Imagine for a minute that you are a public figure – a politician, an entertainer, an entrepreneur, or maybe just someone with a large social media following – and someone accuses you of being a purple elephant.
Now of course you think – this accusation is absurd! I’m not a purple elephant. I’m clearly a human being. But your accuser has a platform of their own. Maybe they’re a provocateur or yellow journalist. Maybe they’re just against your work and want to make you look bad. Or maybe they’ve even done good work in their own right, but feel threatened by your success, because they feel it might take attention away from them. Either way, they have followers, and the accusation spreads, because they continue to push it.
So you do the sensible thing, and go on TV or social media and say “I’m not a purple elephant.” (Obviously.)
When I say “I’m not a purple elephant” what do you think of? What image appears in your brain?
That’s right – a purple elephant.
So the moment you deny the accusation it spreads further. Newspapers run headlines “Public figure says he is not a purple elephant” with a picture of you (tinted purple) side-by-side with a picture of purple elephant with the same expression. Opposition media runs with it, doubling down on the accusation that you are a purple elephant. Even neutral newspapers report on the “controversy” around “whether or not” you are a purple elephant. They have to be fair of course. They don’t want to be seen taking sides on the purple elephant controversy, or worse, be seen as defending those purple elephant people.
Now people are looking for confirming evidence no matter how absurd, because that is how the human mind works. We seek to justify the opinion we already hold, not question our beliefs. A tape surfaces where you are taking a drink of water when a friend tells a joke. You laugh so hard, the water shoots our your nose, which makes everyone laugh even harder. In any other context, this would be endearing, even humanizing, but your enemies run with it in a different direction. “See? He shot water out his trunk! You know who shoots water out their trunk? Purple elephants, that’s who!” You protest that human can too, and they just shake their heads and laugh. “When was the last time you saw a HUMAN shoot water our their TRUNK?!”
You start offering contradictory evidence. “I’m clearly a human. I have two legs, and two arms.” “Elephants have four limbs too!” “I stand and walk upright.” “Sure – to hide the fact you’re an elephant.” “I’m talking and communicating!” But it’s no use. Every news article written about you from here on out will feel the need to mention that you were once accused of being a purple elephant in the interest of being “balanced.”
How To Fight A False Accusation
I have chosen the example of being accused of being a “purple elephant” because it is the most absurd accusation one could make, and reminds us of the classic trap “don’t think about purple elephants.” A purple elephant is a big image that sticks in your mind, but the analogy could work with any other “big image” accusation one could make about a public figure. You know the ones I’m talking about. So the question is – how do you fight a “big image” accusation if denying it only makes people think about it further?
The answer is with a bigger image.
Let’s say when the purple elephant accusation arises, you start aggressively talking about how you are a bird. “Behold my impressive wing-span!” you say stretching out your arms. “Join me and together we will soar into victory!” you tell your supporters. People start arriving to your events in bird costumes. When you make a good point, they start cheering with bird calls. Massive eagle statues flank you on-stage. When you walk out on stage, you release doves. You make sure all your promotional photographs show you with your arms outstretched, the wind in your face, and the sky behind you.
Your enemies become confused. “He is clearly not a bird!” (Obviously.) They point out the obvious evidence. You walk everywhere. You don’t fly. You don’t have a beak. Your feet don’t look anything like bird feet. But now your supporters are looking for confirming evidence no matter how absurd, because that is how the human mind works. We seek to justify the opinion we already hold, not question our beliefs. A video surfaces of you hang-gliding (probably planted by your publicist). “See!” your supporters say. “Do humans FLY?!” Your enemies protest that humans can fly if using a mechanical device, but your supporters just shake their heads, laugh, and spam bird memes.
Now, every article about you calls you a “bird” in quotes – they want to be neutral, but since everyone on your side calls you a bird they can’t not mention it – and most reporters will pull bird-like photos of you from your website. Even if you are not a bird, your organization has a constant stream of bird imagery, fans dressed as birds, bird calls at events, references to soaring and taking flight. You might not actually be a bird, but as far as the media is concerned you are.
The bird image might become so prolific that your enemies make mocking memes suggesting that you are a turkey or penguin, incapable of flight. In doing so they reinforce the idea that you are in fact a bird (even if a very fat one incapable of flight). Others accuses you of being a vulture, swooping down on the carcass of society. These aren’t great images, but they’re in the right direction. Now the debate is over what kind of bird you are, and we all know birds are not purple elephants.
Big Image Conflict
Modern media is a war of images, all of them false. Each side tries to create the most positive images for themselves and the worst images for their opposition. “Big image” accusations are more effective than reasoned arguments, and “big image” propaganda is more effective than the often dull human truth. You might think you are immune to such propaganda, but reading this did you ever imagine a man as a purple elephant or soaring bird? Does the association in your mind change your view of the person in question, even if you know they couldn’t actually be a purple elephant or soaring bird?