The Shape in the Fog

Fog_viaKevanI find, of late, that reading the news is like glimpsing some hulking form through the fog. I grow tense as my eyes trace the contours, what little of them I can make out. I cannot tell what the shape may be, nor if it is boulder or beast. Each time I begin to grasp its form, the fog rolls and settles, or a breeze remakes the outline. Perhaps it is not even one thing, but many. Is it a forest? I am not sure.

The fog, though readily seen, extends beyond any reckoning. Who can tell if the soup of opinion, condemnation, fear, pain, doubt, and anger in this place, obscuring my view, is the same as it is in any other place? Of necessity, the state of the fog elsewhere is unknown.

I, and we, strive for objectivity, for some kind of map of the view obscured, and thus for some better intuition about the shapes hiding behind the greyness. I see, and feel certain, that a kind of hate is growing in my country. Not a new kind, but an old kind that, for a time, we had denounced (with the tacit understanding that denunciation would not equate to elimination, and that we would not pursue the latter too closely). What is the shape of this hatred? I can’t say fully. It seems, on one hand, to be a bitter resentment of immigrants, and on another to be an unjustifiable claim of whiteness as superiority, and on another to be a comfortable disdain for black Americans, and on another to be an old package of prejudice whose yellowing edges and dusty patina have somehow rendered it more palatable to a few.

What I can tell, with some certainty, is that we have run two ideals against one another: we have said that you may believe what you wish, but you must act as society deems appropriate. And we have said also that as a society, we will accept a diversity of belief and be hesitant to judge. In so doing, in claiming both ideals and refusing to look at their opposition, we have outlawed the performance of racism, and let the actual practice settle comfortably into the fog. The practice confers privileges, and we are loathe to give that up.

Is it any surprise when the performance returns to mirror the practice? As a society, we claim economic and social justifications for the same vicious prejudice white supremacists embrace openly and, if I may say, more honestly. Is it any surprise when the whitest of our political parties and leaders embrace their whiteness as empowering, and insist their privilege is defensible? As a society, we have not taught our members otherwise. Instead, we have taught them that believing these things is acceptable, even if avowing them is not. We have taught them to practice racism without becoming, overtly, racists.

So the belief, which we have carefully tolerated, now spills back into performance. It spills into votes. It spills into self-justification, and violence, and hatred, and a shape reemerges in the fog.

The whitest of us wear their privilege itself as if it were defensible. They are used to being immune to the consequences of their actions and having those consequences fall on others. Is it any surprise when their condemnations of violence come in the same breath with blame for others? Our president says, when an avowed Nazi attacks and kills people whose only sin is to claim supposed American ideals, that the victims are the guilty. He invents a boogeyman, an “alt-left,” that is somehow more worthy of condemnation than white supremacists. Our parents and grandparents fought and died to stop Hitler’s Nazis. But Trump’s Nazis are white Americans, and white Americans do not see themselves. They have the privilege not to.

So, Trump’s white Americans look down at immigrants working for a pittance, and resent their work. White Americans are losing their jobs, but they lose them to their own policies and their own unwillingness to share—so a few of them take more and more, and ship jobs overseas, and automate, and the rest of them blame immigrants. The consequences of their actions cannot be their own. After all, they cannot see themselves.

And Trump’s white Americans see that the country is divided, and hate that it is so. But they claim a black man divided the country, when it was, truly, their refusal to be led by a black man. The division is not what they despise—it is that they now have half when they want the whole. They yell, “take our country back!” But the consequence of that greed cannot be their own, so they blame a black man. They cannot see themselves, only him.

And Trump’s white Americans say that costs are too high, and the government is too big, and that the faltering steps of America, tiring and divided that she is, are due to the inclusion of anyone different. They have had, until now, the privilege to harm others and be immune from the consequences. But the world is moving beyond them, and so they are feeling the discomfort of losing their immunity. And the whitest party of our government argues about who to blame and how to hurt them, never seeing the consequences of their own choices.

We have reached, I fear, a point of critical decision. There are people who have decided, without consulting the rest of us, that they deserve preference in policy, unequal representation in government, and the biggest share of American prosperity. They will not be content unless they get it, and because they had it before, they will not accept that they can have it no longer. What will the rest of us decide about how to deal with them? We are complicit, too, in ignoring them for so long. Is there any right decision left?

As the American system has lurched step by step towards greater justice, it has reached a strange place. For many—for women, black Americans, LGBTQ Americans, Muslims, immigrants, and so many more—the injustice is palpable, but changeable; there is a glimmer of hope and change. Yet for the privileged white Americans, even the slightest rebalancing of those scales feels like a massive loss. So white Americans declare that greater justice is fine, in abstract, but only if it comes at no cost to them.

So here we are, one half of our country seizing change and demanding it continue, and the other half refusing categorically to give up any more of their wealth, condemning anyone who asks for it, and pining for the time when injustice was overwhelmingly, rather than just mostly, in their favor.

And there are Nazis in the streets, and we have a white coward of a president who cannot even say no to them. Who slightly agrees with them. Whose supporters, in thoughts deeper than they can grasp, think the pain of losing some power is greater than the pain of racism and fascism, because those same supporters know the burden of the latter will fall on people who are different. Those same supporters know they are not the ones who pay.

This is the shape in the fog—it is not a forest of trees, but of white hoods. And just as it was before, the people hiding behind those hoods cannot see one another, and do not admit to their shameful greed. And just as it was before, the people cowering behind those hoods believe they are justified in their actions, or do not care. And just as it was before, prominent people in power say the words of condemnation, but deny that these events are the consequences they themselves inspire.

The shape in the fog is still with us, closer than we knew, and shifting, slowly, as the mist moves. It looks like hoods today. But it may look like the American flag tomorrow.

After all, it looked like the flag yesterday.


Image Credit: Kevan

Climate of Uncertainty

35521701131_938f2e3112_oIn popular discussion, uncertainty serves as a wedge—a point of weakness with which you can destroy an idea you don’t like. So it isn’t that surprising that the selfish and self-serving use scientific uncertainty as a wedge as well; it doesn’t work in the scientific literature, but it does work in the minds of the public. We hear “uncertainty around climate change” and, for many of us, it means “we don’t know.”

The simplicity is appealing—after all, we know something or we don’t. Can you really half-know? Well… yes. Even that simple question shows us the difference between our gut feeling about knowing, and how it actually works. There is a great range of nuance in the idea of uncertainty, and when scientists say that something has uncertainty, they mean something much more specific than what most people think of as uncertain.

The language of science requires us to embrace uncertainty in order to understand it. Science is all about shrinking uncertainty, not to zero, but to the smallest reasonable range that evidence and method can support. The whole endeavor of science is to presume we don’t know, and then eliminate things we can be sure are wrong. Not to be certain about what is true, but to arrive at an approximation we can work with.

That means in order for us to have a discussion about so nuanced and evidence-heavy a topic as climate change, we need to go out of our way to understand uncertainty. The good news? We already do—we just need to think about it in different terms.

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Blowing Bubbles

Study #27 - Oil and WaterAfter the 2016 election, there was a proliferation of discussion around the idea of filter bubbles and ideological blinders. For my part, at least, I heard a lot of people applying the idea of a filter bubble to explain why the election didn’t make sense to so many Americans. We stayed in our own groups, the reasoning went, and so we underestimated how different other groups were from our own. It certainly seems like that was part of the problem.

Now, nine months after the election, we are pregnant with our dissatisfaction. Trump’s administration has systematically alienated so many people that even right-wing media questions his capacity to succeed. His administration is less popular at this point than any previous administration has been. Liberals and conservatives alike talk about retaking our country.

But we’re not popping our bubbles; we’re reinforcing them. The people who believe in Trump still believe in Trump, and now they also disbelieve any story that undermines him. The people who hate Trump hate him, and exaggerate any story that confirms his ineptitude. The people who are disgusted and checked out have decided it’s okay to check out, and they confirm that bias, too. The media who focused on every whim of our reality-show presidential candidate have expanded our entire political discourse into a will-they-won’t-they, what-did-Trump-tweet-now, who’s-on-top storm of sensationalism. Instead of seeing the consequence of our preconceptions before the election and changing our approaches, we’re doubling down.

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Protect and Serve Whom?

philando_viaTonyWebsterI have been pulled over. I have been in accidents. In both cases, I have interacted with the police. Once I was pulled over for speeding at 1am, which I was, because I missed the transition from 55 to 30. I was doing 60 in a 30, and the cop said “you don’t have a record in New Hampshire, so I’m going to give you a ticket for 45mph instead.” I certainly didn’t fear for my safety.

Once I was pulled over for doing 65 in a 45, along with a dozen other cars, because the police had camped out at the speed limit transition just over a hill, and I didn’t slow down fast enough. It wasn’t fair, but I wasn’t in danger.

Once I was pulled over for doing 37 in a 25, because it was raining and foggy and I missed the sign. I tried to explain that. The cop was surly, and wrote me a ticket for 40 in a 25 instead, and claimed on the ticket that the weather was “clear and dry,” and was definitely punishing me for doing anything other than meekly agreeing with him. But I wasn’t afraid—just annoyed.

Obviously, I am not black.

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On the Fringe

CapitolReflectionvia_WilliamBeemIt’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.

Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.

That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.

I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”

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You Won’t Believe Why People Can’t Stop Themselves From Writing Breathless Vacuous Headlines

clicks_viaTimFranklinActually, you probably will believe why, because those punchy gasping headlines are usually wrong. They exaggerate, misrepresent, and often flat-out contradict the content. When there is content, which there often isn’t, because most of the time it is just a dressed up meme or an embedded YouTube video dumped between fifteen ads and a couple paragraphs of partisan nonsense.

But maybe I do have something new to tell you: the click-bait writers aren’t the problem. The problem is us. And that includes you.

Yes, you. You are the problem.

Well, probably not “you” who are reading this. But if you shared something with a crap headline recently, maybe you are! See, there’s plenty of crap content and crap headlines. Every time we share something sloppy, we are giving it tacit approval. Every time we click on something with a crap headline, we are putting our stamp of approval on that nonsense.

I get it. It goes to the lizard brain. It’s easy to get caught up in “this thing that JUST happened [well maybe kinda not really]” or tease ourselves with that thing that “you won’t believe!!!!!.! [although you already do or you wouldn’t be looking at this anymore]” because hey, excitement is fun and cheap and the world sucks.

Unfortunately, it’s not just for enjoyment. It’s becoming the way we learn about the rest of society. We can easily find ourselves hate-clicking pieces about “Trump’s latest plan to create fascist America!” or “The sneaky way liberals are trying to distract you from real America’s problems!” We’re the ones gasping, having the vapors, and fainting over another meaningless tweet. We’re the ones frothing on the keyboard and hitting “like” and “share” before our rational brain has even caught up to the consequences.

It’s like eating candy, only a little more so—because after a few years of it, it’s becoming hard to find real information hiding in all the junk food. Not because filter bubbles and fake news, just because we indulge our urges too much, and that’s how markets work.

And that’s how markets fail. They meet our base desires, even when those base desires are bad for us. They fill our wants, but not our needs. What we need is good, thought-provoking information about what is true and how other people think about it. But what we want is to be endlessly distracted by things that are unchallenging, either because we already agree with what they mean, or because they mean nothing at all. We want to be high on the emotion, but then move on with no consequences.

There is, however, a consequence. The consequence is not only that we are bad at telling what is true, because we do not exercise the skill. The consequence is not only that we are outraged and distracted simultaneously by sickening caricatures of real events.

The consequence is that we are creating more of them. We are not just falling for the exaggerated version of reality, we are seeking it out. We want it, and we don’t restrain ourselves.

We hold the moral ideal that truth will come out on top eventually. But truth and lies don’t have power—we do. There is no absolute value in the truth, just a question of what we ask for.

The headline I put on this piece is actually pretty accurate.

You won’t believe it: because you’re the problem.

The lies are what we click on: so we’re the ones writing them.

And we can’t stop ourselves.

Because we like to be breathlessly outraged, and we care more about feeling right than being right.


Image Credit: Tim Franklin Photography

Of the People

IMGP2701.JPGPeople have a great many misconceptions about dictionaries. For a start, we assume that dictionaries are authorities—that the usages of a word listed in the dictionary are allowed, and that other usages are not. We assume that words not in the dictionary are not words, and words in the dictionary but labeled “obsolete” are no longer allowed. And we assume these things because we fundamentally misunderstand what a dictionary is.

We think dictionaries are arbiters of language, determining what is and isn’t allowed. But, in reality, dictionaries are just records of language. They preserve old ideas, record new ideas, and describe how language is being used. They are slow to catch up, but not that slow, and they occasionally retain things we would rather forget.

We have many of the same misconceptions about government.

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