MONDAY, MAY 17, 2021
Consulting with anthropologists?: Kelly Donohue is a bank examiner for the state of Massachusetts.
Late last month, he went national as a three-time Jeopardy! winner. He was victorious his first three nights, was defeated his fourth time out.
In his weekly Media Equation column in this morning's New York Times, Ben Smith discusses one unfortunate part of Donohue's run of success. After watching Donohue's fourth and final appearance, a group of former Jeopardy! contestants became convinced that they'd seen him flash a three-finger "white supremacist" sign.
The other possibility is a bit more mundane—Donohue may have been displaying three fingers to signify his three wins. According to Smith, a photo of Donohue in a MAGA hat helped recommend the less flattering interpretation, at least for the Facebook group of former contestants.
Was Donohue simply showing three fingers to signify his three wins? As a review of the tapes makes clear, he had flashed two fingers the previous night, signifying his two wins to date. Also, he'd held up one finger when he was introduced on the second night, following his first win.
He flashed three fingers that last night, apparently signifying his three wins. But the former contestants became convinced that he'd flashed a white power sign.
By now, the Snopes site has judged that Donohue was unfairly charged. So has the Anti-Defamation League.
As for Smith, he's mainly impressed by the fact that a bunch of smart former Jeopardy! contestants were willing to draw a shaky conclusion on the basis of limited evidence:
SMITH (5/17/21): [T]he element of this story that interests me most is how the beating heart of nerdy, liberal fact-mastery can pump blood into wild social media conspiracy, and send all these smart people down the sort of rabbit hole that leads other groups of Americans to believe that children are being transported inside refrigerators. And, I wanted to know, how they could remain committed to that point of view in the absence of any solid evidence.
Mr. Donohue had tried to explain himself after the episode aired and accusations of covert white supremacy began turning up on his personal Facebook page. “That’s a 3. No more. No less,” he wrote. “There wasn’t a hidden agenda or any malice behind it.”
His fellow former contestants responded harshly in their letter to his attempt to explain himself. “Most problematic to us as a contestant community is the fact that Kelly has not publicly apologized for the ramifications of the gesture he made,” they wrote. That prompted him to “reject and condemn white supremacy” in a second statement.
I should stress again that these are smart people, who were in general more polite than the journalists who reluctantly take my calls most weeks. And that, I think, is the point here. The contestants’ investigations of Mr. Donohue had all the signal traits of a normal social media hunt gone awry—largely, that you assume your conclusion and go looking for evidence.
To Smith, these were smart, nerdy people behaving like a bunch of right-wing conspiracy theorists. They were acting as if you should reach your conclusion first, then go looking for evidence.
To Smith, their behavior "reflect[ed] a depth of alienation among Americans, in which our warring tribes squint through the fog at one another for mysterious and abstruse signs of malice."
Is that a fair assessment of what the former contestants did? If it is, we wouldn't find such behavior hugely surprising. And good lord! When Smith cast about for a way to understand this behavior, look what one sociologist had recently written:
SMITH: The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote recently about the liberal blind spot on how, to put it in her academic terminology, “polarization has eaten a lot of our brains.” In the media, she writes, “there’s been a lot of focus on misinformation over there,” among right-wingers who deny the reality of Covid-19, for instance. “But then there is the misinformation over here which is also quite persistent and also wildly wrong.” (Tufekci's italics)
To Smith, it almost looked like we in Our Town can behave like a warring tribe too! As for Tufekci, we were struck by the language the sociologist had chosen to use in this essay last month.
We liberals tend to focus on the misinformation we can spot "over there," Tufekci wrote. But there's also a lot of misinformation "over here," she said.
We're inclined to agree! We even wondered if Tufekci has been consulting with the same credentialed anthropologists from whom we've gained so many insights over the past several years.
Our imperfect human brains are wired for such reactions, these despondent experts have persistently said. At times of tribal division and stress, we will behave in such ways Over Here, unless we're careful to check ourselves.
In our view, Our Town behaves in such ways with depressing frequency. But just as Tufekci said, it's easy for us liberals to spot this kind of behavior when it occurs Over There.
It's harder to see it Over Here, where the people are all above average. We humans are wired to see things that way, top major experts have said.