Tag Archives: opinion-giving

Snap Judgments

One would think that moderns educated on the complexities of the world would shun snap judgments and favor more considered conclusions. But such hopeful flattery is probably unearned.  

Tweets and other instant forms of response are doing their part to school us to accept norms that put judgment ahead of inquiry. Our taste for quick rejoinders means that judgment has already made the final turn before reasoned inquiry has left the gate.

Our public rhetoric is now consistently reactive.  We look for the simplest ways to express outrage and dismay, as any sampling of online comments remind us.  Most of us expect to read snappy attitudes uttered with conviction and and usually some vitriol. A person who responds to a question or thoughtful assertion with a “not sure” is likely to be seen as a little slow.

Snap judgments about the world are mostly unearned gifts that we give ourselves.  A sharp claim stakes out territory we can own. But anyone who takes time to notice will see that our popular and social media are filled with advocates who are in weeds over their heads.  Certainties on topics about which we know very little are as common as black flies in Maine.  And their lifespan is about as long.

 

Somehow our public rhetoric needs to pull back to give space to the considered conclusions where accuracy matters more than an immediate answer.

Thankfully, there is a language for processes of deliberation and truth-testing.  When the stakes are high, we want knowledgeable people in charge of making considered judgments.  For example, will the Boeing 737 MAX fly again soon? Presumably smart people employing solid engineering practices will be make that call.  We should expect that more will happen than the President’s suggestion that we simply give the plane a new name. Likewise, as a nation we should eventually determine if the same leader has engaged in the crime of obstruction of justice.  My quick judgment is a firm “yes.” But I’m willing to defer to legal experts who better understand criminal and legal benchmarks. Somehow our public rhetoric needs to pull back to give space to considered conclusions where accuracy matters.

A Lexicon of Truth Testing

We can construct a kind of hierarchy of decision-making mechanisms that ought to be in our minds when we seek answers to a nagging problems.  Near the top I would place the discovery process in legal proceedings. In advance of a trial, each side in criminal and civil cases has the opportunity and time to gather the facts and a full narrative.  Both sides can interview credible witnesses, subpoena documents and seek outside expertise.  A discovery process that is thorough, for example, is apt to use DNA evidence that can be help determine if a suspect could have committed an assault.

Serious investigative journalism has a similar process, often requiring two independent confirmations of an event before it can be reported.  The hearsay of one source is not enough.  Good examples of this process are found in the classic journalism sagas Spotlight (2015) and All the President’s Men (1976).  Spotlight seems especially accurate in telling the story of the Boston Globe’s research of coverups of child abuse committed by priests and church leaders in the Boston area.

Drug makers seeking to introduce a new medicine will typically need to show the efficacy of a treatment by doing some double-blind studies: tests of the proposed treatment administered to two comparable groups of patients, one getting a placebo, and the other receiving the treatment. In a double-blind study neither the patients nor clinicians administering the “meds” know whether they are handling the real stuff.  Will the experimental group get better? It’s usually a fair form of the experimental method to see if the new drug can outperform improvements triggered by the placebo effect in the ‘control’ group.

Among social scientists there is a great deal of fudging that turns correlational studies into unjustified conclusions that suggest causation.  Human research follows the general protocols of the hard sciences, even though human subjects are not easily isolated for study. For example, fast food restaurants in an area aren’t always the cause of high levels of obesity among the residents in a nearby neighborhood.  Some studies have asserted this claim with only an assumption of causation.

In many other realms we are usually open to a future leader who is doing a “listening tour” rather than a rally; or other figures who are prepared to make “reasonable inferences” or see significance in analogous situations. All are explicitly making room for logics that reserve space for more open-minded tests of a claim’s validity.

Near the bottom of the list we are left with a vast majority of public comments representing patterns of “motivated reasoning” or “confirmation bias.” These are common mental processes that allow acceptance of evidence or ideas only if they confirm what the perceiver already believes.

A Different Kind of Man?

                                  Rembrandt

The subject of masculine forms of discourse has never been more top-of-mind. 

In her book You Just Don’t Understand (1992) Deborah Tannen notes that men tend to be more assertive and less self-disclosive than women. Tannen was one of many scholars interested in mapping the different rhetorical styles of the sexes. That was the 90s. Now, nearly two decades later, gender has never been a more fluid idea. Moreover, early research on male behavior patterns tended to take myriad exceptions off the table.  Even so, she was surely right to note that there is a masculine style of assertion and opinion-giving that remains a relatively durable norm.  Sample any of the men hosting cable news shows these days and you will see the opinion-giving mode in full bloom.  True to his family’s tradition, CNN’s Chris Cuomo takes no prisoners. Ditto for MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. On the political right there seem to be even more assertion-giving machines unencumbered by the burdens of accuracy.

Even a lunch with my male colleagues can lead to a round of firm and forceful opinions laid out for others at the table to take or leave. We throw them around like players in the infield warming up before a game. The style is more or less the opposite of the listening and questioning that Tannen described as a norm for a feminine style.

These old formulations came to mind when I was recently watching Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You be My Neighbor (2018).  It features a lot of footage of Rogers with children, of course, but also with a number of parents and admirers as well.  In our current polarized climate it clearly shows a different kind of man.  The film which has just migrated to cable and public television outlets features the children’s television pioneer as a patient slow-talker with a natural curiosity.  Rogers was a good match for the kids that Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was intended to reach.

It was even more interesting to see Rogers testifying before Congress in 1969, trying to secure permanent funding for the shaky new medium of public television. In contrast to the crusty chair of the Senate Sub-Committee on Communications, Rogers seemed like a totally different kind of advocate: patient, a bit tentative, and more indirect than assertive. The Presbyterian minister who turned to children’s television in order to save it seemed more pastoral than insistent.  Was he ahead of his time?

May 1, 1969: Fred Rogers testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications

On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers, host of the (then) recently nationally syndicated children’s television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (named Misterogers’ Neighborhood at the time), testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce Subcommittee on Communications to defend $20 million in federal funding proposed for the newly formed non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was at risk of being reduced to $10 million.

Probably not.  Other-oriented men have always been around as role models in work and family life. These kinds of men have also been on display in a wide-range of films featuring characters like Clark Kent, Atticus Finch, or any number of figures played by Tom Hanks.

Even so, the subject of masculine ways of coping has never been more top-of-mind. The wider release of the Rogers documentary coincided with the high visibility of a set of ads sponsored by the Gillette brand of Procter and Gamble.  “We Believe: the Best Men Can Be” is a series of spots cut to different lengths, all showing a kind of macho-masculinity that is still easily recognized: matching threats with threats, groping women, and thoughtless fathers raising boys to be more tough than compassionate.

With the #MeToo Movement and “rape culture” as topic number one on most American university campuses there has perhaps never been a cultural moment when the idea of masculine bravado looked more out of place.  Of course how ‘out of place’ depends where one is.  But we are clearly at the beginning of a period when bluster and opinion-giving (“mansplaining” in one of the current feminist formulations) look like they’ve had their day.  Among other signs, never has the shameless mendaciousness of our President looked more tired and shopworn.