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.

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