Sociologist critiques behavior Over Here!

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.


44 comments:

  1. "...on how, to put it in her academic terminology, “polarization has eaten a lot of our brains.”"

    Hey, it's a cult, dear Bob, liberal cult. We don't know if the followers did actually have any brains to begin with, but even if they did, it's gone long ago. Years ago.

    "That prompted him to “reject and condemn white supremacy” in a second statement."

    Oh yeah? Tsk. And now your super-smart contestant is acting conformist. And that, if you think about it, is even worse than being a standard-issue brain-dead zombie. Sad.

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  2. It's too bad we have to be on the lookout for white supremacists everywhere, but that's the world we live in after Reagan and GHW Bush made racism so politically popular again.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Smith wouldn't have been vulnerable to such a criticism if he weren't a MAGA idiot. He is the last person who qualifies to criticize non-Trump supporters who might be suspicious of his racial attitudes. There is NO plausible reason for supporting Trump.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "We're inclined to agree!"

    Not only is Somerby inclined to agree but he excerpts people like Tufekci solely because they support his opinion. There is always someone available to support any opinion, valid or not. All of a sudden Somerby doesn't mind recruiting a professor to support his views, when they agree with him. That isn't a convincing way to argue anything.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "these despondent experts have persistently said."

    Somerby would do his experts a favor if he encouraged them strongly to go see a therapist. No one is that despondent about such trivial matters. These seem like symptoms that should be taken seriously, especially when people are a bit fragile after their covid confinements.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Over There and Over Here are not equal in their flaws. Somerby's trick here is to try to equate the two but that doesn't fly.

    ReplyDelete
  7. “But then there is the misinformation over here which is also quite persistent and also wildly wrong.”

    It might be a tad more convincing as indicative of an actual problem if Smith had cited a more meaningful or widespread occurrence than the outcry of a handful of members of a Facebook page for former Jeopardy contestants, which The NY Times then dutifully prints as if it were MAJORLY important.

    ReplyDelete
  8. “But they also contained a thread of real conspiracy thinking — not just that racism is a source of Trumpian politics, but that apparently ordinary people are communicating through secret signals.”

    Try to parse this sentence of Smith’s. Is he implying that the notion that racism is a source of Trumpian politics is conspiracy thinking, or that people using secret signals to communicate is the conspiracy thinking?

    Either way, both things are kinda true.

    Not to mention 70% of Republicans think Trump really won. Sort of a disparity in group size when compared to that tiny jeopardy Facebook group thinking a contestant was flashing white supremacist hand signs, (which are actually a thing).

    ReplyDelete
  9. To keep this going, most Americans don't signify the number three in this manner. Normally, you would use the index, middle and fourth finger do denote three wins. I believe in some places they start counting with the little finger and raise additional fingers back toward the thumb. However, that is not what Donohue did. He used the index finger and middle fingers for wins one and two, but then switched things all around for three. Looks fishy to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Isn't it putting his thumb on the scales for Somerby to disappear this information?

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    3. The contestant said he’s not a white supremacist. He disavowed white supremacy. He went as far as to apologize for making a hand gesture that would have been innocuous had no one seen him in a Trump hat.

      That should have been the end of it. I’m sure his social media content was searched by every slavering partisan on the planet.

      It should have ended there.

      This isn’t 15th century Salem, MA.

      Delete
    4. The contestant said he’s not a white supremacist. He disavowed white supremacy. He went as far as to apologize for making a hand gesture that would have been innocuous had no one seen him in a Trump hat.

      That should have been the end of it. I’m sure his social media content was searched by every slavering partisan on the planet.

      It should have ended there.

      This isn’t 15th century Salem, MA.

      Delete
    5. Asking him who won the 2020 Presidential election is the easiest way to find out if he's a white supremacist.

      Delete
    6. You’ve made that epitaph as cheap as dirt.

      It couldn’t get any easier for you to level it or for your targets to flick it off like lint.

      Delete
    7. Cecelia, white supremacist hand gestures are not innocuous, with or without MAGA hats. They exist to provide plausible deniability while allowing like minds to recognize each other. His denial means nothing whatsoever.

      Delete
    8. Cecelia, the Salem witch trials happened in 1692-1693, not the 15th century (which would be the 1400s). Salem MA didn't exist then.

      Delete
    9. "flick it off like lint"

      Is that what the Qs are calling "violently trying to overthrow the government because black people's votes counted just as much as theirs in an election" these days?

      Delete
    10. Anonymouse 5:04am, you’d sleep better in your parents’ bed.

      Delete
    11. akleem, guess you've never seen an NBA game. Just saw Steph Curry (black guy) do it against the Lakers.

      Delete
  10. “By now, the Snopes site has judged that Donohue was unfairly charged. So has the Anti-Defamation League.”

    Well, that settles it then.

    ReplyDelete
  11. 'But just as Tufekci said, it's easy for us liberals to spot this kind of behavior when it occurs Over There. '

    You mean -- Us hardcore malignant Trump worshipping Trumptards.

    There -- fixed it for you

    ReplyDelete
  12. I find the widespread conspiracy theories, on all sides, frightening. History tells me that irrational conspiracy theories generally include antisemitic ones.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Meh. The ubiquitous practice of smearing, denouncing, and destroying people's careers and livelihoods is nothing like 'conspiracy theories'.

      It's garden variety mccarthyism.

      Delete
    2. gingrichism.

      Delete
    3. Mao,
      Joe McCarthy is a Right-wing hero.
      Do try to keep up.

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