Friends, the gyre has widened. Again.
In September, Ben wrote a Brief called Schrödinger’s Senate Hearing. It explored the effect of the widening gyre on our conscious intellectual processes – on our capacity to effectively reason. Presenting the Kavanaugh confirmation in terms of Schrödinger’s Cat, Ben showed how political polarization makes it nearly impossible for us to entertain, much less maintain, a probabilistic framework for understanding the world. The widening gyre is an environment in which we must adopt a deterministic framework, in which we must auto-tune our views to one of several discrete possible values.
Just over a month later, in November, I wrote a Brief called Hey, Maybe It’s the Needle. It was an exploration of the Jim Acosta microphone affair – remember that? – and what it could teach us about the influence of the widening gyre on something as fundamental as our senses. As absurd as it still sounds, it demonstrated that two perfectly reasonable, perfectly intelligent, perfectly decent people could watch the same video and come away with entirely different conclusions about what took place.
During that time – and much further back – we’ve written ad nauseam about the acts of political missionaries (President Trump chief among them) and the media missionaries who seek to tell us how to think about events and issues. To our peril, those missionary statements are so often clothed in the finery of facts and information, but with an implicit or explicit underlying aim to conflate those facts and information with subjective ideas through the use of powerful symbols and memes.
If it hasn’t happened already, in the next day or so you will probably be forced to open Schrödinger’s Box once again. Instead of Brett Kavanaugh or Jim Acosta, however, this time the box will contain at once the many possible explanations for the confrontation that took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial this weekend. But as with the prior such events, missionaries of each side have crafted narratives that make it nearly impossible to think clearly and independently about what took place. The result is that two otherwise perfectly reasonable, perfectly intelligent, perfectly decent people will watch the same videos and come away with one of these two interpretations of the events in it:
Choice A: A group of smirking teens in MAGA hats harassed, mocked and were disrespectful in multiple ways to a veteran and native American elder. This is really yet another story about what Trump’s cozy attitude toward white nationalism and open racism is doing to America, and about the millions of Americans who will stand by in silence when vulnerable populations are assaulted.
Choice B: A group of Black Hebrew Israelites shouted homophobic and racist taunts at a group of Catholic kids waiting on their parents. A drummer from an indigenous people’s group came between them and started banging a drum in the face of one of the kids. The kid didn’t know what to do and stood still. This is really just another story about the media crafting a narrative, calling it fact, and inciting doxxing and violence from the ‘tolerant left.’
It’s a brutal pair of choices, but those dueling narratives become clear in NLP analysis. Here are the stories from Saturday, January 19th. They are completely one-dimensional, and offer one explanation. On this day, 74% of the articles discussing the event expressed enough confidence in the facts of the events to use the fairly loaded words “mock” or “taunt.” Around 57% thought it important to reference “MAGA hats.” Just over 41% used the word “hate.” None of us is invulnerable to this type of single-narrative missionary activity. I know that I wasn’t.
By late Saturday into Sunday morning, longer videos of the entire event emerged. At that point, the narrative didn’t change. It split. There was now a coherent narrative of highly similar language and imagery describing the event as MAGA Hat Harassment, and a completely separate counter-narrative based on the interpretation of the more complete video and additional eyewitness accounts. In the narrative map of news articles from January 20th below, you can see the former on the left, and the latter on the bottom right.
When you closely examine the terms and phrases used in each of these two dominant narratives, you notice something else: In less than one day, the authors within each cluster are hard at work to find connections to other issues of broader significance. For people slotted by the widening gyre into Choice A, this was no longer a single ugly event. It was another seminal moment in the history of privilege and hate. It was another 1960 Woolworth’s Lunch Counter, another Little Rock Nine. It revealed the real hearts of those behind pro-life march and religious schools. It was a symbol of how Trump and his supporters have tacitly enabled hatred of all kinds. It was a symbol of all those smirking children of privilege.
For those forced into Choice B, the event wasn’t about the kids or the elder at all. It was now a symbol of the unchecked bias of media elites. It was a symbol of Trump Derangement Syndrome. It was a symbol of how the political left ignores homophobia and hate if it serves their political purposes. It was a symbol of how far people would go to thwart Trump and conservatives, like celebrities, politicians and members of the media openly campaigning to ruin the lives of teenagers before all the facts were available, and then refusing to walk back their words when they were.
In a Competition Game, the gyre continues to widen because both the cause and effect of each widening event – its abstraction into existential memetic symbols – are the same. A chain of linked engagements. This is another skirmish on the battlefield that has defined every event that has shaped this widening gyre. On the one hand are those whose Greater Truth is the existential importance of protecting historically marginalized people from institutionalized sources of power. On the other hand are those whose Greater Truth is the existential threat of a left-wing monoculture in media, entertainment and academic institutions that control all of our cultural narratives. You don’t have to think that these things are equivalent in importance (I don’t) to believe that they represent good-faith fears and honest desires (I do). But like all existential fears, when the Zeitgeist becomes a Competition Game, they come to define our divisions. This wasn’t the first such skirmish. It won’t be the last. Each will leave us more divided.
But there’s something in this event in particular that worries me: Our machinery for translating any kind of event into an existential crisis that requires us to abandon a humble, probabilistic view of the world has evolved into something truly exquisite. It now takes that machinery less than a single day to extrapolate the meaning of an event into Common Knowledge – something that everybody knows that everybody knows. It takes only hours to marshal us all into defense of issues of existential importance to our Greater Truth.
Under these circumstances, it’s hard to have clear eyes about any of our priors or how those priors are influencing our interpretation of reality. It’s a rotten state of affairs for our civil society, but it’s a really rotten state of affairs for any fact-based process or profession.
So what do we do, that is, if we’re not willing to settle for rank nihilism? Now more than ever, I think we’ve got to look for people of varying philosophical views and circumstances with whom we can come to a mutual agreement: to hold one another accountable and to trust one another’s expressed motives. People who will wait and think with us, who will understand that our hesitance to jump into the fray isn’t evidence of a lack of principle or conviction, but respect for the empirical observation that our judgment will inevitably be clouded by the Zeitgeist.
Around here we call that a pack. If you haven’t found one, do it now, before this widening gyre makes it impossible.