Welcome to another controversy algorithmically designed to tear America apart.
By: Ross Douthat – nytimes.com – January 22, 2019
In a short story published last October, “Sort by Controversial,” Scott Alexander imagines a Silicon Valley company that accidentally comes up with an algorithm to generate what it calls a “Scissor.” The scissor is a statement, an idea or a scenario that’s somehow perfectly calibrated to tear people apart — not just by generating disagreement, but by generating total incredulity that somebody could possibly disagree with your interpretation of the controversy, followed by escalating fury and paranoia and polarization, until the debate seems like a completely existential, win-or-perish fight.
When you start arguing with someone over a Scissor statement, Alexander’s narrator explains, “at first you just think they’re an imbecile. Then they call you an imbecile, and you want to defend yourself. … You notice all the little ways they’re lying to you and themselves and their audience every time they open their mouth to defend their imbecilic opinion. Then you notice how all the lies are connected, that in order to keep getting the little things like the Scissor statement wrong, they have to drag in everything else. Eventually even that doesn’t work; they’ve just got to make everybody hate you so that nobody will even listen to your argument no matter how obviously true it is.”
The twist in the short story comes with the narrator’s realization that several Scissors on the algorithm-generated list have happened already — the “ground zero mosque,” the N.F.L. and the national anthem, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. So maybe somebody (Putin? the C.I.A.?) made this breakthrough first, and weaponized it against American society. “Of the Scissor’s predicted top hundred most controversial statements, Kavanaugh was No. 58 and Kaepernick was No. 42. No. 86 was the ground zero mosque. No. 89 was that baker who wouldn’t make a cake for a gay wedding.”
And now we have — well, let’s call it No. 40 on the Scissor list (meaning there’s worse, oh so much worse, to come), in the form of the videos of Catholic high school boys from Kentucky, in Washington to attend the March for Life, some of them wearing Make America Great Again hats, in some sort of confrontation with a chanting, drumming Native American activist who was intervening in another confrontation between the teenagers and a group of black nationalists.
To understand what makes this incident so brilliant in its divisiveness, you need to see the tapestry in full, how each constituent element (abortion, race, MAGA, white boys, Catholicism, Native American ritual) automatically confirms priors on both sides of our divide. And you also need to see how the video itself, far from being a means to achieving consensus, is an amazing accelerant of controversy, because everyone who watches can pick up on a different detail and convince themselves that they’re seeing the whole tru —
Are you really doing this, Ross?
Are you really trying to write one of your pretend-evenhanded, both-sides-do-it, “let’s all get together and learn something” columns about this incident?
Well, I’m — wait, who are you?
Who am I? I’m your conscience, the angel on your shoulder, the real thinking mind you’ve buried under layers of performative, let-me-flatter-liberal-readers piety.
You sound a little more devilish. Or like my raging id, to be honest.
You can call me that if it makes you feel better, Dr. Freud. But you and I both know that what happened on the mall and afterward doesn’t fit that cute little Scissor framework. We both know that any rational, unbiased human being who watched all the videos would see that the initial interpretation of the encounter, the one that inspired celebrities to fantasize about punching a teenager and respectable writers to churn out think pieces on the heavy, fraught-with-white-supremacy significance of a teenage smirk, was totally, completely wrong.
I agree that it was wrong, but the point of the Scissor concept …
No, let me finish. The kids didn’t mob the drumming activist, the kid with the “smirk” wasn’t really blocking the drummer’s path and seemed more nervous than anything, the people clearly flinging racist — and homophobic! — epithets were the black nationalists, not the teenagers, and the drummer told a bunch of different stories to national media about what happened. At best he misinterpreted what was going on, at worst he deliberately lied to make the kids sound like racist goons.
O.K., since you’re my … whatever you are, you know that I’m inclined to agree. But the whole point of the Scissor thing is that to escape it, you need to imagine how other people interpret the story. I can see that the kids were rowdy, too: A couple of them made tomahawk chops, and I’m sure some of them were being offensive in other ways. Also, it’s dumb to wear MAGA caps to a march against abortion; to lots of people they’re a symbol of white-identity politics and a justifiably unpopular president, and the adults from their Catholic school should …
Oh, O.K., so if a teenager wears a cap associated with the president of the United States he’s asking to have media figures fantasize about punching him, to be doxxed and harassed, to have adults from his school temporarily stampeded into talking about expelling him, even to have half of Catholic Twitter, priests included, briefly damning him as a racist? Blame the victim much, do we?
I’m not blaming the victim, I’m explaining why the path to media misinterpretation was greased by the kids’ own rowdy behavior and culture-war signaling …
Are you listening to yourself? The path is always greased when it’s our tribe. The “nonpartisan” media took what felt like years to discover that some of the Women’s March organizers had an anti-Semitism problem, but some teenagers get rowdy at the March for Life — while they’re being yelled at by black nationalists, for God’s sake — and it gets covered like Kristallnacht. Pro-life activists get video of Planned Parenthood suits talking about chopping up unborn babies for their parts, and we have to hear claims about how they’re “selectively edited” repeated in the press forever — but a clip of an anonymous teenager smiling while someone drums in his face is a five-alarm “fascism in America” fire!
You know I think the press has a serious problem with bias on anything related to religion and social issues. But a lot of the cultural right has spent the Trump era wallowing in conspiracy theories and race-baiting — it’s not entirely surprising that liberals are conditioned to expect that kind of stuff when MAGA hats show up. Have you watched any “Hannity” lately, or gone down other #MAGA rabbit holes?
I’m in your head, so you know I have. So fine — keep being NeverTrump, be anti-Hannity, be a scold against your own side sometimes, whatever. Just don’t give me the both-sides piety when something like this happens — and what, just a week after the freakout over Karen Pence teaching art at an evangelical school with a traditional-Christian code of sexual behavior? Can’t you see that our opponents won’t be happy till every conservative religious school gets shamed or shuttered? Can’t you see that the supposed gatekeepers at “mainstream” institutions are happy to play along?
Unlike some media figures on the right, and unlike our president, those gatekeepers also correct the record and walk things back when they get things wrong. And I like writing for people who disagree with me, which requires a little more charity than you seem capable of offering.
Except that they always get things wrong the same way. They’re always looking for some white preppy scapegoat. The Rolling Stone article about frat-boy rapists that turned out to be a hoax …
You know plenty of white preppies are bad people deserving media scrutiny, you’ve lived the same life I have.
… the Kavanaugh witch hunt …
I still don’t know what really happened with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, and neither do you.
O.K., I think we’re done here.
Done? We’re just getting started. This was only the 40th worst Scissor, you said it yourself. Wait till we get to No. 20, or No. 5. You don’t agree with me yet, but you’ll get there. You’ll get there.
I don’t think so. I’m not as vulnerable as you think.
Oh, are you planning to delete your Twitter account?
What? No. I mean, I need it for my job …
[dark laughter, echoing away into an abyss]
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