Sometime close to twenty years ago, I was in the market for a Chihuahua puppy. I visited a few pet stores and searched the classified ads in the newspaper (I did say this was early twenty years ago), and located some possibilities. At one pet store, I was shown a loving, mocha-colored short-haired dog that impressed me so much I even named him, “Latte,” for his coat color. The downside, which I mentioned to the owner of the pet store, was the price--$1,000. I wondered aloud whether or not such a dog could be obtained for a lower price (hoping the owner might make a substantial adjustment). The owner scoffed, and said, “These pets are certified purebreeds. We get them from legitimate breeders, not from some Arkansas puppy mill.”
This declaration caused my mind to wander off the present issue and to focus on what kind of sinister locus of animal cruelty and exploitation an “Arkansas puppy mill” could be. This was one of my first exposures to brain railing, a common technique for controlling the focus of a discussion. Brain railing introduces a compelling idea, embodied in a compelling phrase, that immediately becomes the center of the conversation. It puts your brain on rails that can move your thinking along in only one direction, the one that responds to the phrase.
Students of logic will recognize brain railing as somewhat related to red herring, where the discussion is led off topic by the introduction of a new subject that demands attention. Commonly, in the past, the red herring was an entire sentence or more:
“I think the shortage of electricity could be addressed by building more nuclear electric generating plants.”
“But nuclear power is dangerous.”
“Actually, it has a great safety record.”
“But what about Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”
Suddenly, the subject changes from the desirability of nuclear power to the use of nuclear weapons.
In the past, a red herring was often only an off-the-cuff statement intended to derail the argument and move it in a direction that benefited its introducer. Now, though, the brain rail is more often carefully constructed as a memorable short phrase that obtrudes itself into the entire communication dynamic, changing the subject and forcing the focus of the discussion onto the new topic, as framed by the brain rail.
Brain rails can become part of the linguistic structure of our culture, serving as automatic, knee-jerk thoughts. As an example, a few years ago I was watching a quiz show where the object was for the contestant to guess a word based on a verbal clue given by a teammate. Thus, the word “waste” is a clue for the word “basket,” because “waste” and “basket” form a common pairing, so common, in fact, that “wastebasket” is now a single word.
But imagine my surprise when on the show the clue given was “religious,” and the teammate’s immediate guess, without a second’s hesitation, was “fanatic.” Not “religious service,” not “religious worship,” not “religious experience, “ not “religious book,” not “religious monastery,” but “religious fanatic,” now functioning as one of our culture’s habitual, preprogrammed brain rails.
Current brain rails sometimes have built into them the implication that the subject has been debunked, refuted, or otherwise discredited, so that it can be safely ignored. There is often an element of ridicule built into the phrase. In her book, The Smear, journalist Sharyl Attkisson says that the term “conspiracy theory” was created to allow easy dismissal of any explanation of events that conflicts with the official version. Referring to an explanation as “just a conspiracy theory” seems to imply that only toothless hicks and leftover hippies still smoking nontobacco products believe it. Other examples are “nuts and sluts” from the Bill Clinton era, “pseudoscience,” and, of course, “fake news.”
Many brain rails are constructed to force the discussion down a certain track, while ignoring or preventing an alternative discussion. A common example is “hate speech,” attached to any statement that the accuser disagrees with. Rather than a possibly fruitful discussion about a controversial idea, what follows is an attack on the character and motives of the accused, who must defend himself. Argument over terms ensues and the original topic remains unexplored.
Other examples of brain rails include “war on the poor,” “war on women,” “white privilege,” and “fair share.” In all of these cases, a controlling concept has been introduced that demands discussion under its own, biased terms.
We should strive to avoid adopting automatic response, fixed boxes to which we compulsively turn for our terms of discussion and our understanding of controversy. Concepts expressed in a phrase or a slogan are often contained in such boxes, unable to incorporate objective reality or measurable data into their ideological mass. While it is unlikely, in my experience, to move the discussion on to something profitable when interacting with someone insisting on following a brain rail down the road and around the bend, it might be an enlightening act to ask the railer to define his terms.
John: “I oppose affirmative action.”
Jake: “You’re a racist.”
John: “What is your definition of a racist?”
This is a typical example of brain railing. Rather than engaging in a discussion of the pros and cons of affirmative action, the brain railer immediately changes the conversation away from an idea and onto a person. The subsequent discussion, if there is any, revolves around the guilt or innocence of one of the speakers, who feels attacked and defensive over the charge of racism.
Eventually, I bought two Chihuahua puppies, from a backyard breeder not far from my house. We just recently said goodbye to Bear after 18 years of joy and love. (His brother, Wolf, an equal source of joy and love, passed away four years earlier.) They weren’t pedigreed, certified purebreds, but one thing is for sure—they didn’t come from any Arkansas puppy mill.