As I wrote last time, an act of kindness is a good beginning for a bridge between ordinary private individuals. But that doesn’t mean we should relax vigilance regarding public figures and organizations.

In view of the new administration’s statements about the press and media, see, for example, “Trump’s War with the Media Raises Questions of Trust,” this seemed like a good time to brush off and update an article I posted in 2014, long before Mr. Trump even announced his candidacy:

Some say, “The best defense is a good offense.” Turning this around, what does it mean when a person goes on the offense by pointing the finger at others? He may be trying to divert attention from his own misbehavior or hidden agenda.

Hence, another common adage, “It takes one to know one.” The person who’s quick to spout accusations such as “He’s lying,” “She’s biased,” or “They’re running scared,” may well be untruthful, prejudiced, or frightened himself.

One factor that drives such accusations is that people assume others think and behave the way they do. Their own behavior (lying, prejudice or running scared) seems normal.

For example, if someone often lies his way out of trouble, then when someone else in trouble offers an explanation or excuse, he says she’s lying.

However, few people always tell the absolute truth. In fact, the inability to lie or “spin” the truth is one of the symptoms of autism. Conversely, even the most pathological liar occasionally makes a true statement.

So how do we process accusations? When should we beware of the accuser?

Here are some yellow caution lights:

  • The accuser is quick off the mark. He hears something he doesn’t like and immediately labels it a lie, rather than asking questions and trying to learn enough facts to make an intelligent judgment.
  • The person makes the same accusation of many people. He often accuses others of lying, or he seems to think everyone is biased, except him.
  • He has previously made similar statements that later proved untrue.

Now these signals can be amber caution lights, not necessarily red lights. Suppose Ducky Lucky tells Turkey Lurky, “Henny Penny said the sky is falling.” Turkey Lurky replies, “Henny Penny is always jumping to conclusions and exaggerating things. The sky is not falling.” The amber light is that Turkey Lurky quickly jumped to the conclusion that what Henny Penny said isn’t true.

In this case, I would advise Ducky Lucky to seek further information. For example, Ducky should go back to Henny and ask her why she concluded the sky is falling. Ducky can also ask Goosy Loosey whether she has noticed any indications that the sky is falling.

Should Ducky Lucky trust what Turkey Lurky tells her in the future? The answer lies, not in whether or not the sky is actually falling, but rather, in how Turkey Lurky came to that conclusion. Does Turkey often accuse others of exaggerating, jumping to conclusions, or saying things that aren’t true?

Actually, Turkey’s very behavior on the present occasion provides a partial answer. Turkey accused Henny of the very thing he himself was doing, jumping to conclusions. So Ducky should be on the lookout for instances of Turkey jumping to conclusions in the future. The more such instances she observes, the less Ducky should take Turkey at his word, and the more she should fact check his statements.

Enter Foxy Loxy. He’s not Ducky Lucky’s fellow barnyard resident. Rather, Foxy is an outside professional. It’s his job to influence birds to do things contrary to their best interests. Luring birds away from the safety of the barnyard is how Foxy puts meat on his table. So he educates himself in the art of luring, gets lots of practice, and is very good at it.

For example, Foxy will not simply shout, “The sky is falling. Run! Run!” He will also select facts to support his statement that the sky is falling. “Henny Penny has a lump on her head. She’s tottering around in a dazed state. A piece of the sky must have hit her.”

Foxy manufactures additional facts. He lures the poultry under a pecan tree in autumn. Every time a nut falls from the tree and hits one of the birds, he says, “There goes another piece of the sky falling.”

Foxy plays to the birds’ fears and offers help, “Follow me. I’ll lead you to the Royal Palace so you can report this emergency to the monarch ASAP.”

When you hear an accusation from a professional fox—such as a pundit, fundraiser or spin doctor, and especially when that fox often make the same accusation of his competition, always check facts.