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.

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