Confirmation Bias, the Covington Kids and Jussie Smollett
Confirmation bias refers to our inclination to interpret information in a way that reaffirms our preconceptions, biases and worldview. If it is a systematic error of inductive reasoning and a type of cognitive bias, as Wikipedia insists, then it is one that seemingly the vast majority of the public seems to share, particularly in these hyper-partisan times, when people seem to derive an awful lot of their identity from their opinions, particularly about the president.
These convictions about the way the world works irrevocably shapes and colors how we see life. Like many progressives, I am of the belief that racists disproportionately back Donald Trump on the basis of Trump being an extremely racist president whose appeal as a candidate and leader has been overwhelmingly racism and racial fear-based in nature and whose policies and rhetoric are also unmistakably racist.
So when I saw a headline about a video clip of a MAGA-cap wearing Catholic kid at an anti-choice rally bullying a Native American man my confirmation bias told me that of course a smirking, piece of shit kid in a MAGA hat was going to be a disrespectful little asshole to an elderly Native American activist.
Recent history led me to believe that when I clicked on the video of the infamous confrontation I would soon be hearing an ugly flood of words as this little shit verbally taunted this poor man, possibly using ethnic slurs.
Those kinds of videos, captured on cameraphones by horrified onlookers, have become ubiquitous in the Age of Trump, who is often, if not invariably invoked in these racist rants. They spread like wildfire because we all like to be outraged by the misbehavior and crimes of others, particularly with the promise of punishment waiting for these horrible people unwittingly exposing themselves as vicious racists.
It did not turn out to be that kind of video at all. Instead of spouting hateful words, the kid didn’t really say anything at all during the portion of the encounter disseminated across the country and the world. Instead, he just stood there with a smirk my confirmation bias told me was the cruel, aggressive facial expression of an arrogant young bully luxuriating in the awful sense of power and control Trump’s victory gave bigots and bullies who share his paranoid, xenophobic worldview.
The confirmation bias of Conservatives, meanwhile, led them to look at the exact same video and interpret it through their own prejudices and preconceptions, as yet another instance of a deeply biased, intensely anti-Trump press going out of its way to demonize Trump supporters, even if they’re mere children.
Oh, won’t someone think of the children!
The footage of the confrontation between the elder and the kid became a cultural Rorshach blot. People saw what they wanted to see. Was the MAGA hat in itself an act of aggression, a sneering symbol of white supremacy that spoke volumes even if its wearer said nothing? Is wearing a symbol of racism inherently a racist act?
How you feel about the Covington confrontation has something to do with the maddeningly ambiguous footage shared online and a whole lot to do with confirmation bias.
On a similar note, when I first read that Trump supporters had committed a homophobic, racist hate crime against actor-singer Jussie Smollett it fit my confirmation bias that Trump supporters were racist, homophobic and violent. In fact, it fit the left’s narrative about the brutality, ugliness and racism of Trump people a little too snugly. It seemed suspicious that ostensible supporters of Trump would be so intent on branding this particular hate crime as Trump-inspired. It similarly seemed strange that assailants would refer to Chicago, a city so fervently anti-Trump that the president famously had to cancel a rally there because he feared for his safety “MAGA Country.” So I can’t say I was terribly surprised when information started to seep out casting doubt on the authenticity of Smollett’s initial account.
Here’s the thing: if it turns out that Smollett faked a hate crime that doesn’t make Trump or his supporters any less racist. It just means that in this particular case, Trump’s backers may not be the guilty party.
Of course if Smollett did fabricate the attack it would reflect terribly on the left. It would feed into the right’s narrative that the left is so overcome with Trump Derangement Syndrome that they’ll go to any length to make him and his supporters look bad, up to and including faking hate crimes. It will fit their confirmation bias that the real bullies are on the left, and they aren’t above playing dirty.
We all experience confirmation bias. It’s part of being human. In this day and age in particular, not having opinions is more or less impossible. But it’s important to acknowledge and understood the role confirmation bias plays in our lives so that we can at least try to see the world for how it actually is, and not how our preconceptions and biases angrily insist it must be.
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