Against facts

The acquittal of the officer who murdered Philando Castile is as unsurprising as it is unbelievable. It’s exactly the same grotesque spectacle that we’ve seen played out so many times before – but it wasn’t supposed to be. This time was supposed to be different.

Castile was pulled over for a routine traffic stop; he allegedly “fit a profile” or something, like, we all know what was really going on there, but the point is that the officer was just going through the usual checks and had no reason to expect an altercation. Castile was compliant, but he knew he had a problem: he was carrying a legal firearm, and he knew that if the officer saw it unexpectedly and got nervous, things could easily become unmanageable. So he did literally the only thing he could: he disclosed the existence of the weapon and proceeded carefully. And then he was shot to death.

In every previous case of this nature that has attracted mass-media attention, there has been some kind of controversial factor for people to argue about. Eric Garner and Alton Sterling were engaged in illegal activity; Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown allegedly assaulted their killers; Tamir Rice was supposedly brandishing a toy gun. None of these provide actual good angles – at the very least, they all require you to argue that minor transgressions are deserving of an instantly-applied death penalty without trial – but they’re all technically something. It’s broadly conceivable that a person of honorable intentions could make the good-faith argument that these were individual tragedies and not indicative of a widespread social calamity. But when you make an argument of the form, “if the victim engaged in certain behavior, then the killing was justified, so there’s no real political problem,” you are implicitly conceding that, had the victim not engaged in the proscribed behavior, then there is a real political problem.

That’s why the Castile case was supposed to be different. Castile committed no crime and did everything right, so there is simply nothing available on the “if” side to lead to the “then.” In which case the battle lines should have been drawn differently. The “all lives matter” crowd should have had no problem taking Castile on as a martyr and rallying for reforms to prevent such unacceptable occurrences. This should have been the thing that overcame the perils of “race relations” and provided an example that everyone could agree on. But of course there was no such reconciliation. The sickening thing about this case in particular was that nothing mattered; everything remained as it was and the same vile story was recited yet again, and yet again faded away with no conclusion in sight. The unavoidable inference, then, is that the facts of the case simply do not matter. Everyone has already decided what they believe, what policies they support and what catastrophes they are willing to countenance, and nothing is going to change that. And of course one must be honest enough to apply the same standard to one’s own side: had definitive evidence emerged that Michael Brown really did rob a convenience store and then bum rush a cop, that wouldn’t have changed the substance of the critique or the need for political action. In no case, then, are the facts of the situation ever relevant. There is only ideology.

There has been a great deal of recent lamentation over “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and one must concede that this is largely justified. Politicians certainly are a craven pack of liars, and people in general really do have problems getting their heads around the fact that facts are facts. But if we’re talking about politics, what we ought to be talking about is the connection between facts and political action, which is whence arises the problem: there isn’t one. Getting the facts right doesn’t help, because facts don’t matter either way to people’s political opinions. This sounds terrifying, but it actually makes perfect sense. Politics is about how we want the world to be, not how it currently is. Deciding on a political opinion means deciding in which direction you want to move. The value of facts is that they tell you how to get to what you want; they tell you where you are in relation to your goal. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even easier than not, to design counterproductive policy, in which case your actions will end up moving you in the opposite of your desired direction. Adherence to facts is how you avoid this problem. But this only becomes relevant after you’ve decided what it is you want.

The situation is often portrayed as a matter of novel facts spurring people to action. That is, everyone already believes in peace, love, and understanding, but they don’t know about the many injustices regularly taking place, so they simply need to be informed that things are going wrong in order to start doing something about it. This is wishful thinking. What the facts clearly demonstrate is that the revelation of facts doesn’t change people’s political opinions. At the end of the recent O.J. Simpson docudrama, there’s a moment when Johnnie Cochran sees then-president Clinton on TV talking about the need to address systemic racism and revise police practices, and he’s terribly gratified that the truth has finally come to light and that something can now be done about it. What’s striking about this is that people said exactly the same thing when the same issue recently started to be documented guerilla-style via smartphones and social media: now that the truth is unavoidable, things have to change. But what we’ve seen is that in neither case was this actually the case. Obviously, Rodney King and Mark Furman didn’t precipitate a solution to the problem, or we wouldn’t still be talking about it. But the current situation, where far more facts about far more dramatic occurrences are available on a daily basis, has seen no greater effect. All those cases listed above, plus others that have received equal attention and many more that have been forgotten or lost to the news cycle, were not the result of a single spate of increased attention. The issue has been risen on a regular basis over the course of many years, and the situation has never changed.

This is why the current fetish for “fact-checking” is largely misguided. It is not due to factual ignorance that people form harmful opinions. It’s much closer to being the other way around: people come to believe ridiculous things when those things align with their pre-existing ideology. Adherence to the facts can’t change this, because you have to use ideology in order to understand facts in the first place. A big table of numbers doesn’t do anything for you until you analyze it with political intent. In fact, “fact-checking” itself is a result of the same dynamic. Sociologically speaking, it’s pretty clear that the actual function fact-checking performs is liberal escapism. The people who check fact-checks are not those who require the information, but those who wish to reassure themselves that they are the good people for believing what they already believe. Liberals have already decided – in advance of the facts – that they’re the “rational” ones who “believe in science,” and the act of fact-checking allows them to perpetuate this belief.

More specifically, fact-checking as political activity is the result of a category error. It is indeed the news media’s job to report the facts and correct lies, and policymakers’ job to account for the real facts rather than the facts they wish were true. But the vast majority of us are not engaged in the activities of either journalism or policy-making, whereas all of us are permanently engaged in the activity of advancing values. Indeed, it is often our moral responsibility to ignore facts in favor of the truth. This is necessary because the world is a complicated place. It really is true that there are laws on the books prohibiting discrimination, and that there are scholarships and other programs aimed primarily at aiding black people, and that claims of disadvantage generally get sympathetic hearings in the media, and that Barack Obama was elected president twice – by healthy margins, even. But none of these facts compel the conclusion that we shouldn’t care about racism anymore.

You can dig up a real fact from somewhere or other to support basically anything. For example, false rape accusations really do happen sometimes. There’s no point in arguing whether any one case is valid or not; to fall into the trap of arguing the facts here is to fail to press the issue. The question of whether to treat rape as normal and false accusations as anomalies, or the other way around, is only answerable by ideology. You can’t engage with the issue until you’ve made that choice. (Equivocating doesn’t count as engaging with the issue; it counts as ignoring it.) And you can’t let the numbers make that decision for you, either, because you have to decide what the numbers mean. It’s true that there are more rapes than false accusations, but it’s also true that, even on the highest estimates, the vast majority of women never experience rape. The vast majority of black people never get murdered by the police, either. The numbers themselves don’t tell you what matters. Rape doesn’t become an issue once the number of occurrences rises above a certain threshold. It becomes an issue once you start caring about it.

A strong potential counterexample here is global warming. This seems to break the script: it’s genuinely novel information that could not have been reasonably foreseen, and it requires us to change our behavior and beliefs in ways that would not have been necessary without it. As Naomi Klein has it, it “changes everything.” So what’s crucial to note is the people who do “accept the facts” on global warming – who, in fact, loudly and self-importantly trumpet their fealty to the scientific consensus, as though that were something to be proud of – and the fact that what most of them are doing is basically nothing. Funding renewable energy and tweaking regulations do not come even close to addressing the true scale of the problem. The reason actions such as these are the ones being taken is that they are the ones that fit within the existing liberal-capitalist framework that basically every world leader adheres to unquestioningly. And on the other side of the ledger, liberals never seem to consider the fact that there are reasons that people resist facts. If someone encounters a fact once and ignores it, it’s pretty irrational to imagine that “explaining” the same thing to them over and over again will have any additional effect. Rather, the relevant logic is quite simple: if you believe that capitalism is a moral system, then it cannot be the case that capitalism is going to destroy the planet. It must simply be a case of certain groups gunning for competitive advantage, because that’s what happens under capitalism, and capitalism explains everything. And of course you wouldn’t be able to solve the problem with government intervention in any case, because government intervention always produces results inferior to the “natural” actions of market forces. Ideology determines both which facts are acceptable and which actions are possible.

Furthermore, you don’t actually need the facts of global warming to make the right argument here. The problem follows directly from the general logic of capitalism. Economics has a concept called “externalities,” which refers to the effects of a trade that aren’t accounted for within the trade itself.1 A better way to understand this is that capitalism basically means that rich fucks set the agenda, and they aren’t going to account for anything that doesn’t affect their pocketbooks. Other people getting polluted or regions of the planet becoming uninhabitable are just going to end up being the cost of doing business. So if you already oppose this arrangement ideologically – if you believe that resource use should be governed democratically such that the resulting decisions take into account their effects on everyone involved – then you’ve already solved global warming. Conversely, if you believe that rich fucks should be allowed to allocate resources autocratically, but that the government should be empowered to mitigate the consquences of those decisions, then you will never be able to solve global warming, no matter how cleverly you design policy or how tightly you cling the facts to your chest, because you have already made the values-based decision to give the fox VIP access to the henhouse.

In short, facts are real, but that’s all they are. By themselves, they’re inert. If you want to apply force to something, you can’t just gather up a bunch of chemicals and expect them to leap up out of the beakers of their own accord. You also won’t know which chemicals you need until you’ve drawn up your plans. And even then, nothing will happen until you actually build the bomb.

 


  1. A professor of mine once quipped that his introductory Econ textbook had five pages devoted to externalities and five hundred devoted to the rest of economic theory, and that it should have been the other way around, since what “externalities” actually means here is literally everything in the world other than basic economic theory. 

Long con

Deadspin brings us the story of a ridiculous “longform” piece from something called SB Nation defending that one rapist cop (you know, that one cop who saw his job as an opportunity to fulfill his pathetic male power fantasies) on the grounds that, uh, he used to play football, I guess. The point is that this is identified not as an individual failure, but as a fundamental problem with the concept of longform writing:

“There had never been a complete failure of concept and execution quite like this one, but it was nearly inevitable. If a company has a gorgeous CMS designed for longform, and a mandate to produce longform, and staff in place to present longform, it’s going to publish longform—whether the stories are there or not.”

Obviously, the problem with the “longform” concept is right there in the name: “long” is not a format. It’s a one-dimensional quantity that imparts no further information. Length does not imply complexity, incisiveness, or insight; nor does it necessitate ponderous meandering. But the fact that the concept exists at all means it has to refer to something. In particular, there are websites that aggregate longform articles regardless of subject matter. Someone who sits down to browse one of these sites is not thinking “I feel like reading something long today.” So what are they actually looking for?

It’s clear what role the longform concept fills in the ecosystem of the internet. It’s a countertrend against the bite-sized “content” delivery of tweets, listicles, and slideshows. In other words, longform pieces are supposed to be substantive. But substance comes in many forms; again, length is not antonymous with vapidity. So what longform pieces actually are is a fantasy: the fantasy that you can avoid being mislead by prejudice and trendiness if you put in the effort to read allllll about something and get the “complete” picture. They’re nuanced, where “nuance” is an internet buzzword for “look at how objective and reasonable I’m being.” The temptation of the internet’s infinite information illusion is that it makes it seem like you can get all the facts, that one perfect story can explain everything. The longform concept insists that there is such a story to be told for every subject. This is not the case.

Hilariously, Deadspin itself falls into this exact trap with their longform piece explaining why longform pieces are fundamentally flawed. The essay aggregates plenty of data about the SB Nation piece, but despite aspiring to figure out “how it happened,” none of it is actually explanatory. For example, word count enforcement is cited as a mechanism for padding non-stories into vectors for insight:

“When Stout launched SB Nation Longform in the fall of 2012, the idea was very much that Stout could bring prestige to the site by regularly running long stories—not stories aspiring to a certain complexity, note, but long ones. One freelancer said that per the terms of his contract, the story had to be at least 4,000 words long.”

Obviously having a strict word count like this is a dumb idea, but it doesn’t actually apply to the piece in question, which was 12,000 words – three times the “required” length. So the issue was not that the author was inflating irrelevant details to make word count; rather, they clearly felt that they had a hell of a lot to say. Similarly, Deadspin claims that “this story serves as an example of why diversity in the newsroom is so important,” as anyone familiar with the dynamics of rape culture would surely have put the brakes on it. But in fact, that exact thing actually happened. The one black woman involved in the process raised hell about it, and was casually overruled. So the story is actually an example of why “diversity” doesn’t fucking matter as long as the same old power dynamics are still in play.

The actual issue here has nothing to do with the mechanics of longform – at least not the explicit ones. The issue isn’t the particular format in which the story was told, it’s the fact that it was told at all. As Jezebel points out, there was fundamentally no story here:

“The question, of course, is why Arnold felt Holtzclaw deserved a more rounded portrait in the first place. By most accounts, Holtzclaw is an unexceptional man who has been found guilty of serial rape. The difference between Holtzclaw and other men who sexually assault women is that his position as a police officer allowed him a unique opportunity to brutalize his victims while keeping them silent. The other difference, of course, is that Holtzclaw actually got caught and will pay for his crimes.”

In other words, any story proceeding from this angle – regardless of length or process or who was writing it – was going to be worthless. The actual direct fist-to-the-face cause of this debacle was that everyone involved in it, excluding the lone ignored objector, thought it would be a good idea to write a sympathetic story about a serial rapist. And this – the idea that there must be a story to be told from the rapist’s perspective, that there must be some mitigating factor to “explain” the situation in the moral sense – is in fact one of the pillars of rape culture.

It’s commonly understood, I hope, that any kind of real understanding of basically anything requires multiple stories from multiple perspectives. But the one thing that stories need to be is true, not merely factually but in the fullest sense: they need to be the right stories. The seemingly-free publishing space of the internet makes it too easy to respond to everything with more words, with an explanation of why someone else’s explanation of an explanation is wrong (which is obviously what I’m doing right now). What’s needed to cut through the fog of confusion is not the ponderous weight of nuance, but the thin, bright blade of discernment. Truth does not result from the aggregate of all lies; it must be carved out. Lines must be drawn. That’s why sometimes, even often, the right story is no story.