I Know Why the Caged Bird Speaks

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Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, is an important book to me, both for how it helped me see myself with clearer eyes and how it helped me see others with a fuller heart. Maya Angelou is part of my pack.

Here is Angelou’s best known quote. It’s not from “Caged Bird”, but it’s Truth with a capital T.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

As an aside, the Wall Street version of this quote is that people will forget what you said on CNBC, people will forget your published reports and models, but people will never forget if you made them money in their personal account. But I digress.

I was thinking about this Maya Angelou quote when I was writing the other day about Fiat News – the presentation of opinion as fact by famous people for their own political or economic ends – which is the engine of the Narrative Machine and, more often than not, the bane of our clear-eyed, full-hearted lives as investors and citizens. (If you’re not familiar with our take on Fiat News, you can find recent Epsilon Theory notes here, here, and here, and the original note here.)

I think Angelou is right when she says that the most powerful messages are those that make us FEEL one way or another. But there are no overt statements about feelings in Fiat News. Quite the opposite, the hallmark of Fiat News is that it takes a feelings-heavy statement (an opinion) and masks it in a cloak of neutrality (a fact or a piece of news) so that it’s not directly making us feel anything. And yet it does make us feel! 

Thus my question: what is the relationship between facts (particularly the opinions-as-facts of Fiat News) and feelings?

Here’s Ben Shapiro’s well-known quote on that issue.

Facts don’t care about your feelings.

I’m a Ben Shapiro fan (sometimes in spite of himself), and I understand the impetus behind this statement – just because we would LIKE for the world to be soft and gentle and in line with our snowflake sentiments doesn’t mean that it IS. Or that it should be.

But I also understand this: the reason that this quote about facts trumping feelings is famous and popular and the reason that Ben Shapiro’s lectures on facts trumping feelings are famous and popular is that this statement of opinion-as-fact about facts makes us FEEL good.

Ben Shapiro is a keen metagame player.

In the construction of Fiat News, it’s the choice of facts and the choice of words that preserve the power to make us feel. It’s the cloaking of opinion with this fact rather than that fact or this word rather than that word that directs our attention to a feeling-heavy context that in turn imbues the statement with feeling, almost regardless of what is actually being said. Effective Fiat News chooses cloaking facts and cloaking words that exist within a feeling-heavy context. Ineffective Fiat News doesn’t.

Why was this photograph chosen to represent the G-7 meetings last year when hundreds of other photos, some of which showed light-hearted moments between Merkel and Trump, could have been chosen? Because it makes us FEEL. Moreover, it makes us feel negatively towards Trump, sitting there like a petulant child. It’s not a lie. It’s not a fake. It’s not “doctored”. But it definitely has an opinion.

Fiat News is not Fake News. It’s not a lie, per se. It’s a clever choice of a fact or a word to imbue the statement with feeling, not the construction of a counterfeit fact. It’s not even (necessarily) misleading, in and of itself. But the act of choosing is an act of intentional subterfuge.

In fact, the phrase “Fake News” is itself an example of what I’m talking about. It’s the Donald’s intentional choice of a word – “fake” – to cloak his opinion. Instead of saying, “I don’t think this press coverage I’m getting treats me fairly” (which is what he used to say) or instead of calling it “Unfair News” (which is still kinda gray in its feeling context), he makes the much more evocative statement that the press coverage is fake like a counterfeit coin or a forged painting. Fairness elicits medium strong feelings from lots of people. Fakeness elicits very strong feelings from everyone.

Like so many things in the Epsilon Theory world, once you start looking for the selective choice of facts and words to create a feeling-heavy context, you will see it everywhere. Because Fiat News is everywhere. Because all Missionaries think that they’re more clever than we are, that we won’t see through their act of subterfuge. Because they’re probably right.

I’ll close this note with another wonderful quote from Maya Angelou.

Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.

If someone won’t tell you their opinion directly … if they feel the need to cloak their opinion in a carefully chosen context of affect-laden words or facts … they are treating you instrumentally, as an object to an end. You are an option to them, not a human being that matters in your own right. You are a sale. You are a vote.

The Missionaries will probably get away with their intentional choice of words and facts to make us feel the way they want us to feel, in service to their own political or economic goals. They’re VERY clever coyotes, and our social animal brains are hard-wired to respond to much of this. We’re going to have to accept this as part of our larger social world.

But we don’t have to accept it as part of our pack.


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Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

Ben, two thoughts on another outstanding In Brief piece. One, does Ben Shapiro credit the source of his quote to the famous quote from John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence[?]” Which, just my guess, is probably a riff on an ancient Chinese proverb as they seemed to be putting those out even… Read more »

Michael
Member

Mark – you can use html tags to do this (see this for bold https://boldlentil.wordpress.com/2008/06/26/how-to-comment-in-bold/) and italics is emphasize. I tested it in my comments below. So to bold you would place < b > in front of and < /b > behind the text. Use em for italics. Some recommend strong not b for bold. This site is WordPress so there is probably a plugin that puts a little format bar in the comment… Read more »

Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

Michael, thank you, Mark

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Peter Perez
Member
Peter Perez

Ben- Love your line, “but people will never forget if you made them money in their personal account” which should be stated as: “never forget if you didn’t beat/match the index in the most recent few years…even though you’ve given them 80% (including the past few crummy years) of the S&P’s return with half the risk/volatility since Q1 2000”. I feel like that caged bird! To your point…Bogel et al’s assertion re indexation will be… Read more »

Thomas
Member
Thomas

I assumed Maya Angelou’s best known quote was, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Ben Shapiro showed us who he is way back in 2005, “Americans must realize that empire isn’t a choice: It’s a duty.” Too bad that concept doesn’t seem to have much salience within the context of an integrated world economy. No empire would seem to have much long term staying power in a system that… Read more »

Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

“Our appetite to allow perception and feelings to govern our lives in this part of the world really does feel like something exceptional” My father was a man forged as a boy in The Depression who lived by the ethics of hard work, integrity, honor, commitment, “your word is your bond ” (Ben, he always went to the funeral) and compassion, empathy and kindness. That order wasn’t a mistake as my father didn’t diminish those… Read more »

Andrew Meyer
Member
Andrew Meyer

Thank you for incisive writing that makes me think. I wonder, what role does the audience play in this? There is an abundance of news: fiat or otherwise. If the audience selects, amplifies and rewards what it values, it is not blameless. Beyond choosing not to be a rhinoceros, surely there are other levels of responsibility.

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Michael
Member

It helps I think to point to others in discussions, how they are being played. (You have to shine the light subtly through a question and not a criticism). No-one likes to be played which may shore up the flock’s defenses. But when everyone is so polarised and “enraged” this is not easy to do. To add another Maya Angelou quote to the mix: “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

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Andrew Meyer
Member
Andrew Meyer

Thanks, that is a smart approach and meaningful warning.

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