Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Such as: That rosy-colored distorting lens

Ideology makes us biased. That's pretty easy to admit. We read newspapers that confirm our opinion, we focus on the stories that do not test our beliefs, and we presume the idiocy of anyone who is the other side of an idea. And while we're very comfortable affirming this truth abstractly, I am loathe to admit it personally. I know I read biased sources of information and that I read 'unbiased' information through the distorting lens of my own bias. But I think that I'm above the indignity of being wrong.

Now that's all fine and good . If we second-guessed our every interpretation for signs of bias we'd be closer to going crazy than we'd be closer to the Truth. But it's surprising the extent to which our ideology distorts our views of the world. And it's good to confront this distortion for two reasons. First, ideology's distortion of evidence can explain why reasonable people can so sharply differ in their opinions. The fact that people can believe in the sanctity of a religion or the free market, the sagacity of a particular politician and the saintliness of another , the mystical benefits of Tibetan Buddhism contra the Secret--it's always a bit of a puzzle to me. But such gulfs in opinion are not proof of maliciousness of stupidity (or need not be proof of maliciousness or stupidity), it's proof only that when you believe something you are more likely to see it confirmed. If you believe that prayer can heal diseases, you are that much more likely to read the newspaper story about the healing power of prayer. If you believe that Obama is a vampiremuslimterroristabortionist then you are going to treat news stories about Ayers and Wright differently than if you believe Obama is already President but for the graceful and ineluctable election. That's the first reason why it might be good to admit the distortion of our own ideology.

The second reason is more uncomfortable. Admitting the distortion of ideology we admit we are wrong. And when we are proven wrong we will be as stubborn and as bull-headed and as frustrating as those people who drive SUVs and proudly affirm that global warming doesn't exist. Their problem isn't that they are assholes. (They might be assholes.) Their problem is that they're human. And when you tell a human being they're wrong they are not going to admit they are wrong, as a first reaction--they're going to tell you why you're wrong, slopjob.

What got me started thinking this way was reading a piece by Camille Paglia. This thing stood out to me as one of the most obvious examples of ideologically distorted thought I've ever seen.

As someone whose first seven years were spent among Italian-American immigrants (I never met an elderly person who spoke English until we moved from Endicott to rural Oxford, New York, when I was in first grade), I am very used to understanding meaning through what might seem to others to be outlandish or fractured variations on standard English. Furthermore, I have spent virtually my entire teaching career (nearly four decades) in arts colleges, where the expressiveness of highly talented students in dance, music and the visual arts takes a hundred different forms. Finally, as a lover of poetry (my last book was about that), I savor every kind of experimentation with standard English -- beginning with Shakespeare, who was the greatest improviser of them all at a time when there were no grammar rules.

Many others listening to Sarah Palin at her debate went into conniptions about what they assailed as her incoherence or incompetence. I was never in doubt about what she intended at any given moment. On the contrary, I was admiring not only her always shapely and syncopated syllables but the innate structures of her discourse -- which did seem to fly by in fragments at times but are plainly ready to be filled with deeper policy knowledge, as she gains it (hopefully over the next eight years of the Obama presidencies). This is a tremendously talented politician whose moment has not yet come. That she holds views completely opposed to mine is irrelevant. [Emphasis mine.]

(And here to admit my own susceptibility to distortion, when I first read this I skimmed over the bits where Paglia supports Obama, and thought that she was just another conservative. When drafting this essay, I thought of Paglia in that mode, too, even though she is more complicated, certainly. I faced disconfirmation of my belief, and instead of throwing up my hands and admitting ignorance--I ploughed on.)

Now. I'm wondering now whether to mount a frontal attack on the meat of this quote, or to go from behind. First, the frontal attack, as quickly as I can make it. Sarah Palin's ineloquence isn't striking just because it's hilarious; it's striking because it reveals a lack of detailed thought filled--not with policy knowledge of a deep or shallow variety--but with sound bites. Shakespeare's English wasn't great because it was experimental, but because it more perfectly communicated the human condition. Sarah Palin didn't communicate anything. Her ineloquence is a secondary problem, just as Shakespeare's eloquence is only secondary to his charm.

Now the attack from behind, which is more amenable to my thesis. Paglia approached the debate from the angle that Sarah Palin was "as powerful new [symbol] of a revived contemporary feminism." From that lens, what looks to me as Palin's idiocy looks to Paglia as Palin's brave stabs at unconventional communication. Now I don't get paid to express an opinion, which leaves me in an envious position compared with Paglia. I don't need to have an opinion, and if I do have an opinion, nobody really cares whether it's interesting or not. Paglia gets paid to have opinions that people care about, and so she cannot rest in the middle ground, this led her to servery misinterpret Palin's public performance.

Differences in interpretation are going to be so vast because we select which data to notice based on our beliefs, and so different people will be more or less likely to notice different information. Paglia's gush about Palin is akin to the review we would expect from the parents of Miss Teen South Carolina. Where we see indubitable failure, they, through those rosy-colored distorting lenses of affection, see excuse, interpretation--certainly they don't see a witless bimbo but a charming and nervous girl struggling through a stupid question--they pick out the evidence which supports their love.

Not that I'm ragging on just Paglia. No doubt I have committed far graver epistemic sins, only I'm lucky or unlucky enough not to have those sins survive in print. We all are guilty. If you have a crush on a girl you're much more likely to focus on the things she does which convinces you that your feelings are reciprocated. If you like a sports team you are going to think that their chances in a given season are so much higher than they really are.

The question is, when it comes time for us to face the moment when our beliefs do not match reality, will we go to the tribunal of experience kicking and screaming , or will we go bravely under the cowl of our own ignorance. It is far easier to kick and scream, and better for the ego. It is my personal hope, though, that when it comes my time I will be brave about it, bite my tongue, and agree that I can be every bit an idiot.

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