Run This Through Your Experience: I had a college professor who would say this constantly. He would start with an observation about the world, like “People today treat having kids like a hobby.” Then, watching us all nod in agreement, he’d ask us to consider his comment in light of our experience of the world, and we’d quit nodding, look up at the ceiling, and furrow our brows. To this day, it’s one of the best pieces of pithy critical thinking advice I’ve ever heard.What she prescribes here is an especially good antidote to the sort of claim we often hear to the effect that "everybody knows that -----------s (fill in the blank) are awful people." I have a somewhat liberal friend who frequently insists that no one he knows fits the portrait of liberals that conservatives often paint of them. Sometimes I tell him that he needs perhaps to widen his circle of acquaintances, but most of the time I think using his acquaintances to assess the fairness of the stereotype is a pretty reliable indicator of the fairness of the stereotype.
A friend of mine teaches at a community college and one of her [demographic X] students said life would never be fair for [demographic Y] people, because people in demographic X were too “pigheaded.” My friend asked her student: Are you pigheaded? How many pigheaded demographic X people do you know? The student thought about individual people he knew, and having considered his family, friends, and classmates, responded that he didn’t actually know any pigheaded people—despite knowing plenty of people in demographic X.
When you hear a claim, especially a blanket claim, hold off judgment until you can run it through your experience. If you hear that all men are like this or all women are like that, or that conservatives hate this or liberals hate that, that Muslims or Christians or atheists or people of any particular color are problematic in some way, think about who you know. Is the reporter talking about real people or pushing a narrative?
Here's another sage bit of advice from Tillotson:
Be Aware of Buzzwords: Do you remember your English teacher (or maybe your mom) always harping on you to build vocabulary? This is why: choosing the right word can more accurately convey the emotion you want to convey. Anyone who gets paid to write has built up a considerable vocabulary, and it’s his or her job to use it well. Let’s look at an example.Perhaps one manifestation of what Tillotson's talking about here is the confusion, widely disseminated in the wake of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, between a "lie" and an "error." A lie is a deliberate deception and there was no evidence that Bush tried deliberately to deceive the American people about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction. He may have been wrong that Saddam possessed WMDs, but every intelligence agency in the world thought the Iraqis had them, and Hussein certainly behaved as if he did, but when Bush used the threat posed by these weapons as a justification for invading Iraq his political opponents accused him of lying about their existence, and the distinction between a lie and an error was often ignored in the heat of the polemical battles.
When people get upset about something and gather together with signs and chants, is it a riot or a protest? That’s a judgment call. A writer who wants you to sympathize will err on the side of protest; a writer who wants you to feel repulsed will err on the side of riot. If you see one of these words, pay attention to the rest of the article and see if there’s any violence against people, damaged storefronts, or looting. Your sympathies should be more influenced by the presence or absence of violence than by the writer’s choice of words.
A reporter’s job is to present the facts and let the reader decide. A reporter who neglects to provide real facts—for example, the presence or absence of violence—is trying to dupe you into believing his narrative. Whether you let yourself be manipulated into believing a lie or the truth, you’re still letting yourself be manipulated. You should decide based on actual information.
Another possible example can be found in the debate surrounding intelligent design. Intelligent design is not creationism, but the media often conflates the two, an error which causes a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding. Journalists have had the difference explained to them so often that when they nevertheless persist in omitting it one can't help but think they're deliberately trying to mislead or manipulate the reader.
In any case, there's much else of value in Tillotson's essay, and I encourage readers to check out the whole thing.