Distorting Reality
An Example of the Need for Critical Thinking

Social Darwinism

Survival of the fittest. Isn't this the real truth about our society? Isn't it true that the richest people and the people "at the top" in charge are there because they are the brightest, the best, the hardest workers? They EARNED the right to be where they are. Right?

The above statements assume that opportunity is equal in America and that there is no social structure that pushes people around or holds them back. Evidence, and research by social scientists, however, indicate otherwise. First, let's hear what James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me , has to say...

""Why are people poor?" I have asked first-year college students.. The answers I've received, to characterize them charitably, are half-formed and naive. The students blame the poor for not being successful. They have no understanding of the ways that opportunity is not equal in America and no notion that social structure pushes people around" (Loewen, 201).

"No book mentions the Hormel meat-packers' strike in the mid-1980s or the air traffic controllers' strike broken by President Reagan... labor history [seems to be] something that happened long ago, like slavery... unions appear anachronistic" (Loewen, 201).

"Rich babies come out healthier and weighing more [because the mothers get better medical care]... Rich babies get more time and verbal interaction with their parents and higher quality day care.. When they enter kindergarten, and through the twelve years that follow, rich children benefit from suburban schools that spend two to three times as much money per student as schools in inner cities or impoverished rural areas.

"Even when poor children are fortunate enough to attend the same school as rich children, they encounter teachers who expect only children of affluent families to know the right answers... many working-class children give off the wrong signals... Even without coaching, affluent children are advantaged because their background is similar to that of the test-makers, so they are comfortable with the vocabulary and subtle subcultural assumptions of the test. To no one's surprise, social class correlates strongly with SAT scores" (Loewen, 204).

(Begins to look like there IS a priveleged class in America. But this isn't all... Read on!)

"As adults, rich people are more likely to have hired an attorney and to be a member of formal organizations that increase their civic power. Poor people are more likely to watch TV. Because affluent families can save some money while poor families must spend what they make, wealth differences are ten times larger than income differences.

"..affluent Americans also have longer life expectancies than lower- and working-class people... Social Security then becomes a huge transfer system, using monies contributed by all Americans to pay benefits disproportionately to longer-lived affluent Americans.

"Ultimately, social class determines how people think about social class. When asked if poverty in America is the fault of the poor or the fault of the system, 57 percent of business leaders blamed the poor; just 9 percent blamed the system. Labor leaders showed sharply reversed choices..." (Loewen, 205).

[Social class, and the limitations it creates for people, is never mentioned in elementary or high school textbooks.] "Many teachers compound the problem by avoiding talking about social class.. Teachers "expressed fear that students might find out about the injustices and inadequacies of their economic and political institutions." By never blaming the system [schools present the view of the governing class]" (Loewen, 205-6).

Do the leading policy makers use, and even reinforce, this ignorance of how things are really working? You BET they do! The Trilateral Commission was founded by Rockefeller as a "think tank" studying how the three great industrialized areas--Europe, Japan, and the United States (the three in TRIlateral)--could arrange things in the world so that profit and comfort were maximized for those "in charge" of these countries. The Trilateral Commission makes recommendations to governments around the world. And those recommendations are taken very seriously, and implemented in the majority of cases, because of its powerful membership.

And what does the Trilateral Commission recommend? One of the stated goals of the Trilateral Commission, from its inception, has been "reduced spending for education [because] it leads to frustration, criticism, and disrespect" (Jensen, 34). Why would education lead to frustration, criticism, and disrespect? Perhaps because education, if done well, leads to critical thinking and a demand for the underlying truth of each situation. This, in turn, would lead to a realization that there is in fact a priveleged class running the country and using its power to deny equal opportunities to all those who are NOT in the priveleged class.

And what is this about "criticism and disrespect"? Who would educated people criticize? Possibly the governing classes? Possibly the current situation which does not allow equal opportunity? The term disrespect is even worse, harking back to the divine right of kings and nobility.

Educators see things quite differently. A group of private colleges and universities wrote in 1983 that "the nation needs informed citizens now more than ever... Today's citizens must.. have civic literacy--an interest in and understanding of government and political affairs--and positive attitudes toward change.. " (Center for Program and Institutional Renewal, 1).

Why is this an example of the need for critical thinking?

Much of the "common sense" about reality in our society comes from the government, which is run by the priveleged class, and the media, which is owned by the priveleged class. The result is that any serious demand for changes or an honest investigation of problems in our society are met with accusations of histeria and irresponsibility.

"Our governing system was established by rich men, following theories that emphasized government as a bulwark of the propertied class... More than any other group, white working-class students believe that they deserve their low status" (Loewen, 207).

In addition to causing a subculture of shame, the continuing myth of social Darwinism also means that people believe this is the way things HAVE to be. They do not attempt to change what they consider the natural order of things. It is exactly like Plato's allegory of the cave. If everything--TV, newspapers, the government--say that this is as good as it gets, then most people are going to think that this is as good as it gets. They will respond negatively to any criticism of the system. After all, if this is as good as it gets, then change would make things worse!

It is a classic case of misdirection. The following passage from Ryan's Blaming the Victim explains misdirection well:

"The old vaudeville team of Gallagher and Shean used to sing a very popular patter song; one of the tag-lines was something like: "I didn't see it, Mr. Gallagher." "Where were you looking, Mr. Shean?" We look where the spotlight shines: one of the first tasks in breaking the ideological spell of Blaming the Victim is to shift the beam of the spotlight.

"Consider another staple of vaudeville--the magician. He does not, of course, perform sleight of hand. It is not the quickness of the hand that deceives the eye. The secret of magic is misdirection--getting the audience to look at the irrelevant flourishes of the right hand and to ignore the sly doings of the left" (251).

Ryan gives an even better example of misdirection which shows how the current society gets us to ignore the actions of the priveleged class and blame ourselves for our problems:

"A major pharmaceutical manufacturer, as an act of humanitarian concern, has distributed copies of a large poster warning "LEAD PAINT CAN KILL!" The poster, featuring a photograph of the face of a charming little girl, goes on to explain that if children EAT lead paint, it can poison them, they can develop serious symptoms, suffer permanent brain damage, even die. The health department of a major American city has put out a coloring book that provides the same information. While the poster urges parents to prevent their children from eating paint, the coloring book is more vivid. It labels as neglectful and thoughtless the mother who does not keep her infant under constant surveillance to keep it from eating paint chips.

"Now, no one would argue against the idea that it is important to spread knowledge about the danger of eating paint in order that parents might act to forestall their children from doing so. But to campaign against lead paint ONLY in these terms is destructive and misleading and, in a sense, an effective way to support and agree with slum landlords--who define the problem of lead poisoning in precisely these terms.

"This is an example of applying an exceptionalistic solution to a universalistic problem. It is not accurate to say that lead poisoning results from the actions of individual neglectful mothers. Rather, lead poisoning is a social phenomenon supported by a number of social mechanisms, one of the most tragic by-products of the systematic toleration of slum housing. In New Haven, which has the highest reported rate of lead poisoning in the country, several small children have died and many others have incurred irreparable brain damage as a result of eating peeling paint. In several cases, when the landlord failed to make repairs, poisonings have occurred time and again through a succession of tenancies. And the major reason for the landlord's neglect of this problem was that the city agency responsible for enforcing the housing code did nothing to make him correct this dangerous condition.

"The cause of the poisoning is the lead in the paint on the walls of the apartment in which the children live. The presence of the lead is illegal. To use lead paint in a residence is illegal; to permit lead paint to be exposed in a residence is illegal. It is not only illegal, it is potentially criminal since the housing code does provide for criminal penalties. The general problem of lead poisoning, then, is more accurately analyzed as the result of a systematic program of lawbreaking by one interest group in the community, with the toleration and encouragement of the public authority charged with enforcing that law. To ignore these continued and repeated law violations, to ignore the fact that the supposed law enforcer actually cooperates in lawbreaking, and then to load a burden of guilt on the mother of a dead or dangerously-ill child is an egregious distortion of reality. And to do so under the guise of public-spirited and humanitarian service to the community is intolerable.

"But this is how Blaming the Victim works" (Ryan, 23-24).

Ryan argues in his book that Blaming the Victim is a pattern endemic to American society, keeping the status quo for the priveleged class and denying the majority of the people any power or self-determination.


Center for Program and Institutional Renewal. Institutions of Character, Worlds of Opportunity: A Research Report to the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas. Sherman, TX: Author, Austin College, 1983.

Jensen, Carl. 20 Years of Censored News. NY: Seven Stories Press, 1997.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Ryan, William. Blaming the Victim. NY: Vintage Books, 1971.

by Colby Glass, MLIS.

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