Sher­rod a pawn in dan­ger­ous game of us­ing ‘facts’ to con­firm prej­u­dices

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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.

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 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 Barack 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.

The slim­ing of Shirley Sher­rod of­fers a telling sign­post of how far into this in­tel­lec­tual mud pit 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 Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple 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 whether she ac­tu­ally 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. Shirley Sher­rod was fired from the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment af­ter blog­ger An­drew Bre­it­bart, in re­leas­ing a video of an ex­cerpt of her speech, used it to claim she was racist.

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 whether 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 and eas­ily fooled.

steve can­non

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