Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shall Not Conflate Issues

Man suffers from a disease called conflation—a common affliction characterized by merging seemingly related facts to buttress an opinion, deflect attention, destroy an opponent, or perhaps do all three. Essentially, conflation is a self-serving tactic employed by the craftiest of men to peddle partial truths for the purpose of creating confusing, justifying a bias or concealing a blind spot
The Thinker
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Recently, I visited a phone repair shop where I was told it would take a week to fix my phone. But since I was going to be away for a while, I decided to keep it until my return.

Several weeks later, I dropped the phone off, returning a week later to discover it hadn’t been repaired because the warranty had expired. Annoyed, I asked why I hadn’t been notified earlier, and demanded they give me back the phone.

They agreed, but said I had to pay a service charge. Baffled, I asked what service they had provided besides depriving me of my phone. “It was a new policy,” they said, adding that any phone released, whether or not it’s been fixed, will be charged. Bear in mind there was no notice—written or oral—informing the public of their “new policy”. When I mentioned the deliberate omission, calling it an extortion racket, they didn’t object because it was the truth.

What I found most exasperating about the situation was this:  Had the attendant verified the warranty status of my phone before I left (which is their policy), I wouldn’t have given it to them. The excuse given for the oversight was that I had been in a hurry when I came, which wasn’t true. As an excuse to shift blame, my standing was illogically misconstrued as impatience, when all it really was was a choice between sitting and standing. I chose to stand. And even if I was impatient, should that override their modus operandi?

We argued some more, then the customer service representative who had attended to me on my first visit said: “But I called you to bring your phone. We were trying to help you.”
Sure, she had called me, but by then I had traveled. And what was this thing about trying to help me? Bemused, I asked what my absence had to do with the fact that they wanted me to pay for their mistake. Naturally, she offered no answer, only repeating her previous line. So I shut her up by telling her to stop conflating issues.

Needless to say, I got my phone back without paying a single kobo.

Conflating issues is the favorite pastime of Nigerian politicians. Case in point, when Senate president Bukola Saraki was charged with false asset declaration by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, he claimed it was a witch-hunt instigated by disgruntled party members. He also questioned why it had taken the Code of Conduct Bureau 12 years to verify his assets, saying their findings should have been reported during his 8-year tenure as governor of Kwara State.
Senate President Bukola Saraki
Photo: Facebook.com/Wikimedia Commons
While his arguments may be valid, they should be regarded as red herrings and desultory from the real question, which is whether or not he lied about his assets.

Another example of the use of conflation in politics was in the justification of the US-led invasion of Iraq. During the war, Western media outlets beamed images of American soldiers as liberators, handing sweets and toys to children, while depicting Saddam as a sadistic dictator who had to be deposed. Granted, Saddam’s regime was brutal, but lest we forget the invasion wasn’t about saving the guy whose ears had been hacked off by Saddam’s henchmen.

Saddam Statue being toppled following US invasion
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The invasion was about America getting its hand on Iraq’s oil. And after no WMDs were found in Iraq (which the US already knew didn’t exist), the official reason for the war changed from ending Saddam’s development of WMDs to freeing Iraqis from his dictatorship.

Notably, Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy has also been subjected to conflation, as detractors have sought to tarnish his image as a human rights activist by highlighting his weakness for women. But what they’ve failed to understand is that his life’s work and personal flaws are mutually exclusive events, being that one did not inform the other. Now, if criticisms centered on his role as a pastor—not a civil rights advocate—they would be valid since preachers are expected to exemplify certain religious tenets.

Sometimes, conflations are crude and easy to spot as typified by Kenya’s parliament during the vetting of one its central bank governor nominees. Rather than quiz the nominee, Patrick Njoroge, solely on his professional antecedents and plans to improve the economy, lawmakers questioned his marital status, as if a wife and kids were a requirement for the job. Clearly, it was an attempt to discredit him, or perhaps portray the 54-year-old as gay or a weirdo incapable of running the affairs of the central bank.

That said, many Kenyans saw through the mud, taking to social media to mock the line of questioning.

Human thinking when left unchecked and unchallenged can be detrimental on a national scale and on a personal level. There’s more harm done with sugared lies since they’re premised on facts that lend credence to them, which is why guarding against the sin of conflation is vital. A simple way of doing that is to apply critical thinking alongside a simple Venn diagram to verify factual data. That way, mutually exclusive events and chaff can be separated from the wheat of an argument, and information can be held up to intellectual standards in lieu of irrational sentiments or flawed logic.