October 20, 2004

The Law of the Instrument

We've all heard them--the maxims of insight that help distill experience into simple "laws" for dealing with reality. The classic example is Murphy's Law. "If anything can go wrong, it will." And of course, there's O'Toole's Corollary to Murphy's Law. "Murphy was an optimist."

Then there's Abraham Kaplan's Law of the Instrument, often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain. "Give a small boy a hammer and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding." This is also often stated as "If you give a child a hammer, everything looks like a nail." And that leads me to Tully's Corollary to the Law of the Instrument.

"When you really want to drive a nail, everything starts to look like a hammer." It doesn't matter if it's a rock or a wrench, a board or a baguette, if you really want to drive that nail, you'll try it.

At no time is this more evident than during election season.

Candidate A and Candidate Z may be remarkably close in outlooks and philosophy, or they may be very far apart. Still, the odds are excellent that neither one of them is truly an extremist, rapist, killer, agent of the Zionist Conspiracy, or tool of Satan. In fact, they're probably both fairly decent people (apart from being politicians). But once the campaign gets underway, anything and everything that could possibly be construed as negative in any fashion whatsoever by any unreasonable stretch of the imagination will be inflated, conflated, twisted, demagogued, misrepresented, made up and/or lied about in order to either support one candidate or tear down another.

Political professionals call this "spin." Political scientists call it "propaganda." It's the single most negative aspect of politics, the thing that turns more people off and drives more insane accusations than any other factor. There are always those who hate the other side. The more intense the hate, the more likely that absolutely anything will be seized upon as a hammer to drive that nail into the opposition coffin.

So as the last two weeks of this election season play out, as the rhetoric escalates and the more rabid factions on both sides advance the most astounding and incredible claims of nasty, loathsome, despicable, repugnant, contemptible, abhorrent behavior and motivations against the opposition (regardless of which side you are on), it may be soothing to remember Tully's Corollary, and reflect that what you are really seeing is children, looking for a hammer.

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