Absent reason, we're easily fooled

Posted: Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Not to startle you, but you have a narrative in your head. Dozens of them, in fact.

You're hardly unique. We all carry around these narratives, these perceptions of How Things Are: customer service is extinct; athletes are spoiled and overpaid; kids these days don't know what real music is; this newspaper has an anti-conservative/anti-liberal bias, whatever.

Some narratives are unsupported by fact, others sit atop a mountain of empirical evidence. The point is, we all have them and when some incident appears to confirm one, we rush to use it in our blogs, our barroom debates, our newspaper columns.

For instance, when Sarah Palin recently mangled the word "repudiate" (she kept saying "refudiate") she was roundly ridiculed because it fit neatly into an existing narrative: Palin's a dummy. Granted, it's a narrative she herself created and has helped maintain, beginning with bungling a softball question (what do you read?) from Katie Couric in 2008.

Still, it's worth noting that when President Obama mispronounced the word "corpsman" ("corpse-man," he said) some months back, it received much less notice. That's because there is no narrative that says Obama's a dummy. To the contrary, he's generally regarded, whatever one thinks of his politics, as a pretty sharp customer. So he got a break Palin did not.

But debate by iconic example often isn't debate at all, if by that word you mean intellectual give-and-take, thrust-and-parry. Instead, one slams down one's examples like a royal flush in poker. Game over, rake in the pot. And never mind the fairness or even the truth of the tale. After all, the object is not to reason, elucidate or persuade but simply to win, i.e., leave the opponent embarrassed and/or speechless.

Last week's sliming of Shirley Sherrod offers a telling signpost of how far into this intellectual mudpit we have slid. With the exception of Sherrod herself, every major player was more interested in projecting or protecting a narrative than in simply finding and telling the truth.

Blogger Andrew Breitbart was so desperate to push a narrative of the NAACP as a hotbed of anti-white bias that he posted an excerpt of Sherrod's speech to that organization as "proof" she was a racist without caring if she was.

The NAACP was so desperate to protect itself from Breitbart's narrative that it promptly condemned Sherrod without even checking if the video was legit.

Team Obama was so desperate to avoid furthering the right wing's "liberal extremist" narrative that it sacked Sherrod from the Agriculture Department without asking if she was really the hate monger Breitbart said.

As the world now knows, she wasn't. She was the opposite of a hate monger, a fact indisputably proven by the simple expedient of listening to what she said.

That he was so easily able to move the White House and the NAACP to action (and media titans like Bill O'Reilly to condemnation) with such a crude hoax suggests Breitbart understands an essential truth of modern discourse: Stroke our existing narratives and we stop thinking. We are content to skate the surface of profound issues, call it debate and then wonder why the only people who hear us are the ones who already agree.

Ten years ago, Arthur Teitelbaum, then an official of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in another context: "Beware the moments when facts seem to confirm prejudices. Such times are traps, when the well-meaning are misled and the mean-spirited gain confidence."

It is excellent advice. What does Breitbart exemplify, if not a mean-spirited confidence? Why not? He knows that we are a people loath to listen, resistant to reason, imprisoned by our own narratives ... easily fooled.

And the mudpit is getting full.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.



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