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Probably the most underrated aspect of knowledge is how the order in which you learn the facts shapes your understanding of them. Much as nature abhors a vacuum, the human mind rushes to categorize facts, make judgments, and spin a narrative.
The last of these is extraordinarily difficult to change: bad as it feels to be caught with the wrong facts, it’s infinitely worse to discover that you got their meaning wrong. And rather than use our rationality to reevaluate the importance and credence we gave the initial facts, we’re far more likely to put reason to work in service of our emotions by inventing rationalizations and justifications for our initial position. “That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it,” is more often an expression of pigheadedness than of integrity.
This has been greatly on display in Ferguson, Missouri over the the last few days, where some things have come to light and others are seen in a new cast of it. Chief among these are the revelations about Michael Brown, the young man whose death sparked the protests and riots that have engulfed the town. Brown, it seems, shoplifted a convenience store and assaulted a clerk only a few minutes before his fatal confrontation where — rather than being shot in the back often alleged — he appears to have been shot multiple times from the front.
Sadly — though not surprisingly — this information hasn’t led to the reevaluation one would hope from those who instantly latched onto the narrative of a young African-American man gunned down in cold blood by a white policeman. Indeed, despite nearly everything else initially “known” about the incident being called into serious question, protesters across the country are perpetuating the story that Brown had his hands raised in surrender when he was killed, as if it’s a verifiable fact.
This principle holds not only when facts are proven wrong, but when their importance is wrongly assigned. Libertarians, for instance, were quick to fit the story into a broader narrative of the perils of police militarization (a narrative, for the record, that I believe to be both correct and disturbing). Consequently, many hailed the arrival of softer-spoken, more normally-attired state troopers as the beginning of the end of the unrest. That the peace lasted only a single night hasn’t seemed to penetrate very far.
At the moment, the more conservative narratives of law-and-order and brokenness within the African-American community seem to be the most compatible with what we now know to be true. If that actually pans out, then it’s a shame that the Ferguson Police Department withheld so many of the basic facts of the case for so long, allowing false information to take hold in people’s imagination while providing fodder for narratives that may only be of secondary importance to this particular case (police militarization and arrogance).
Information on Ferguson will continue to filter out piecemeal and what we think we know now will likely change again in substantial ways. While it’s both natural and necessary to try to put the events into a bigger picture, we need to be sure to adapt our opinions in response to new information.