Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Truman Show World

Or maybe "The Matrix" would be more accurate.  I'm not that conversant.

Part of me feels some obligation to weigh in on the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh. Because of both profession and interest, I do know something about the reliability of memory, and of trauma memories in specific. I do know something about trauma and the range of behaviors people show afterward. I know less, though still more than average, about people lying and being evasive. Being the Assistant Village Idiot, I am also at least better than average at noticing simple things (though still not good enough); in particular, things that do not fit together. Why did various actors do X and not Y? Readers might expect me to weigh in on such matters, in hopes of sorting things out for themselves. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. In reality, most of you have already formed an opinion of what is most likely true, what is inconclusive, and what is false. Inconclusive often does not last long in the human mind. We have to make an effort to stand back and hold pieces aloft and separate, or we just automatically move to one story or another. We must fit everything into a story. We can decide to say that something is simply unknown and unlikely to ever be known, and thus put irresolution to bed, but this takes more effort.

I refrain now because my knowledge is general, and we have moved beyond that. Had I been paying attention the first 24 hours I might have provided value-added by posting on the general questions, which would help others move toward More Likely/Less Likely. Even at that, I would not have been able to provide anyone with answers. General knowledge on such topics involves on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand discussions. Women who have been in similar circumstances usually do X; but not all women do. Some women do Y or Z. Memories are usually reliable in this circumstance, but unreliable in that circumstance. We are beyond that because this is now a specific accuser, who we can discover information about. What “women usually do” is much less of an issue. It is a mere indicator, not real evidence for this day and time.

Of the many things that bother me, the failure to recognize this distinction may be at the top. A letter from 65 women who knew Brett Kavanaugh when he was young, asserting that he was an unfailing gentleman, is minor evidence that his character is inconsistent with this action. A similar letter from the opposite POV, asserting that Brett was a known problem when he had a few drinks in him would likewise be minor evidence that such things were possible. Neither would be proof, but they have some value. The letter signed by 200 women who went to this woman’s school, spanning years both before and after the alleged incident in question and noting that it feels like their experience, is not in the same category. It is worse than useless, because it stirs up people into thinking that this is germane. The question before the Senate, and thus before the country, is not a referendum on whether men in general are likely to do these things or women in general are likely to misrepresent them. The same would be true of a counter-letter signed by 200 males from Kavanaugh’s school asserting that Holton girls have been making false accusations for years and they’re sick of it. In both cases it’s irrelevant, even if true. Even if all 200 women had bad experiences, even if all 200 men had been falsely accused, it tells us nothing about this case.

Why, then, are we so quick to make real individual events into abstracts, into referenda whether our particular prejudices are the true ones and those other people’s prejudices untrue? My suggestion is that everyone who does this should be ineligible from participating in further discussion. This is not occasional.  It seems to occur even in everyday conversation.  If you talk about statistical associations between single parenthood and some pathology, single parents immediately rise to defend their child, who is not actually being discussed.  It's an every-issue thing.  But I know some really nice gay people.  My cousin married a black man, and he has a good job. I knew this kid who went to Christian school who was the biggest druggie in town. 

There is something so automatic about this that I have to believe it is  hard-wired and completely usual, despite its illogic. While I think it is related to intelligence, or at least the ability to think abstractly, I can give you plenty of examples of very bright people who do it anyway. The ability to consider people statistically does not guarantee the performance of it.

Athletes and entertainers complain that fans don't always get that they are real people with real feelings.  We treat them like things. I have only a little sympathy with this idea.  It's their job to be mythological.  They wouldn't have jobs if that didn't happen.  Yes, sometimes it is reasonable to break the fourth wall and look at their lives. But that is actually only a version of being a mythological figure.  Because the rules of each sport are arbitrary and different people could have been the heroes with very minor changes, being a hero is their real job, not shooting a basketball.  To be good at being a hero requires intense focus on the arbitrary skill, so they have to act as if it has intrinsic value.

The same is not true for political figures and people with real power. Expecting them to be enactors of our myths is extremely dangerous. (Though I suppose it has been going on so thoroughly for so many thousands of years that it can't be that dangerous. We not only survive it, it may actually be an optimal strategy not only for the rulers but for the ruled. Worth an evening's thought, I think.) They are not part of our Truman Show, put there as props/characters to illustrate the dramas in our own heads. Yet we seem unable to refrain from seeing them that way.  They can send us to war, starve us, jail us, ruin or enhance our lives in a thousand ways, but we are determined to see them primarily as figures who prove or disprove our theories about how life is to be lived. Their symbolism matters more to us than their reality.

Because Kavanaugh does not seem to be rabidly pro-choice enough and might allow some slight modification to the status quo there are women, even conservative and libertarian women, who are shaken to their core that all gains for women and progress are imperiled. There are conservatives, especially religious conservatives who are likewise petrified that he is actually a squish and will sell them down the river at the first opportunity. Very primitive stuff is in play here.  Even Ann Althouse is talking about this as "Justice Kennedy's seat" and relating that immediately to abortion.  It's not Justice Kennedy's seat, it belongs to the American people. She is not usually the person who you have to say "get a grip" to.

We're crazy.  We're all just insane.  Unable to think abstractly enough to consider important issues objectively, we retreat to the mountain people hating the city and the city people hating the mountain.

Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz.


Christopher B said...

From what I've seen, and absent an amazing revelation by Monday, I think two things are true.

This incident, or something much like it, happened to Mrs. Ford in high school.

Mr Kavanaugh can not be tied to that incident beyond reasonable doubt.

james said...

Yep, the distinction between "individual" and "group distribution" characteristics is even lost on people who you'd think would know better, who deal with samples and distributions of characteristics daily. I will not name names.

David Foster said...

Re the Mountain People and the City People, I just ran across this interesting quote from Jane Austen:

"In the country, an unpremeditated dance was very allowable; but in London, where the reputation of elegance was more important and less easily attained, it was risking too much for the gratification of a few girls, to have it known that Lady Middleton had given a small dance of eight or nine couple, with two violins, and a mere side-board collation."

To be added to the City Mouse vs Country Mouse file.

Texan99 said...

Could it have happened? Might an otherwise decent guy have exercised bad judgment in his cups without fully realizing or remembering the likely impact of his behavior on a young girl clearly too naive to be hanging around with older drunk guys? Sure, it might have. Nevertheless, I'd have to be a lot more sure than I could possibly be at this great distance in time, to be willing to trash a man's reputation over it. The whole thing is insane. If it happened at all, it's far too late to figure it out now. Ford should be ashamed of herself, dragging it out this way, so late, so vague, so unsubstantiated. If a brief wrestle with a drunk guy or two at a party could ruin her life, this isn't her biggest problem. She's a poster child for movements to keep young women locked up "for their own safety," and arguments to prevent their holding jobs or positions of authority: they're just too fragile. This is how you get purdah and chaperones and little princesses who go straight from Daddy to an all-powerful husband.

Grim said...

I agree with Tex. I happen to think this is plausibly-likely a false memory, or a faulty one; but that's more to do with the fuzziness of the memory and the fact that no one seems to share it. However, 'entitled footballer at elite prep school gets has a couple too many beers and takes liberties with bathing-suit-clad female party guest' is the plot of Animal House, except set in a wealthy high school instead of college; it's not implausible or hard to believe in the slightest except in the context of all the strangeness about the particular case.

I'm not allowed to say the rest of what Tex said, though I agree with that part too; and anyway, I've been told by a sitting Senator to shut up. Thus, I'll just return to my Mountain Tribe meditations in the forest.

Christopher B said...

I've revised my opinion in this but want to check something if you see this AVI.

Are expansive denials more or less likely to be true? Somewhat specifically, if I ask someone did you see X and I at a party, and they deny knowing X at all, is the broadness of the denial a tell? What about if this is not an off-the-cuff statement but one likely prepared with counsel?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Tough question to answer. Shakespeare's "The lady doth protest too much methinks," has truth in it, but there aren't simple rules. I think a one-sentence simple denial is likely to be true, and elaboration is less convincing. However, when people are nervous - and one might be nervous even if one is innocent - they tend to babble and try to convince people. In doing so, they sometimes exaggerate in hopes of convincing people and making them go away. The police and other investigators use this when they interrogate someone. People get nervous and won't shut up, and in their effort to show they are really good people, will say things like "I've never even been to Virginia Beach." Then it turns out that they bought gas in Virginia Beach four years ago on their way to someplace else. But that doesn't mean they were guilty of the robbery in Virginia Beach they are being questioned about.

Also, once you know the rules interrogators and cross-examiners operate by you can game that. If simple answers seem more believable, then lie simply.

Christopher B said...

I read the statement a couple of times again, and I think I see the needle that was being threaded. If someone doesn't want to directly deny my account of activities but knows they aren't accurate, and also honestly doesn't know X then it makes sense to focus on that.