Columnist Susan Wozniak: Don’t listen to what ‘they’ say

Published: 1/23/2020 11:59:18 PM

Our greater situation has made me think about learning, decision-making, jumping to conclusions and denial. 1960 was a pivotal year in my life because the outside world had begun to affect me.

I was 13 and a precocious kid. In the spring, I read a blunt demonstration of how racist our language is. I saw racism as a problem.

In the fall, I listened from the next room as my parents viewed the Kennedy-Nixon debates. I remember the discussion of islands off mainland China, Quemoy and Matsu. Those few minutes helped to shape my attitude toward foreign policy.

I was learning, not just the tools I needed for further learning, but about real life. The moments were epiphanies. More were on their way. Public intellectuals were producing new methods of analysis that would be presented in my high school and college classes. People like Vance Packard and Marshall McLuhan, largely forgotten today, shaped discussions and syllabi for a decade.

Years later, I came to live in New Hampshire. While strolling through the nearest grocery to familiarize myself with it, I listened to an elderly couple discuss which brand of coffee to buy. It brought home what Packard and McLuhan and others had been saying. The woman said, “They say Folgers is good.” The man was silent. So was I. “They say ... ” Who are “they?” Often, I heard people of my parents’ generation refer to the mysterious “they” who share celebrity gossip, know the best brand of coffee or dramatically “let you in” on a short cut.

Of course, “they” in this case was the producer of the coffee, but the reason I remember this incident is because the company’s label said it was “Mountain Grown.” In their commercials, the company spokeswoman extolled mountain grown as “the richest, most aromatic kind.” Silly, because coffee is a high-altitude plant. If the couple bought the coffee, they were totally taken in. While the mountain grown statement isn’t a lie, it isn’t the truth either.

But what has this to do with the state of the world? We live in a world where decades of advertising altered not just what we regard as true, but how we accept it as true. The sad truth is the first information heard is, too often, what is believed, despite later speakers using history, science, mathematics and logic to overturn the original statement.

If a large conglomerate can sell coffee through falsehoods, then a party can sell a candidate who may not be qualified. The shoppers were probably younger than I am now, but I am not going to say that I don’t deserve to be told, “OK, Boomer.” After all, not all of us danced to the best bands, or marched for civil rights, or ran for precinct delegate in the hope of moving a member of Congress to take action against Vietnam.

And not all of us learned from our experiences. Now that I talked about learning and choosing, I want to turn to decisions. Some of the statements in answer to who-are-you-going-to-vote-for are disheartening. “Because X is so Midwestern” makes no sense. “Because Y can beat Z” simply can not be predicted.

The reasons for not voting for a particular candidate are worse. “I hated Q since I knew Q existed” has nothing to do with Q’s knowledge of foreign relations. What those voters are doing is shooting from the hip, deciding without thinking.

I’ve tried to avoid telling anyone who I support. I neither read nor participate in polls because I think they’re destructive to the democratic process. More than 60 years ago, Vance Packard felt the motivational research done by advertisers manipulates people, planting unrealistic hopes. And, no, he did not predict the internet, although he would not have been surprised by the rise of the bots, or by the theft of data.

I like social media because I use it as a digest. When someone posts an article from a blog or a newspaper that I might not have seen, I am happy to gain that information. But I don’t want to see the same people say A can definitely win. Aside from thoughtlessness, those statements may reflect fear. Fear that the speakers deny because they aren’t comfortable with a candidate who won their votes previously.

In the meantime, I’m still learning and researching. I know who I would like to win, but the convention is still months away. Coda: On that long ago day in the grocery store, I saw brands of mayonnaise not available in my home state. I bought the smallest bottle of each.

A native of Michigan, Susan Wozniak belongs to three alumni associations with at least one other woman named Susan Wozniak in each. She can be reached at

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