Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The teachable moment

When something as disturbing and consequential as the recent shooting in Tucson happens, the public discussion that follows tends to be governed by two general human tendencies. The first, and most self-evident, is a tendency to find meaning, even if the event itself may be meaningless. You see this in the stages of grief and you see it in the public reaction to an event like this. Our brains will not accept pure randomness, instead we see a series of "teachable moments."

The second tendency, called "confirmation bias," is something that is always with us. A Scientific American article describing a brain imaging study that supports the theory, describes confirmation bias:
...we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence...'Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones...'
When something like this happens, we feel the incident has meaning and then quickly discover the meaning to be supportive of our previously held views.

The best illustration of this I can think of came from an old This American Life episode. I'm foggy on the details and may be messing bits of this up, but essentially it told the story of two people, both witnesses to a mass shooting at a restaurant. One was a police officer who was wounded. He went on to become a gun control activist. The second was a woman dining with her parents, both of whom were killed. She became a politician and outspokenly pro-gun, explaining that had she had a gun that day, she would have stopped the shooter before so many people were killed (the state in question, I don't remember which, had some form of gun control policy at the time that prevented her from carrying one). Same event, two opposing lessons.

My own bias brings me to the now familiar liberal version of this teachable moment: conservative leaders and pundits have gone too far with over-the-top rhetoric and violent imagery since the election of Barack Obama, and there has to be some kind of norm of civility. And even if you don't agree there is a connection between the actions of Loughner and the political atmosphere, you should at least agree that such an obviously troubled person should never have been able to so easily buy a semi-automatic weapon.

As an antidote for my confirmation bias, I sometimes make an effort to understand and as best I can, explain the perspective of the other side. I find it particularly difficult in this case. Arizona already has incredibly lax gun laws, so you can't say: "if only someone else was able to legally carry a gun, they could have stopped him." And not only has the sheriff blamed the political atmosphere, so has the heroic woman who wrestled the second ammo clip from the shooter, probably preventing an even greater tragedy. On top of that, the video of Giffords commenting on the infamous Sarah Palin crosshairs map, is almost eerie in its foreshadowing:

As far as I can tell, the central lesson conservatives have drawn from this incident is liberals are dicks. In other words, liberals are unduly using this tragic moment to score political points, even while it's obvious that Loughner isn't a Tea Partier or political in any way. Or, if we must bring up the influence of heated political rhetoric, then both sides deserve equal blame since crosshairs were used in a Democratic political ad.

But that is a response to the response. What does the incident itself mean for conservatism? Is it the case that for conservatives this tragedy is simply a case of shit happens? What is this teachable moment teaching conservatives? Or maybe there really is nothing to take from this that can confirm that bias.

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