26 November 2014


Most people have a set of values which inform the way they see the world, and which provide the foundation for their sense of right and wrong. This accounts for many of our political differences because the sense of what is good is not completely in synch. When that occurs we sometimes try to resolve things rationally by marshaling facts which we believe will support our position through an objective, impartial reading. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out: 

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. 

Thus it is not so much a matter of “having our own facts,” as Senator Moynihan once said, but rather the extent to which we are willing to admit them.

However when beliefs are dearly held they may be impervious to evidence. For example, those who believe the bible to be literally true and the word of God will not be moved by any conflicting information. For the true believer, even if something isn’t true it ought to be. But the true believer is not just the religious fundamentalist but anyone who sees the world primarily in political terms, because their “side” must be right. 

In the incident in Ferguson, Missouri some people reached conclusions based upon where their sympathies took them, either in favor of the police officer or the man who was shot. In doing this they treated it as an “issue” rather than as a particular situation in a particular place where only an impartial, disinterested party can get to the truth of the matter reliably. In this instance it was a Grand Jury, which reached a conclusion based upon evidence and eyewitness testimony. The negative reaction to this determination is based not on the actual truth, but on claims that were made previously, which was what what some people wanted to be true. Nothing can satisfy those committed to the notion that something must be true under any circumstances. 

The fallback position is that the process was flawed, and therefore cannot be given credence. The problem with this is that if the decision was in accordance with their beliefs they would not make this claim. The American legal system is by no means perfect, but it is certainly checked by disinterested, randomly selected citizens, whose judgement we ought to respect. All of us need to avoid prejudging incidents we do not have accurate information about, which leads us to succumb to our prejudices instead of accepting that we were wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment