MONDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 2022
Defining the shape of an era: No, it isn't just Slate! The New York Times publishes a limited number of advice columns too.
They're far less numerous than the columns which seem to be propping up Slate. Also, the advice columns at the New York Times aren't transparently clownish.
One such column—The Ethicist—appears each week in the Sunday magazine. It's written by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a well-regarded philosophy professor at NYU.
Below, you see the start of a letter to which Appiah responded this week. We call your attention to an unusual part of the letter.
The letter writer has been asked to write a character reference for a friend. The writer's friend is suddenly involved in a custody dispute.
The letter writer doesn't know whether to write the character reference. Along the way, to her vast credit, the person who wrote the letter to Appiah made a startling admission.
We're scoring the writer as a "she." The letter begins like this:
For nearly a year and a half, we were in a pandemic pod with another family, and our children became fast friends. We saw this family nearly every weekend; it was our only social interaction. A few months ago, just after the children went off to different preschools, the parents suddenly said they were splitting up, much to our surprise. Several months later, one of the parents had sole custody, claiming the other parent was mentally ill and recounting several violent incidents.
The other parent has reached out to ask us to write a letter on her behalf to support regaining some custody of her child. She says that her ex-partner’s claims of violence and mental illness are false. I wasn’t present for any of the incidents, so I can’t say who was right or wrong; we merely heard stories...
"On one hand, the claims of violence could be true," the letter writer says as she continues. "On the other hand," she then says, the claims could also be false.
You can read the full letter here. Some of its statements don't quite make sense, but the letter writer is admirably clear about one basic point:
She's clear about a basic point—she doesn't know if the claims of violence are actually true. She wasn't present to see what occurred, and she has no other reliable source of knowledge.
The letter writer seems to be surprised by the claims of violence. To our ear, it sounds like the claims of violence are hard to square with her general view of the person being accused.
The writer seems to be surprised by the claims of violence. That said, the letter writer is admirably clear about that basic point—about her lack of actual knowledge.
The letter writer doesn't know what actually happened! She's admirably clear about that point—and in his reply, Appiah is admirably clear about that basic point too. Here's part of what he wrote:
APPIAH (2/27/22): The legal system for deciding matters of custody is far from perfect. But it’s most likely to work well if decision makers have as much useful information as possible. So accurately describing what you know—and avoiding conjecture about what you don’t—should be more helpful than not.
Appiah offers sensible advice. In writing a character reference, the letter writer should describe the things she actually knows. She should avoid conjecture—avoid making claims—about things she doesn't know.
This may seem like a very basic distinction—and, in fact, it is. The principle here could hardly be simpler:
We humans should always draw clear distinctions in our minds between the things we do and don't actually know.
In fact, we humans are strongly inclined to fudge that basic distinction. At the start of The White Album, Joan Didion described something we're inclined to do instead:
DIDION (1979): We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference...We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
According to Didion's analysis, "We tell ourselves stories." Sometimes these stories are quite simple-minded, on the level of the man with the candy leading the children astray.
Some such stories may seem to come from the world of fairy tale or myth. But we're strongly inclined to craft such stories out of the disparate images which constitute our limited experience—or at least, so Didion said.
We craft simple-minded stories about "the man with the candy"—about "the little lame balloonman [who] whistles far and wee." Didion even seemed to say that writers—journalists—engage in this childish behavior more than everyone else!
At any rate, "We interpret what we see" through the invention of such stories. "We select the most workable of the multiple choices"—of the various ways we could understand a significant set of events.
We humans love to make up stories! But in the course of inventing our stories, we'll often blow right past that basic distinction—the distinctions between the thigs we do and don't actually know to be true.
Meanwhile, we humans! As we invent our stories, we often include factual statements which are flatly false. Beyond that, we may include factual statements which we don't know to be true.
We may discard accurate statements which contradict the basic gist of the story we're inventing. We may put enormous stress on accurate facts which are wholly irrelevant to the question at hand.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we humans just aren't super-rational. We're strongly inclined to dream up tales which place a simple, even simplistic, shape upon a confusing or threatening world.
Here within the liberal world, we've done this in the past ten years with respect to a fairly large number of public events. One of the stories we've invented concerns the shooting death of Trayvon Martin—a shooting death which occurred ten years ago this past week.
We've invented an amazingly simplified story about that unfortunate event. Some elements of our story are simply false. Other key parts of the story we've fashioned are conjectures about events where we don't know what actually happened.
We've placed an astonishing amount of stress upon an accurate claim about a bag of candy—an accurate claim which is wholly irrelevant to the questions at hand. In short, we've done a stunningly poor job at remaining clear, within our highly fallible minds, about the things we do and don't actually know to be true about this widely-discussed incident.
What actually happened, ten years ago, when Trayvon Martin, age 17, was shot and killed in the dark with no real eyewitness present? To this day, many basic facts about what happened that night remain unknown.
We've filled the gap with a story we've invented and told about the events of that night. We've engaged in stunningly childish behavior about a tragic event.
That said, the story about Trayvon Martin's death has played a key role in the tribal politics of the past ten years. In the past few days, major news orgs have been observing the ten-year anniversary of that unfortunate shooting death.
Basically without exception, they've been telling a highly novelized story—a story which is often more fairy tale than established fact. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we're a very limited species, and our tribe has proved that point in this particular instance.
There's a lot of learn from what we've done with respect to this unfortunate event. As a bit of a spoiler, we'll tell you this:
We've done a stunningly terrible job observing the basic distinction observed by Appiah's letter writer—the basic distinction between the things we do and don't really know.
We humans! When we don't know what actually happened, we'll often start making things up! Tomorrow, we'll start with what Ta-Nehisi Coates has said about this unfortunate and highly novelized event.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live?" Sometimes our stories are like fairy tales. It's all anthropology now!
Tomorrow: "I interrupt your regularly scheduled programming..."