In the game of chess, the pawn is the lowliest piece in the game. In life, a pawn is a person used by others for their own purposes. Most folks don’t even know when they are being manipulated like pawns.
We see this manipulation in business, religion, education and among family. We know it is also coming from foreign actors, so-called “friends” employing social media. Instead of employing logic, facts or the rightness of their positions to convince us, manipulation is often an easier route. Nowhere is it more masterfully used than in politics. Let’s examine three manipulation methods: bluster and bravado, the pivot or misdirection, and scare tactics.
The louder, more bombastic, accusatory and demanding a politician is the more media attention they receive. The media loves colorful, talkative interviews. The louder they are and the more frequently they say something the more likely it is to be accepted as truth. The great showman P.T. Barnum famously said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Voters will forget what was said, but they do cast votes for names they recognize.
A more subtle technique is called the pivot. When asked to speak on a subject they divert our attention to topics they prefer.
Here are some current North Carolina examples:
History in public schools: For too long our schools have failed to teach accurately about slavery, the 1898 Wilmington Race Riots, Jim Crow laws, eugenics and racism. Why?
The pivot: This drivel is coming from a bunch of liberals who just want to make white children feel bad about themselves by teaching critical race theory. Besides, we don’t trust teachers to teach this.
Result: The discussion about teaching our state’s actual history is diverted and delayed.
Improved education outcomes: Our state’s education outcomes are unacceptable. Too many high school graduates aren’t prepared for college or for the workplace. Why can’t we make significant gains?
The pivot: We won’t get better outcomes until lawmakers improve education funding, especially paying teachers more.
Result: Instead of concrete ways to get improved results the topic becomes all about money.
Medicaid expansion: 38 states have expanded Medicaid. North Carolina could expand Medicaid and provide health insurance to 500,000 more citizens. The federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost. Why not expand Medicaid?
The Pivot: Medicaid is a broken system, and the feds are liable to stop the funding. Besides, our state has a history of cost overruns for Medicaid.
Result: Instead of ways to improve the health of more people the discussion is diverted to the program and funding.
Another common and more sinister technique is the scare tactic. If someone can make us afraid and tell us who is to blame for a problem, he or she can divide us. Distrustful and divided people can be easily manipulated.
Here’s just one example:
The scare: Immigration – We can’t let all these immigrants come into North Carolina because they will take our jobs, soak up public benefits and commit crimes.
Result: History is full of demagogues who scare people into following them. Their disciples often repeat these scare tactics on social media and elsewhere.
How do we avoid becoming pawns? First, ask a lot of questions and be a bit skeptical. What is the purpose or motive of the speaker? Who gains and who loses? Does it unite or divide us? Will it make us a better state or nation? Does it make you feel empowered or manipulated?
Seek out the facts. Get opinions from sources from whom you don’t normally listen. Hear what they are saying and measure their responses against your own common sense and experience. If enough of us start asking serious questions we might see when we are being misled. If you find agreement with others whom you respect, new unions can make change. We don’t have to be pawns.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. Contact him at email@example.com.