Oregon, ii, and cue balls

Impartiality is difficult. Maybe impossible.

If you’re late to the party, there’s a whole bunch of guys huddled up in an empty federal building in an Oregon nature preserve, in protest of both federal land management policies and the possibly unjust imprisonment of two ranchers, both currently finishing five-year sentences for arson.

I’m skipping the background details, for two reasons: one, there are dozens of others who tell the story better; and two, my focus here isn’t the story itself, but the different ways others are telling it. Me telling the story gives the impression that I have the definitive version of events. I do not, save for the rambly sentence a paragraph above.

Summing up the story in one sentence isn’t even impressive anymore – if you can’t tell the story with a meme, quip, and a picture, you’re probably not going to get anyone’s attention. And most of the memes I’ve seen can’t possibly exist together. The Oregon standoff apparently validates both traditional racism and anti-white racism in America simultaneously, given that the government has yet to destroy the militia (which it would have done, had the members been black or Arab) and that the mainstream media has called the standoff an act of terrorism (which it would not have done had the militia been black or Arab).

Memes, I suppose, aren’t the best way to tell this story. But that’s not, I think, because they oversimplify. Almost any telling of a story oversimplifies, and almost always with the aim of making the point and narrative of the story smoother. It doesn’t help that human brains naturally accept smoother stories. We remember them better, tell them better, and internalize them better. Our minds are made for this – we see patterns, sometimes even when they don’t exist, or half-exist. It’s a way to deal with the otherwise overwhelming and gargantuan flood of messy data and facts that usually makes up real life.

To wit, “patriots finally stand up to big government” is easier to accept than “lengthy and emotional legal battle between rancher family and branch of federal government ends in victory for the feds, prompting a half-enthusiastically received act of defiance from self-described patriots that may or may not be treason, true patriotism, or misguidance” – which, if we’re being honest, is still too simple. If you’re liberal, simply reverse the condemnation, and the point is still made. The thing here, though, is this – it’s not liberal stupidity or conservative ignorance that makes us simplify stories: it’s that we’re human. This is what our minds do, naturally, all the time, and from birth. It is, quite literally, one of the traits that make us, as a species, so damn smart.

(That’s worth noting – we simplify because we’re intelligent, not stupid. Remember that the next time you feel contempt for the other side.)

Simplification, though, isn’t the problem by itself. We make things complicated, too, when it suits our purpose. Which, finally, brings me to one of the articles I read on the background of the Oregon standoff. It’s from The Conservative Treehouse. The article is worth reading, but even if you don’t, a couple of observations are worth a list.

  • The article brands itself the ‘full story’ of the happenings in Oregon. Dozens of articles claim the very same – “what the left gets wrong;” “I’m a rancher – what you need to know about Oregon;” and so forth.
  • The piece is incredibly detailed, and tells a far fuller story than any liberal meme could ever hope to do.
  • The piece, from the headline, is meant to defend the Bundy militia, but primarily defends the incarcerated Hammonds.

Several worthwhile lessons can be gleaned from these points. The first is easy enough – we’re all under the impression that our opinions are formed through facts alone, and that minds can be changed if only they acquire the correct facts. Our minds come to conclusions primarily through data analysis. Therefore, a bad opinion is just the result of bad or incomplete data. Which, I suppose, makes us justified in calling the other side a big group of morons. They have the right data, after all; they just refuse to process it.

This whole idea is false. Our brains aren’t data-centered; they’re pattern-centered. And patterns, to be seen clearly, often require the removal of data, rather than its accumulation. Which brings me round to my earlier point about simplification – simplification, in and of itself, isn’t our problem. Our problem is that we can, at will, either simplify or make complex almost any messy, hairy, and real situation presented to us. And we do both, whichever makes for a cleaner pattern.

Go back to our Traveling Salesman / pool table analogy. If I’m going to claim that my route between all the cue balls is the shortest, it’s just as convenient for me to add, as well as subtract, balls, so long as I end up with a smoother and shorter route. I can oversimplify, or make everything ridiculously complex. The problem isn’t either one in and of itself, but that I have control over the process in the first place.

We all do this, mind you. The easiest way to defeat a simple opposing political claim is to say, “no, sorry, reality is more complicated than fourth-grade logic allows,” and thereby mock my simpleton opponent. But it works the other way, too – “no, sorry, morality is simpler than that – this is the right thing to do. Discussing complications is cowardice, and anti-American.” Simple, complex; complex, simple. The first makes my opponent look like an idiot; the latter, a coward. That little bit of control gives me a great deal of power, and allows me to look either intelligent or strong, depending on what I need.

That, conveniently, leads me into the second point – “the piece is incredibly detailed, and tells a far fuller story than any liberal meme could ever hope to do.” This article has more information on the background of the Hammond-BLM conflict than any I’ve ever seen. It is also – I’ll get to it below – one of the more biased articles. That’s not odd; being well-informed and biased are not opposing mental states.

That, too, is worth noting, by itself – sometimes the most biased are the most informed. Often, in fact. Ignore them at your peril; trust them completely at your peril. But whatever you do, remove the idea that bias and ignorance go hand-in-hand. They do not. They exist separately, and are tied together only at the convenience of the person studying their human manifestation.

Also, it’s not uncommon for the most biased person in the room to have the drive to accumulate the most information regarding his or her side. These people are gold mines, and you should be friends with as many as possible. If nothing else, walk away from this essay with that, and that alone.

The third point – the article’s headline claims to defend the militia, but the article itself defends the Hammonds – both ties into the first point, and affirms what I keep saying, over and over: we think with our feelings.

The fact is this: whether or not the Hammonds were unjustly incarcerated has nothing to do with whether or not the Bundy standoff is just, or legal. The human brain, however, doesn’t care – we see patterns, and we tie things together, instinctively. To wit, though the two events are logically separate, they’re not emotionally separate. I’ll let you take a wild guess which one trumps the other.

The Conservative Treehouse article is well-researched, informed, logical, and simultaneously plays on our minds’ ability to feel sympathy with people we feel we get to know. Sympathy for the Hammonds is proxy sympathy for the militia. The article itself barely addresses the militia itself, but it’s hard to walk away from a reading without sympathy for the Bundys and their compatriots, holed up in an abandoned building.

It’s still a good piece – riveting, riddled with facts, thorough, and ultimately incredibly biased, and dependent on the alogical assumption that righteous Hammonds equal righteous Bundys.

I keep saying the piece is biased, an I’ll end with the evidence, which is itself a great example of thinking with feelings.

There’s another piece I’ve read, here, that summarizes some of the background of the Hammond-BLM fight. This piece, and the Treehouse piece, intersect at a few points, and their telling of those points differ drastically. I’ll highlight but one, by far the most interesting one:

From TCT:

(o) Federal attorneys, Frank Papagni, hunted down a witness who was not mentally capable to be credible.  Dusty Hammond (grandson and nephew) testified that Steven told him to start a fire. He was 13-years-old at the time, and 24-years-old when he testified (11 years later). At 24 Dusty had been suffering with mental problems for many years. He had estranged his family including his mother. Judge Hogan noted that Dusty’s memories as a 13-year-old boy were not clear or credible.  However, Judge Hogan allowed the prosecution to continually use Dusty’s testimony. When speaking to the Hammonds about this testimony, they understood Dusty was manipulated and expressed nothing but love for their troubled grandson.

From Oregon News:

Meanwhile, the long federal case has cast light on a lesser-known conflict between the authorities and the Hammonds.

A key witness for the government’s arson case was a family member. OregonLive is not naming him because some material presented in court, concerning his experiences with the Hammonds, was gathered while he was a minor.

The young man testified…that Steve Hammond gave him a box of matches and told him to “light up the whole country on fire.” He testified that his relatives told him later that day to keep quiet about what happened.

In October, prosecutors told a judge…[that] the government’s witness told federal agents “he feared when Steven Hammond learned he had talked to police, that Steven would come to his front door and kill him.”

According to police reports, the boy previously had accused Steve Hammond of physical abuse when he was 16 and living with Dwight and Susan Hammond.

He said the Hammonds disapproved that he’d used a paperclip to carve two initials in his chest, according to a Harney County sheriff’s deputy who interviewed the boy. “Steve used a very coarse sand paper to sand off the initials,” the deputy’s report said. The teen said Dwight Hammond left the room but that Susan Hammond stayed, telling him to clean up afterward and “not to have a pity party.”

Steve Hammond was charged with criminal mistreatment, but a diversion agreement got the charge dismissed. He had to take anger management classes, perform 40 hours of community service, and stay away from his nephew.

Dwight Hammond explained it was “decided by the family” to sand off the initials, the investigating deputy wrote. None of the Hammonds would say who did the sanding, the investigator’s report said.

Steve Hammond did make one thing clear during their three-hour interview, telling the deputy “he did not agree with the government getting involved in family matters.”

In one telling of the story, the Hammonds were convicted by the unreliable testimony of a mentally troubled youngster. In the other telling, that youngster was physically abused, and was afraid to tell the true version of events until recently. It’s quite a contrast – a caring, understanding family vs. an abusive one. TCT omits this information; including it would, obviously, severely damage the narrative.

Now, it’s pretty easy to demonstrate a bias here – I have two alternate stories, one that condemns the Hammonds, and one that exonerates them. If I simply pick which one suits me, without further evidence, it’s my feelings choosing. And that, mind you, is only if the two versions are otherwise equal. If the story of abuse does indeed have police reports behind it, it’s superior to the TCT version, which, though possible, has no documentation.

Simple enough, I suppose. TCT has bias.

Still, though, something should bother you about what I just did. I claimed that TCT “omits” the relevant information. How did I know that? “Omit” implies they knew, and left it out; they could just as easily have never come across that information. I filled in a blank with an assumption, one I couldn’t possibly have the information to verify. After all, I have no idea what the editors were thinking, nor will I, ever.

Take it further – I’ve divided the possible opinions about the Hammonds into two opposing camps, based solely on this one episode with their nephew. And I’ve done this after reading only two articles, both of which may have come to me through a selection process as arbitrary as a Facebook feed. I may not have all the information necessary to come to a conclusion. I may not be even close. But I’ve found a pattern already, and – wonder of wonders – it confirms the idea that the conservatives are wrong about this one.

Maybe I’m a smart liberal. Maybe, though, I’m just moving cue balls around at will.

I told you this was hard.

Oregon, and Starting Over

Impartiality is hard. Maybe impossible.

One of my favorite ways to describe the difficulties of objectivity is the Traveling Salesman Problem. It’s a straightforward question – a salesman has to travel through a specific number of cities and return home. What is the shortest route through all the cities that allows him to both return home and traverse through each city only once?

Picture a pool table, mid-game. Each ball is a city, and they’re scattered at random points. You need the shortest possible distance, a distance that goes through each ball only once, and that also returns to your original ball. Intuitively, it’s easy to come up with a good answer – several good answers, in fact. Coming up with the best answer, though, is nearly impossible through intuitive means. You can’t simply try each route and measure them all – with every ball on the table, the total number of possible routes increases far more quickly than your ability to count and tally. You need a method that guarantees finding the absolute shortest route.

If that seems impossible, don’t feel bad – mathematicians and computer scientists have been working on better and better solutions for over two centuries, when the problem first appeared. Making the best choice, it seems, is infinitely more difficult than simply making a good one.

_______

We think with our feelings. I keep saying that, and I feel I’ve rambled far more than explained. So let’s consider the Traveling Salesman Problem, but with a few additional tweaks. One – let’s make it a contest. Whoever comes up with the shortest route wins. Two, participants can add or subtract cities at will. That last rule completely destroys the game, mind you – unless all the cities are in a straight line, or a grid, or a repeating and constant pattern, adding or subtracting a city will always give you the edge, whenever you need it. It’s cheating, built into the rules.

This, though, is how we argue. Or at least how we argue complex topics. No one bothers to argue 3+3=6 – we have a method for finding that, and we all agree on it. It’s a simple question. Try making the question more complex, though, and giving people the ability to change the rules, and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of people yelling at each other about the best way to traverse a pool table with a lot of spare and moving balls. The yelling is inevitable, and it’s easily explained – at some point, everyone participating stopped looking for the shortest route, and started trying to win. They started off looking for a short route, and ended up adding or subtracting a city to undercut an opponent. For a time, finding the truth and winning were the same. But only for a time.

If we argue long enough, we end up arguing to win. And not, mind you, simply to find the truth. The two aren’t incompatible, but they do have one key difference – if I’m arguing to find the truth, I may eventually believe my opponent has found the shortest route. If I’m arguing to win, I might just change the rules to make my route the shortest. In the end, I won’t pick cities to find the shortest route at all. I already believe my route is the shortest. I pick and remove cities based on the belief that I’m already right.

We argue, in the end, to win. And we win, most of the time, by legitimate cheating – taking our intuition, and making it fact. In our defense, too, we do it because, lord, it’s so easy – it’s wired into us, and for good reason. We’re born into a complex world, with so much information thrown us at every moment, long before we can decipher it all. We need to filter out the important stuff, and intuition is very good for that. It can find short routes. If we couldn’t move on unless we’d found the absolute shortest route available, we’d never move beyond the Salesman Problem at all. If, as babies, we couldn’t speak unless we knew for certain what a word meant, we’d never speak. We can function as adult humans in this world because we’re able to take a good guess from a pile of good guesses, and run with it. It’s a strength, one responsible for all of civilization. We shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

But, where debate is concerned, we should probably stop doing it.

I could talk about this all day, but, eventually, a concrete example is needed. So, let’s talk Oregon, militias, and mandatory minimum sentences.

Cheers.

Aborting the Syrians, part ii (part 1)

A few days ago, I took to Facebook to express my disgust for governor Abbot’s refusal to admit any Syrian refugees into Texas. The reaction I got was, to put it mildly, jarringly unexpected.

I’d quoted a Bible verse, Exodus 22:21 – “You shall neither wrong a stranger, nor oppress him: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I’d expected that most of my friends and family would approve – I’d seen, after all, a long series of posts quoting Bible verses and theologians when other issues were trending on Facebook. Gay marriage got verses, as did abortion. Surely refugees would. The Bible says, after all.

I was wrong. Almost no one agreed, and of those in disagreement, the majority were the same that stood by the Bible on the previous issues. Among the rebukes and rebuttals was one, in particular, that illustrates a rule I’m going to make today: the Complicated Rule.

So, let’s begin. If you’re one of the two people who read this blog, you know my central thesis: we think with our feelings. If you’re joining me, let me sum up – our emotions hold a far greater power over our conclusions and logical thought that we can readily imagine, and only a study of how our emotions do this can lead to a better way to think about controversial issues. Which is what I’m trying to do here.

The sum up is, note, pretty boring. That’s why I stick to “we think with our feelings.” Something about that one feels edgier.

We think with our feelings, and my back-and-forth on the refugee debate is a prime example. Set the stage – I’ve posted one verse to express my disgust with governor Abbot’s opposition to resettling Syrian refugees. A friend of mine responded with disbelief, and included a word I absolutely hate – “complicated.” ‘It’s complicated,’ he said. I thought a number of things in response, but most of them can’t be summarized without seeming gratuitous curse words.

Mind you, before I go further, the debate, so far, wasn’t about whether or not the USG had a proper system in place for vetting Syrian refugees. It wasn’t about whether or not Syrian refugees should simply return to their homes and fight. It was focused on one issue, and one issue only – whether Americans, as Christians, had a moral obligation to admit refugees. I said yes, because it was simple – the Bible ordered it, and we must obey it. My friend said no, and answered with my most hated of statements – ‘it’s complicated.’

I hate ‘complicated.’ Not because I hate complication, but because it’s almost always false – it’s not complicated. That’s just what we say when we really, really don’t want to do something. Mind you, I would have said this, except for one meddling fact – the friend who rebuked my post was the only one, among all my friends and family, who had given his time and home to an actual refugee. Not volunteer hours, note, but his 24-7 care and shelter.

In short, the one person whose argument I despised the most was the one person who had done the most to help a living, breathing, person. A child of God. It’s difficult to tell that person that he just really, really doesn’t want to do something.

(Dammit.)

Part ii, 2 explains how I dealt with that jarring discrepancy.

Aborting the Syrians

Today, I want to ask a simple hypothetical.

Last I wrote – months, and months ago – I started discussing abortion, a topic I’ll frequent several more times. I, like most conservatives, call myself pro-life. And in the wake of recent debates, it seems fitting to as the following:

Suppose I have, as an elected official, the power to sign legislation that will completely outlaw abortion in all areas under my jurisdiction, and provide the same needy mothers with all the resources they need to safely raise their children.

Suppose, too, that there’s a lot of these unborn children – say, 10,000.

I’m excited about the prospect, but statistics and population samples tell me a few worrisome things. For one, the best evidence we have suggests that roughly 1% of these 10,000 children will grow up to be psychopaths. And while not all people with psycopathy end up being serial killers, the idea that 100 potential serial killers will be amidst the population makes me hesitate.

There’s a fair to decent chance that one of the young boys will, in adolescence, take a gun to an elementary school and end dozens of young lives.

Some will murder; some will rape; some will rob. I have no control over where they will end up, to whom they’ll be neighbors, or whom they’ll work for.

If I don’t sign, it’s possible that many of the children will live – young parents do change minds, after all. It is almost certain, however, that a good portion will perish.

Keeping the potential danger in mind, do I sign the legislation?

If I don’t, can I call myself pro-life?

———-

Ponder a while. I’ll compare answers in a future post.

Discussing Abortion

A friend recently apologized for having overpromised and underdelivered when it came to a lengthy response he had planned in a debate about early Christianity. He has kids, and, alas, a real job. I understood – I’d planned on writing a third and final piece on Stewart, the one, to be honest, to which I was building up. I’m skipping it. Life, and the daily minutiae in attending to it, is far more important. And where they’re interrupted, few things are worth writing about for any length of time.

This one is, though. I don’t like abortion, and I don’t fully understand why. This is the first of many posts that try to get to the bottom of it.

Mind you, “I don’t fully understand why” isn’t an odd position here – I’m agnostic, to tell the truth, and the lack of definite answers about a number of moral issues makes for a great many moments where my feelings and my thoughts don’t always align. Abortion is one of the big ones. In light of the dialogue, and screaming match, that has surfaced as a result of the Planned Parenthood sting videos put out by the Center for Medical Progress, there’s no shortage of people willing to answer questions, and no time like the present to ask.

I should flesh out the agnostic part first – I’ve been so since college, resting there since reluctantly renouncing, and then halfway unrenouncing, my Christianity. I’ve been told it’s a hip or popular choice for my generation, but there was nothing hip about it for me at the time. It was agony. I had doubts, and questions, and unanswered questions, and an urge to find answers that regularly spilled over into self-inflicted pain. Academic questions about the historicity of the Bible, or the morality of the God of the Old Testament, were occasions to despair for days, with an occasional break to cause myself a bruise, or bleeding. God gave me questions, and no answers; I loved him, and I hated him very much.

Some 20 years later, I’m inclined to believe that most of my searching and pleading with the Lord of the Universe was more a symptom of mild mental illness than a struggle with the Creator. That, anyway, is how I was diagnosed, some 20 years later. At the time, however, my freedom from struggle was nothing more than a realization that, if I so chose, I didn’t have to figure out the answers to anything. “I don’t know” was acceptable. Hell, it was liberating. No struggle, no pleading, no begging for answers, but rest, and rest in something that afflicts us all – a complete and total lack of understanding about what God’s plans are. If he exists, and has them.

It sounds fatalistic, but, to be blunt about it, the day after was the most peaceful day I’ve ever had in my 33 years of existence. By a wide, wide margin. I imagine it’s what conversion feels like.

“I don’t know” is a wonderful thing to say, and particularly apt if you, like me, find that people think with their feelings. Knowing when and where you don’t actually know something is a huge boon to finding when people might be pulling a fast one. Morality, however, was tricky – not more or less tricky than it had been before, with Christianity, for reasons I’ll explain later, but tricky still – and I found myself deferring more and more to church authorities, be they Orthodox or Catholic priests, or the pope himself, or the broad consensus of pastors. Even agnostics, it seems, occasionally need to defer to authority.

To bring it round to the present – in light of the several Planned Parenthood videos released by the Center for Medical Progress, I’ve been re-evaluating my thoughts on abortion, thoughts which, until now, rested comfortably in “it’s wrong, but the way to fight it is not through legislation. Just fund the crap out of programs like Save the Storks.” I’m not sure anymore. To the question of both the morality of abortion and the means by which to fight it, my answer now, oddly enough, is “I don’t know.” I am decidedly less comfortable with this declaration of ignorance than I was with my first.

This, then, marks the first of a series of essays to understand what I think, or what I should think, with an eye to analytical methods that take into account one very pressing fact – we think with our feelings. I certainly do. So do you.

Please enjoy, as much as it might be possible, given the subject matter. And bear with me.

 

Jon Stewart and Inkblots, ii

Stewart is an inkblot test, and deserves to be classified with Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin.

I suppose that needs some explanation. Let’s take as a given my points in the previous post, that all the commentary surrounding Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show are best understood as hundreds of people saying “feel the way I do about Stewart” rather than “I have the truth about Jon Stewart.” Again, a small difference, but an important one. If I’m going to assume one of them is right, then right away I see a problem – opinions about Stewart are all over the map. Choosing any one opinion means making the potentially and fantastically arrogant assumption that everyone else is wrong.

Mind you, most of the commentators have no problem with that, but I do. If we think with our feelings, and we do, it’s likely we’ll find an explanation for controversial topics that is self-serving, and justifies the opinion we already have. If I’m a liberal who loves Jon Stewart, I’m much more prone to summarizing the plethora of opinions surrounding Stewart with a general “well, conservatives are idiots” than anything else. Now, technically speaking, that might be true – maybe Stewart is reviled by conservatives because, in fact, all conservatives are idiots. Perhaps Stalin’s communist utopia failed because, and only because, Russian party members simply didn’t have enough faith in the communist ideal. (Again, Gates, wherever applicable.) But the fact that the explanation might “possibly” be true is too often used as substitution for “likely true.” So long as we have an explanation, no matter how far-fetched it might be in reality, we’re in the clear. Or in our own clear.

Conservatives are idiots, then. For a liberal, it’s a great explanation, at once explaining all criticism of Stewart, while simultaneously exalting Democratic thought and policy. It’s the ideal summation, in fact – it allows me to write off not only Stewart complainants, but the entire system of thought from which they originate. Now, obviously, liberals aren’t the first, only, and last to use these sorts of explanations – even well-educated conservatives like Dennis Prager feel comfortable summarizing liberals as dangerous because, where government is concerned, they simply “crave power” – but the real issue isn’t which side or the other uses self-serving explanations more. The issue, for all of us, is that we hardly, if ever, notice it when we use it ourselves.

Per that point, I’ve a simple rule, the first in a long list of rules for properly thinking without our feelings: don’t use any explanation that is blatantly self-serving.

In this case, it means that, if I’m a liberal, I can’t explain conservative disgust towards Stewart with any variation of the idea “conservatives are idiots.” It means, if I’m a conservative, I can’t explain any love for Stewart as “liberals are stupid,” or any number of iterations of the theme.
Mind you, some of those explanation might very well be true for certain people. But I’m avoiding them, not because they are automatically false, but because I can’t possibly know if they’re true or false, and because, as either a liberal or conservative, I’m automatically prone to believing one or the other, simply because I want to. Simply, mind you, because I want to.

That leaves me with this: there’s a whole myriad of differing opinions on Stewart, and I’m not allowed to make heads or tails of the whole of them with any of my knee-jerk explanations – the ones that, namely, call everyone who disagrees with me a form of stupid. I need an explanation of Stewart that can account for all differing opinions, and that does not serve my own interests, to proceed.

Luckily, as it happens, I have one.

Before I continue, however, note exactly what I’m doing, because I think it’s rather important – I’m providing an explanation for the spectrum of reaction to Stewart, one that doesn’t automatically serve the interests of any one point of view. I can’t possibly prove that this explanation is the correct one, any more than the liberal can prove his explanation of “idiot conservatives,” or the conservative his explanation of “liberal stupidity.” My explanation, however, has one advantage – it still works if I assume we are all blind to our own ideological failings. Put better, my explanation still works without the assumption of my own infallibility. Or my own side’s infallibility. Which, I should stress, is great, because – as it happens – I’m wrong far too often for my own comfort. Or self-esteem.

Anyway – the conflict of opinion surrounding Stewart is easy to explain – Stewart is new. And we hate new. Or love new, for that matter. Mostly, however, we hate those who love whatever is new, or despise those who hate whatever is new. New people, in whatever field, get the short end of the stick – half the population is waiting for them to fail, and the other half is celebrating every miniscule milestone as such a success that it’s impossible to be judged fairly.

Consider, if you will, Rush Limbaugh. Rush inspires the same cascade of differing opinions as does Stewart, from adulation to outright hate. His every word is scrutinized and used, if possible, as the center of a new controversy. But as far as talk radio hosts go, Limbaugh is hardly the most offensive. His compatriots are often far worse. Consider fellow conservative talk radio host Bill Cunningham, and imagine if Limbaugh, instead of Cunningham, had said of Barack Obama, “his father was a typical black father who, right after the birth, left the baby. That’s what black fathers do. They simply leave.” Or if, instead of Mark Levin, he had said, “well I don’t know why your husband doesn’t put a gun to his temple. Get the hell out of here.” Or if, instead of Laura Ingraham, he had, on his show, ended a recorded speech of civil rights leader John Lewis with a sound far too similar to a gunshot, echoing the assassination of civil rights leaders throughout history. I think it’s safe to say – and keep in mind I’m no fan of Limbaugh – that Rush would be out and out crucified in the media. And yet Limbaugh has, for some reason, been subjected to far more intense scrutiny than his successors.

The reason is simple – Rush was the first. Limbaugh, love him or hate him, made AM talk radio what it is today. He was the example by which others began to form their own shows. At the time, nothing like Rush Limbaugh had been attempted before – several hours a day of exclusively conservative news commentary, with an eye to entertainment, tapped into a huge and practically virgin market. And the mainstream news sources of the day had little to combat it. The key element for controversy, though, was that Limbaugh wasn’t exactly classifiable – he was kind of a newscaster, but not exactly, and his medium of choice wasn’t traditionally used in the way he was using it. Everything about him was new. No one knew what to call him, or how to think of him. It is difficult to explain just how difficult this kind of situation is for people in general – for me, you, and everyone. Properly classifying things and people is a considerable comfort; people on the fringes of definition are almost always the centers of unusually intense controversy, and Limbaugh was no exception. Once his genre became well-defined, however, the controversy stops – today, when we think of “talk radio,” we assume it’s talk radio with a conservative bent. All the precedents Rush set are in place. His successors can get away with far more inflammatory statements, simply because that’s what’s expected of AM talk radio hosts, and, because the expectation is there, we aren’t as offended, or even paying as much attention, when the expected happens.

Pull this back to Stewart for a moment, and compare Jon to his successors. Any quick search of comments made by Trevor Noah or Larry Wilmore reveals a substantial gap, in both offensivity and public reaction – had Stewart proclaimed that “All Lives Matter” is offensive in and of itself, like Wilmore has, he would have been roasted on a spit in conservative media. Yet the outcry amongst conservatives for Wilmore’s comment is substantially less than it has been for Stewart’s tamer comments. We expect comments from comedian journalists to be more offensive to conservatives. It’s only when we do not that we can expect a controversy.

Stewart, and Limbaugh – and Palin, and Obama, and any number of people subjected to greater scrutiny because of their novelty – are inkblots. When we can’t define them according to a predetermined standard, our definitions become overly reliant on how we feel about whatever we’ve heard them say, or heard others say about them. This first impression is usually, and oddly, the defining moment in our judgment of them, and our standards thereafter are slaves to our first impressions. That first impression, however, isn’t really a proper summation of that person. It’s a summation of our own reaction to whatever we’ve decided that person stands for.

It’s a Rorschach Test. When we don’t have a framework for understanding someone, our emotions usually fill in the blank. If we like what they say, and do, we might end up adulating them. If we don’t, we might end up with an unusually strong level of contempt, one which is not carried over to the person’s often more offensive successors.

Stewart wasn’t a complete journalist, and, despite his many claims, wasn’t completely a comedian. He was both, and neither. And he probably would have gone without all the scrutiny had journalist/comedian been a classification Americans were used to. But, since it was new, Stewart’s journalist/comedian status was the routine cause of very different reactions among the Left and Right. Conservatives thought Stewart was cheating – his deference to liberal politicians and liberal issues could be dismissed with a simple claim, “I’m not a journalist,” that at once gave him the power of a journalist when he wanted, and the freedom of a comedian when he wanted. At any one point, Stewart could simultaneously claim that his opinions deserved journalistic merit, and also that he was exempt from criticism wherever he disavowed journalistic integrity. Conservatives were right – Stewart was cheating. But the cut goes both ways. If Jon Stewart were to be judged by strictly journalistic standards, critics would, in addition to his failings, be obliged to acknowledge the moments in which he demonstrated outstanding journalism – say, when he alerted Americans to flaws in the USG’s treatment of veterans’ health care, resulting in an almost overnight change, or when, with a similar focus, he alerted Americans to similar flaws for the healthcare of first responders to 9/11, resulting in a similar overnight change. It’s impossible to call the man a journalist without recognizing these achievements, and impossible to call him “just a comedian” without minimalizing them.

People want to have their cake and eat it, too. Stewart is no exception. When he gave a very soft, gloves-on interview with John Kerry during the 2004 presidential run, the common defense among both himself and his admirers was “Stewart’s just a comedian.” When his reporting exposed flaws in Fox News, or shortcomings in the USG’s approach to veterans’ health care, he was an intrepid journalist. For conservatives, where he criticized conservative news and politicians, he was simply a stupid comedian. Where he didn’t criticize liberal politicians, he was a failed journalist.

Either choice, however – comedian or journalist – left some moments to be praised, and some to be condemned. But Stewart was both, and neither. He was ambiguous, and ambiguity, more than anything else, is generally used to prop up our own preexisting opinions. And, mind you, all of us use it. The problem wasn’t that Stewart was terrible, or great; it was that people who already hated or loved him could use his ambiguity to justify their feelings, switching standards of judgment whenever it suited them. And him, frankly.

Now, consider, for a moment, that this explanation of Stewart predicts almost exactly what we get – a slew of wildly diverse and emotional reactions. It explains those reactions without claiming that one half, or the other half, are simply wrong, and it explains them without having to conduct an exhaustive study of Jon Stewart’s run at The Daily Show, which, as I pointed out in Part I, would be necessary for making the kind of conclusions people have been making about Stewart. In short, this explanation is neither self-serving, nor reliant on a thorough knowledge of an unwieldy and tedious body of data.

Why – why, indeed – would you want any other kind of explanation? I don’t have to watch each episode of The Daily Show, and I don’t have to assume I’m infallible. What’s not to like?

This explanation works for a number of controversial figures. Consider Barack Obama. Racism, and criticism of the nation’s first black president, were a prominent theme in media at the start of Obama’s inauguration. Obama was a first, after all. Now, I’m certain many people are quite racist, and opposed his election because of his color, but I can predict a great deal of the resistance to Obama’s presidency without assuming racism at all. Suppose the Left suspects the Right of being racist – the Right, in an attempt to prove they’re not racist, will double down on scrutiny of Obama’s presidency, finding anything out of the ordinary in an attempt to discredit a presidency without the use of race. The Left, in their suspicion of the Right, will consider all attempts to discredit Obama as racist attempts, even the ones that have a great deal of legitimacy. The entire debate surrounding Obama’s legacy will center on race, even if no one debating the question is actually racist. The Left will dismiss any and all criticism, no matter how valid. The Right will latch onto any reason, any at all, to discredit him. And, in the eight marvelously entertaining years of his presidency, we’ve had birthers coexisting with a stubborn refusal to recognize the rise of one of the greatest surveillance states in our history. Nonsense, alongside a serious issue, both either ignored or put forth as evidence of the other side’s blindness, depending on the side you pick. Nothing about that juxtaposition computes, but that it’s the expected reaction to someone new.

There you go. An accurate description of public response to Obama’s presidency, one that doesn’t assume one side is racist or blind (or, perhaps, that both sides are racist and blind) and that doesn’t require a day-by-day analysis of everything Obama has done in office since his inauguration.
As far as Stewart is concerned, I suspect the following happened – his new blend of comedic quasi-journalism inspired a great many followers, and detractors, based on the fact that he was both roasting uncomfortable topics and was himself indefinable. Any one person, liberal or conservative, could find a reason to both feel strongly about Stewart and even more strongly about those with differing opinions of him. If I can choose the standard by which to judge Stewart, I can certainly pronounce judgment on those that don’t use my standard. And I probably won’t notice that I’ve picked my standard, rather than having it previously hewn in stone.

I picked it – not liberals, not conservatives, but me. Because I think with my feelings.

(Update: an earlier version described the Obama dichotomy as “conservative birthers vs. a liberal refusal to see the rise of one of the greatest surveillance states in our history.” Thanks to a friend for pointing out that my wording implied that a disgust for surveillance states was strictly a liberal issue, which is hardly the case.)

Jon Stewart, and Inkblots, part I

Jon Stewart’s departure is a Rorschach Test. People see what they want to see.

I’ve been reading multiple commentaries on the departure of Stewart from The Daily Show, most of them at the far ends of a spectrum dominated by both adulation and vitriol. I’ve come to a few conclusions – most commentaries on Stewart’s tenure at The Daily Show are better understood as attempts to share an emotion (most commentators are thinking with their feelings), and Jon Stewart is best understood in a category of people that include Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin. I confess, of those two conclusions, I find the first one far more interesting than the second, but I imagine most will disagree.

Let me start at the beginning – it’s been a week since the end of Stewart’s run at The Daily Show, and given that he’s become something of a liberal icon, opinion of him is, at best, mixed. Angrily, worshipfully mixed. Now, I believe we think with our feelings – I say it a lot – and I think, using that as a starting point, we can say quite a lot of interesting things about Stewart’s admirers and detractors, and about Stewart himself – including his grouping with Limbaugh, et. al. Before I get to that, however, I have to defend my first statement – most commentaries on Stewart’s departure are best understood as attempts to share an emotion. Or, in other words, the commentators, like all of us, are thinking with our feelings.

What do I mean by that? Start with the commentaries themselves (I’ve posted a list of all the articles I read below). My first instinct – everyone’s first instinct, really – is to find an opinion with which I agree, and defend it. But that’s premature. Back up a bit – the question everyone is answering, if we really want to boil it down, is this: how should we think about Stewart, and his run at The Daily Show?

Whatever angle or opinion the articles take, that’s the basic question attempted. Obvious, so far. But my next step isn’t so much what I think the answer is, but how I think the answer should be found. Put another way, if I’m going to answer a question, it’s helpful to see if the question can be answered at all, and avoid getting bogged down in a pointless discussion, with no conceivable logical end. There’s no point in debating, say, what Stalin’s favorite color was – we can’t ask him, and there’s no other way to determine the answer. No matter how much I care about the answer, the debate is pointless. Besides, the answer is clearly red.

(I watched Enemy at the Gates last night. Expect Soviet analogies wherever applicable.)

Again, all this seems obvious – of course we shouldn’t debate about things we have no way of answering. But we all do, and we rarely see – never see – at the time whether or not we happen to be in one of those debates. We are, as a rule, tremendously bad at seeing that. It’s worthwhile to ask the question at the beginning, therefore, and where Stewart is concerned, before I even pick an opinion out of the myriad of offers, I should ask whether or not the question “what should we think about Jon Stewart?” has an answer at all. And it could, to be honest, if it’s asked in a more specific way. Replace “what should we think about Jon Stewart?” with “given Stewart’s 16-year run as host of The Daily Show, and given the multitude of news events he both covered and did not cover, should we consider his career an example of exemplary journalism or partisan hackery?”

(If, at this point, you want to protest and say that Stewart wasn’t a journalist per se, you’re getting ahead of me. Wait for a bit.)

Note a few things here – the question is hideously flawed. It divides opinion into only two possibilities, when the reality is, the truth is probably a mixture of both. It also leaves open a wide question about “news events” that did, or did not, deserve to be covered. That’s a whole new, and vicious, debate in itself. Why redefine the question at all, if the new question already dooms people to bad answers and skewed results? Because, I believe, this question has at least one advantage over “what should we think about Jon Stewart?” Namely, it lays out a series of steps to actually coming up with an answer.

Observe:

“Given Stewart’s 16-year run as host of The Daily Show, and given the multitude of news events he both covered and did not cover, should we consider his career an example of exemplary journalism or partisan hackery?” If I really want to answer the question, I have to survey his run as host of The Daily Show, provide a list of noteworthy news events during that period, cross reference it with events covered by Stewart at that time, and use the results to pick one of the two given conclusions.
Watch the shows, make a list, cross reference it, and count the results. Simple. But no one – and I mean no one, especially not me – is going to do that. Ever.

Keep in mind that this impossibly tedious and lengthy series of steps is to determine the answer to a question that is already flawed in multiple ways. If we improve the question, the series of steps to find one correct answer becomes even longer, and more tedious, and more impossible. None of us do it. What we do instead is make it up as we go along.

Here’s what we do, instead, illustrated with two articles in praise and condemnation of Stewart, respectively. There’s no need to read in detail; just look at the lists.

Business Insider, Stewart is great and changed the world

Free Beacon, Stewart is a Democratic propagandist

Of the two possible answers in our question, the first article leans towards exemplary journalism, and the latter, partisan hackery. But the underlying method here, in both articles, is this: pick out a selection of examples that back up a certain position, and then suggest that those samples are representative of the show as a whole. It’s cherry picking – which, again, isn’t always bad, provided you can get a view of the whole cherry tree, and see just how much of the tree is actually cherries. Neither article does that. No one does, in fact.

Let me dwell on that part for a second, because it illustrates very well both my first point and how we tend to think with our feelings. If I really wanted to determine how awesome or biased The Daily Show was, I’d have to, if nothing else, watch each show, and compare it to a list of prominent news events during the show’s run. A simple, but tedious, solution. No matter what else I did, I’d have to watch each show. Or read a transcript. Or a summary. But I’d have to familiarize myself with the whole cherry tree, and not simply the best cherries either side has to offer. Any opinion about the show “as a whole” has to be backed up with actual knowledge of the show as a whole. Period.

As I keep saying, we don’t do this. But we still have an opinion on the show as a whole, and we can’t. We should let that sink in – it’s impossible to have an opinion on the show as a whole without firsthand knowledge of all, or at least a great majority of, the shows, and the events the shows are about. None of us have done the groundwork; all of us have an opinion. Logically speaking, we should not.

This is how we think with our feelings – we fill in the blanks. Let’s say I hate The Daily Show. I have not seen a majority of episodes. I can make the assumption that my gap in knowledge supports my conclusion, that The Daily Show is terrible. But all I’m doing is projecting my assumptions on that gap, a blank canvas revealing not so much what The Daily Show was about, but what I really wanted it to be about. Mind you, this works the same way for liberals who love Stewart. If I’ve seen each episode, and love the show, I likely think that Stewart’s choice of news and targets are dead-on – he says things that must be said, and he tears apart people that deserve it. But I’m still making the giant assumption that Stewart hasn’t left anything out – no politicians that deserved tearing apart, but were instead left in peace, and no events that were simply met with silence. I’ve got a gap in knowledge. It’s filled with my certainty that nothing is there.

We think with our feelings when we fill in the blanks in our knowledge with what we really want to be there. We do it without knowing it – it’s automatic, and natural. It’s also very, very hard to notice, especially in ourselves. That is why I like to be very specific about what question I’m debating, and the steps to get to an answer, before jumping in – it makes those gaps easier to see.

Where Stewart’s commentators are concerned, I think it’s safe to say that none of them have done the proper groundwork to definitively answer the question “what should we think about Jon Stewart?” Their answers, both the adulating and vitriolic ones, are not definitive, logical conclusions, but feelings towards Stewart and The Daily Show that might have some basis in reality. It’s the difference between saying, “I have the truth,” and “I want you to feel the same way I am feeling.”

A small difference, really, but it makes all the difference.