widely followed public [sources] feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, it becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues.

The second is a tenet often attributed to Edmund Burke (but now thought to be a distillation of ideas from John Stuart Mill): The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.

Fool me once…


With few exceptions, everything we say and do has a consequence.  The consequence may be intended or unintended; it may be natural, unreasonable, or logical.  But one thing is sure—we leave a wake on the surface behind us as we wend our way across the watercourses of life.

The significance of consequences has been on my mind as we find ourselves (let us hope) emerging from the worst of the pandemic.  Our behaviours and actions over the next several months, both individually and collectively, will generate outcomes we shall either welcome or bemoan.

In most cases, the things we say or do are intentionally-designed to elicit a beneficial response or outcome.  For example, we might tell a friend her new dress is beautiful, hoping a similar compliment might be returned.  And if that intended consequence does come to pass, we benefit from our actions. 

But our actions can lead to consequences we don’t anticipate, as well.  For example, if we keep putting off a repair to that leaky toilet, only to find it springs a raging flood in the middle of the night, we shall surely suffer an unintended consequence

Natural consequences are fairly easy to understand. If I leap off a high bridge, believing I can fly, the natural consequence of my action will quickly disabuse me of that notion. Gravity wins.

There are unreasonable consequences that arise from someone’s words and deeds, too, of course.  Washing a child’s mouth out with soap for use of bad language, for example, is not only inappropriate, but usually ineffective.  Imposed consequences like that are often applied as punishment, particularly in response to obviously improper behaviour.

Logical consequences are a more common-sense or natural reaction to the actions they follow. For instance, when someone fortunate enough to own a dishwasher forgets to turn it on after supper, they may find a scarcity of clean dishes available for breakfast. On a more positive note, a person who regularly washes his car in the winter is less likely to have a rust problem come spring. In both cases, the outcome logically follows from the original action.

Societal behaviour at large is currently a hot-button issue, of course, because of the varied response we are witnessing to the Covid vaccine availability.  It appears that, in most jurisdictions, a majority of people has taken advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated—not only for their own protection, but to reduce the chances of spreading the disease and its malignant variants to others.

But everywhere, there are those who are refusing the vaccine, leading to a wider discussion as to where individual rights intersect with those of the collective good.  Does my right not to be vaccinated take precedence over your right to be safe when you and I are in close proximity?  Or, if it’s you who insists on remaining unvaccinated, do you have the right to possibly infect me with the disease you may be unwittingly spreading?

Does government have the right to dictate to its citizens in this scenario, citing the common good?  Or can every citizen determine a course of action for her- or himself, citing individual freedom?  Where does the balance lie in the struggle between the common welfare and individual liberty?

My own opinion on this particular matter is formed more by pragmatism than ideology, leading me to favour the collective good over the individual right.  We live in a larger society, after all, and most of us are not sufficiently self-sufficient to survive without the protections and services provided by that society.  Certainly I am not.

I live in a condominium community.  Before buying my home, I was made aware of the covenants and rules governing residence here.  And although there were some requirements I chafed at, I accepted they were part of my agreement to purchase.  Nobody forced me to accept those covenants; I accepted them myself when I exercised my free choice to move in or look elsewhere.

By the same token, it’s my belief that no one should be forced to be vaccinated against Covid—unless, of course, the very survival of our society were to be threatened by their refusal.  That seems unlikely, given the ‘herd immunity’ we are likely to develop once enough of us are vaccinated.

But I also believe those who choose not to be vaxxed must accept the logical consequences of their free choice.  I support businesses, educational institutions, entertainment venues, food providers, transportation providers, public services—any setting where large numbers of people gather in close proximity—who establish guidelines regarding denial of entry to people who have chosen not to get the vaccination, or who refuse to wear masks.

I accept, subject to my earlier proviso, that folks have the right to refuse a vaccine if they so choose.  But I do not accept that they also have the right to impose their unvaccinated (and possibly disease-carrying) selves on the rest of us who have acted to protect, not only ourselves, but our families, friends, and fellow-citizens. 

I believe we do, as a society, have the right to limit an individual’s rights if they are shown to be harmful to the welfare of others.  In so saying, I rely on John Stuart Mill, who wrote—The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Alas, we are not all there yet.  And so we all bear the consequences.

It’s My Right!

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the worst such event in more than a century, a prominent political leader recently told her constituents, If you want to wear a mask, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Really?  In the middle of the pandemic, does this not seem illogical?  The best scientific evidence indicates pretty clearly that, by wearing a mask while around other people, we can severely limit the transmission of the virus—thereby protecting those around us, our family, friends, and fellow-citizens.

For comparison’s sake, I’ve modified the woman’s statement to apply to other situations, to see if they would make sense—to see if they might impinge on another person’s rights.  You be the judge.

If you want to stop your car at a red light, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to stop, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the potential carnage?

If you want to wear seatbelts while driving, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to wear them, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the increase in personal injury?

If you want to drive while sober, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you want to drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs, don’t be ashamed about it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the inevitable devastation?

If you don’t want to smoke in a public setting, that’s fine.  You are free not to do so.  If you do want to smoke there, don’t be shamed by it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the outcry?

If you want to use the store’s escalator to go up one floor, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you want to push your way back down on the up-escalator, don’t be ashamed to do it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the confusion and anger?

Of course, there are all manner of situations where an individual person’s choice to do something, or not do it, will engender no meaningful effect on others.  For example, If you want to wear winter boots after a heavy snowfall, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to wear boots, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Another example:  If you want to study for your final exams, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to study, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

And a third:  If you don’t want to wear a paisley tie with a striped shirt, plaid jacket, and check slacks, just don’t.  You are free not to do so.  But if you do want to, don’t be ashamed about it.  That is your right.

None of these three personal decisions is likely to have a profound effect on someone else’s autonomy, unlike the first statement and its five adaptations.  And that, of course, is the whole point.

A familiar maxim, first promulgated by an obscure legal philosopher, Zechariah Chafee, Jr., holds that a person’s right to swing his arms freely ends where the other person’s nose begins.  In other words, your personal rights are not allowed to impinge on mine.

John Stuart Mill, in his famous work, On Liberty, postulated:  The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct.

Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

I have long been of the opinion that Mill’s work provides us with a near-perfect definition of the boundary between our individual rights and our societal obligations.  And when I apply that definition to the exhortations of public health officials during the pandemic that we all wear a mask when out and about in the company of others, I find their pleas to be eminently logical.

It seems to me, therefore, that if government determines the actions of some people are, in Mills’s words, prejudicial to the interests of others—in this case, the general health and welfare of the citizenry—the wearing of masks in public places should be mandated by government officials.  I further believe that scofflaws who flout the requirement should, also in Mills’s words, be subjected…to legal punishment.

The same controversy will arise, I’m sure, when vaccines against COVID-19 become available to the general populace.  Some of us will line up eagerly to get it; others will dig in their heels, perhaps proclaiming, If I don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s my right.  I am free not to do so. 

To them, I would say, If you don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s fine.  That is your right.  But if you want to present yourself in community settings where people congregate—such as malls, schools, churches, or city parks—don’t be surprised when you are denied access.  That is our right.

Like any chain, our society is only as strong as its weakest link.