Don't Shoot

Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Facts and Narratives in Ferguson

 

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.

There are 9 comments.

  1. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    You’ve made some good points, Tom. This is part of human nature. We learn a fact or what we think is a fact and when someone tells us we’re wrong, our first instinct is not to re-examine our position and see if we were wrong. We try to think of various reasons why the first thing we learned was right and this new information must be wrong, even when there’s no reason to feel that we have something at stake. It seems to be instinctual and it’s a hard habit to break.

    • #1
    • August 18, 2014, at 12:33 PM PST
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  2. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor

    What kills me about this is the fact that practically every major American news outlet – including FOX – hasn’t had the guts to explain in detail the fact that the store owners in Ferguson are literally terrified to even call the police when an event like Michael Brown’s robbery occurred, primarily because they’re worried about retaliation for “snitching.” Fear of being called “Racist” dominates the actions of store owners, news coverage AND the actions of law enforcement.

    That sort of toxic environment, where lawlessness is the expectation and not the exception is what leads to this neverending cycle of escalation. Because the broken windows aren’t prosecuted out of a misguided desire to “keep the peace,” broken windows become acceptable.

    The fact that looters aren’t being arrested on sight is an extension of this and practically guarantees that it will be repeated in the future.

    • #2
    • August 18, 2014, at 12:36 PM PST
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  3. Wylee Coyote Member

    I read part of a Reason comment thread the other night (why I do these things to myself I’ll never know).

    The cognitive dissonance over there was so thick there was a guy who said he both supported the rioting (because it draws attention to how awful the cops are), and supported the property owners shooting the rioters.

    • #3
    • August 18, 2014, at 12:50 PM PST
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  4. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    Wylee Coyote:

    I read part of a Reason comment thread the other night (why I do these things to myself I’ll never know).

    The cognitive dissonance over there was so thick there was a guy who said he both supported the rioting (because it draws attention to how awful the cops are), and supported the property owners shooting the rioters.

    I very much enjoy Reason magazine but the comments section is as insane and uncivil as any place else on the internet.

    • #4
    • August 18, 2014, at 1:07 PM PST
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  5. Jeffery Shepherd Member

    One of the interesting aspects of this story that is not discussed is not the police officer’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of the robbery when he stopped Mr. Brown, but that Mr. Brown knew all about the robbery because he did it. What must have been going through Mr. Brown’s mind when, a few minutes after the robbery, he was stopped by a policeman.

    • #5
    • August 18, 2014, at 1:14 PM PST
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  6. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Jeff Shepherd: One of the interesting aspects of this story that is not discussed is not the police officer’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of the robbery when he stopped Mr. Brown, but that Mr. Brown knew all about the robbery because he did it. What must have been going through Mr. Brown’s mind when, a few minutes after the robbery, he was stopped by a policeman.

    That’s a really good point.

    • #6
    • August 18, 2014, at 1:16 PM PST
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  7. Wylee Coyote Member

    Randy Weivoda:

    I very much enjoy Reason magazine but the comments section is as insane and uncivil as any place else on the internet.

     If only there were a destination for witty, civil conversation on the web!!

    (psst, Rob, this is where the plug goes.)

    • #7
    • August 18, 2014, at 1:18 PM PST
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  8. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Jeff Shepherd: One of the interesting aspects of this story that is not discussed is not the police officer’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of the robbery when he stopped Mr. Brown, but that Mr. Brown knew all about the robbery because he did it. What must have been going through Mr. Brown’s mind when, a few minutes after the robbery, he was stopped by a policeman.

    That’s a really good point.

     Precisely. No wonder he reacted as he did – he had every expectation that the next police officer he saw was going to slap the silver manacles on him. Kill or be killed; Nature, red in tooth and claw.

    • #8
    • August 18, 2014, at 1:37 PM PST
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  9. Ralphie Member

    The news is difficult to beat to a story. The police are not in the 24 hour news business, and they are being criticized for saying the cop knew, then didn’t know the young man was a robbery suspect. The police lose credibility much quicker than the news when the wrong information is reported. Police represent authority, the press does not have to say what they mean and mean what they say. O’Reilly called the Ferguson cops “keystone” and was very derogatory toward them because of their press conference. They may be a good force that was pushed to report before they had confirmed information.

    • #9
    • August 18, 2014, at 6:15 PM PST
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