Ellis Parker Butler (1869 – 1937) was a successful and incredibly prolific American author who was popular around the turn of the twentieth century. His friends included more famous writers Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sax Rohmer. No one is sure exactly how many works he produced, but the number is more than 30 novels and thousands of stories and essays.
His most famous work was a 1905 short story entitled, “Pigs Is Pigs.” In its understanding of human behavior and human folly, the story was incredibly prescient, more relevant now than it ever was.
The story concerns a customer, Mr. Morehouse, who has ordered two guinea pigs and has gone down to the train station to pick them up. The railway agent, Mike Flannery, tells Morehouse that the shipment rate for the guinea pigs is 30 cents, the livestock rate. Morehouse informs Flannery that the guinea pigs are pets and therefore subject to the pet rate, 25 cents.
Flannery rejects the explanation saying, “pigs is pigs,” no matter where they are from. Flannery believes that ‘guinea’ denotes a national origin for the pigs, not a different species.
The two men argue. Morehouse stomps out without paying, vowing to right the injustice of Flannery’s actions. Flannery puts the guinea pigs in the storage room at the back of the small train station office.
What ensues is a comic roundelay of bureaucratic nonsense and incompetence. Morehouse writes to the company, the president of the line, the tariff office, and his congressman. At each turn, no one is willing to make a judgment. The press picks up the story. Morehouse becomes a righteous figure fighting against monumental ignorance.
Meanwhile, the guinea pigs are breeding. In a few months, there are more than four thousand of them, and Flannery has no room to move. Finally, as Morehouse continues to press his case, Flannery starts sending the guinea pigs to a company warehouse. He is left with the original two pair. He vows to never charge the livestock rate again, for any animal.
What we have here is an analogy of the danger of looking in the wrong place. It’s an ode to the dangers of being distracted.
We live in a world of purposeful misdirection that is distracting us from the real news.
The characteristics of our modern misdirection are surprisingly common. In most cases a politician or public leader makes an outrageous, even nonsensical statement. Instead of being dismissed, the statement is amplified through social media, in many cases by bots which draw many responses.
What we, the audience need to understand is the outrageous statement is meaningless, it’s only purpose is to distract. We saw this played out in August when the president called four congresswomen anti-American, and said they should go back to where they came from.
If we look at this statement, it’s clearly nonsense. But it was not dismissed. Instead, it created a media and social media firestorm. The statement was met with righteous indignation and, over one weekend, if you followed any kind of media, you couldn’t get away from it. It was the main story on all major news outlets.
While we were distracted, on the same weekend, the Endangered Species Act, which is supported by nearly 90% of U.S. citizens, was gutted. And important wildlife preserves were opened to drilling and mining. These stories, regarding the secret dismantling of important environmental protections, were buried in the media. While we were fighting for a retraction, real problems were breeding in the back of a train station.
We all fell for the old okie doke. And it’s happening nearly every day.
So what should we do?
We live in an era of unprecedented access to information. Suddenly, the quest for truth lies not with those we once held as truthful, but, instead, within ourselves.
Start by not accepting anything as true until you have researched it. Do your due diligence on all issues, try, hard as it may be, to find a sense of truth in what you read, hear and say. Trust your knowledge. If something sounds a little too ridiculous, if it’s met with almost righteous fury, understand the situation and find out what is happening behind the news.
Now, more than ever, we have to read, investigate and unleash our inner skepticism. Truth, it turns out, isn’t dead. We’ve just been looking for it in the wrong place.