I started to write this post after Jim posted Unknown unknowns over at Stonekettle Station, which was a post in response to the tempest in a teapot that represented the 24 hour news cycle reporting on the clinic standoff and shooting incident in Colorado Springs. I shelved it for various reasons at first, none of them really earth-shattering. Of course, a week later and we have the inexplicable mass shooting in San Bernardino, which instantly eclipsed the previous story.
I could easily spin this into an screed against the gun lobby and their paid cronies in Washington DC who won’t let the CDC even study gun violence in an effort to figure out how to address it, considering that we have had more than one mass shooting every day of this year (2015) which has to be some kind of record that no society on the face of this earth is really interested in breaking…
…but that isn’t the article I want to write. This isn’t going to be the article I started out writing, either. The issue is much bigger than the specific subject of what we know or don’t know about a specific person set on doing wrong, or having been caught doing wrong. It is even bigger than the problem that Jim was trying to address, the 24 hour news cycle, which I agree probably represents the greatest threat to human civilization in the modern age. The need to fill time, to produce facts and counterfactuals when no hard facts are known about the specifics of the incident in question, can lead to greater and greater flights of fancy.
I turn the TV off when that feeding frenzy starts. It is hard enough to separate the wheat from the chaff on good days. On bad days like the two events above bring, listening to the news just feeds confirmation bias until you end up looking and sounding like an idiot.
I will include the specific arguments for the Colorado Springs incident in this post, but the point that I’m seeing come into focus now that the shooter has appeared in court and indicted himself is the argument about what we know vs. what we believe. How we can know what we think we know, and how is that different than belief?
That is the reason why the 24 hour news cycle is such a threat. Being not much more than the talking heads that sold soap in the early days of television, the current crop of news faces appear to have even less familiarity with what facts are and why fact-checking is important. They are, after all, just selling soap. Keeping the most number of eyes on the screen is how they sell soap and so the factual content of what they say isn’t the important part of the equation. That they tell you things that reinforce your beliefs on a subject so that you will keep watching, is.
Most of the white-looking people in the US trust the police intrinsically, for example. Most of us older types were raised on police dramas portraying the cops as the good guys who enforce the laws and keep the peace. It is very uncomfortable for most of us to be confronted with stories if entire police departments covering up the details of killings done at their hands. And yet, time after time over the last few years, we have been shown just how human police departments are everywhere in the US. Be it Chicago, Baltimore or Saint Louis, just about anywhere USA, there are examples of police who brazenly violate laws and procedures who are then protected by their brothers in uniform.
This really isn’t news. If you’ve been paying attention you would have run across stories by people like Radley Balko who have been documenting police excess for several decades now. The police are humans, they make mistakes just like the rest of us. If you were in their place you would act no differently than they would, because that is what humans do. But that doesn’t excuse the excess, it is a point of data that needs to be accounted for when deciding what you know or don’t know about any given subject.
For the black or brown people who are almost always the bad guys in police dramas, the revelation that cops are only human really isn’t news either. They’ve lived with the reality of constant police scrutiny for generations. So much so that stories abound of fathers and mothers cautioning their children not to become police statistics. So it is no wonder that the chant black lives matter resounds with them. The counter offered by clueless whites that all lives matter is heard by these same people as just another call for them to sit down and be quiet. How is this possible? How can realities and beliefs about these realities be so widely separated?
When it comes right down to it, what you know with certainty is a very small number of things. Whether it is night or day. Whether it is cold or hot. You know these things because you can test them directly with your senses. Solipsists will argue that you can’t even know those things because we are all just brains in jars at best, but I’d like us all to pretend that the shadows on the cave walls actually represent something real, and try to make sense of that. If that much can’t be granted, then there is little point in continuing to read this. Even less in my continuing to write.
Beyond what you can test yourself (fire burns) there are grades of factual knowledge which you can probably safely rely on. At each point where the facts exchange hands, the ownership of that data has to be documented to be trusted. This is why, when doing research, it is important to seek out source material and not just rely on wikipedia. The more obscure the subject matter the less reliable secondary sources are.
When watching the news on television or reading news stories on any other site than AP, Reuters or UPI you are already dealing with information that has been through at least three hands if not dozens. When you’ve gone beyond the point where the witness is being interviewed in person, you are dealing with evidence that wouldn’t be accepted in court. That doesn’t mean it is without value, it just means the news you are being offered could be just this side of fantasy.
It might even be pure fantasy. Case in point, the FOX/conservative/anti-abortion counter-narrative about the Colorado Springs shooter. When I logged on Blogger that night, the first thing I saw wasn’t the Stonekettle Station article. The first article that caught my eye was a piece over at Friendly Atheist in which Ted Cruz voices the notion that the shooter was some kind of leftist. No, I could not make something that stupid up myself.
Cruz is basing that characterization on a supposed voter registration form in which Dear was listed as a woman. Whether it’s a mistake, or Dear was just messing around, or simply not the right form, we don’t know, but no other evidence indicates that he was transgender.
There’s even less evidence that he was a “leftist.”
The problem that I had with Jim’s Unknown unknowns piece now surfaces. Jim mentions this story in opposition to the reports (which he attributes to Planned Parenthood) that the shooter was heard to say “no more baby parts” as he was being arrested. But the contrast between the veracity of these two stories is as marked as they are in opposition to each other.
The statement no more baby parts was repeated by an officer to a reporter directly on the scene, a reporter who dutifully passed the comment on to their viewing audience. While that is hearsay and not evidence admissible in court; the officer, if he were to appear in court, could repeat the statement and it would be admissible. It would also be accepted by an overwhelming number of juries who trust police officers to be truthful (see above) even in the face of so much evidence that police will lie to protect their own.
Since this case isn’t about one of their own, and since the police showed remarkable restraint in bringing a cop killer in alive, I was inclined to believe the statement of the arresting officer. That the shooter (not alleged, he plead guilty) repeated a version of the same statement at his hearing just confirms the motivation that lead him to commit the crimes he is guilty of.
On the other hand, the preferred story of conservatives/anti-abortionists is based on what? Essentially no evidence whatsoever, more wishful thinking than anything else. And yet it is repeated by a Republican Presidential candidate as if it was the unquestionable truth.
That is the nature of belief. It doesn’t require facts. Facts are counterproductive because they can be questioned. If facts are presented that counter a belief, it only takes the briefest scrutiny to discover or manufacture an anomaly which the believer will use to discard the entirety of the factual information presented. Ted Cruz wants to believe that the shooter couldn’t be one of his fellow anti-abortionists. Ted Cruz believes that leftists are dangerous people, and that LGBT people are a threat to his way of life. The story he repeats is ready-made to fit into his preconceived view of the world, and it matters not one bit that the story makes no sense on its face. That the average liberal and LGBT person would be in support of Planned Parenthood and consequently wouldn’t see a need to attack one of their clinics never enters into the mind of a conservative repeating this laughable story.
Given the history of attacks on Planned Parenthood, and the current cloud of controversy artificially created by anti-abortion activists faking videos that purport to show Planned Parenthood selling body parts, the story of a shooter in a clinic almost serves itself up ready-made as a vehicle to attack the religious right and conservatives in general. Of course they would want to craft a counter-narrative (however flimsy) to give themselves an out, a way to disavow accountability for their actions over the last twenty years and more.
A conservative could easily counter all of the above (most probably will) with the adult equivalent of I know you are but what am I? Since about the time that Reagan was elected, conservatives started to complain about the liberal media. Even I, for a time, fell for this notion that the media was somehow biased in general against conservatives. As the years have progressed, and conservatives have created their own outlets like FOX news, conservapedia, and uncounted news sites including the whacko fringe like prisonplanet and infowars, it has become clear that conservatives aren’t satisfied with simply presenting news from their point of view. No, what they want is their own set of facts which are unassailable. Unassailable because they aren’t based on anything real.
Another example is the softer, nicer language of pro-life and pro-choice adopted by the two sides of the endless argument over abortion. Having softened the language, pollsters can get majorities of citizens in the US to say they are pro-life. Who would be against life? I’m pro-life, I’m also pro-choice; militantly pro-choice. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans still believe that abortion should be legal gets lost in the conservative rush to declare the opposite, that the majority of Americans oppose abortion. This conservative view on the matter simply isn’t true as polling shows.
What has occurred since the creation of FOX news is the division of the US into two camps; one of those camps thinks they are right, and the rest of us are liberal. In their attempt to prove that the rest of the media is based on a liberal conspiracy, conservatives have consciously created a conspiracy of their own. A conspiracy where they tell lies which they know are lies, because the ends justify the means.
When you evade the truth, when you spin tales to hide your true goals, what you get are people who believe your lies so firmly that they will act on them as if they were truths. You get what transpired in Colorado Springs yesterday, to the embarrassment of every single person who identifies as pro-life. Remember that the next time you hear the phrase liberal media.