STARTING TOMORROW: Creating the story of a death!


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..."


  1. "Meanwhile, we humans! As we invent our stories, we often include factual statements which are flatly false."

    Meh. Humyns with functioning brains rarely "include factual statements which are flatly false", dear Bob.

    You know why? Because it'd be dangerous to do so. One may not, for example, recognize a real danger and fail to flee, to save themselves. Or to fight. Or to feed, or to fuck.

    That is, dead Bob, why these big brains are given to us, humyns: to distinguish between the four Fs.

    ...brain-dead liberals is, of course, a completely different matter...

  2. "We humans love to make up stories!"

    What is the point of collecting data if you do not interpret your results? The data by itself is useless. Interpreting data requires one to tell a story, perhaps to go beyond the data itself to assign meaning.

    Imagine an antelope at the watering hole. He hears an unexpected noise from a nearby tree. He doesn't know what caused the noise for sure but he knows he heard something. If he tells himself the noise was made by a stalking leopard, he will live to drink another day. If he tells himself it was only a bird, he risks death. Of course the antelope will tell a story about what was heard. Of course people will do the same, because failure to do so results in a loss of control over our environment, unnecessary risks and even death.

    Somerby loves to tell us that we cannot go beyond the facts at hand, but failure to do so causes other kinds of problems, deadly ones in an unkind environment, as much of our world has been until very recently.

    We tell stories to understand our world. If we stop doing that, we die as a species, because we evolved the capacity to go beyond data because it provides survival benefits. Telling people that this is wrong is unhelpful because it isn't wrong.

    Our "stories" are most helpful when they are most accurate. An antelope who never drinks at the watering hole because of fear of leopards, will die of thirst. So the closer it can get to what is real, the better for the animal's survival chances.

    Somerby should be telling us to work hard to figure out what is true, not to stop telling stories (interpreting the meaning of what is known). I wish Somerby had even once speculated about how to make journalism more accurate, instead of telling journalists to stop "speculating". Those who best predicted Putin's current actions are being praised now, but before the actual invasion, Somerby might have been scorning their predictions, their stories about Putin. Somerby himself predicted Trump would be reelected, a story clearly in light of the facts. Hindsight doesn't justify telling people not to try to figure out the world.

  3. Someone is going to have to figure out how to decide about custody, even in the fact of imperfect knowledge. Some decisions cannot wait for perfect information or even complete information.

    People have ways of making "judgments under uncertainty" (the title of a book by Nobel prize winning psychologist Kahneman & Tversky). Somerby can deride that as storytelling if he wants, but it makes him only a curmudgeon, because the kind of certainty he demands is not possible and is incompatible with making progress of various types.

    In the case of divorce, when one party is making allegations of violence against another, it is helpful if the letter writer states whether he or she saw any sign of violence in their own experience. Simply avoiding the subject is unhelpful when the decision hinges on the accusation of violence. The letter writer needs to be brave for the sake of the children.

  4. What is with Somerby's assumption that the letter writer is female? Isn't that a form of storyline? If he doesn't know, one way or the other, why wouldn't he say "he or she"?

  5. "the little lame balloonman [who] whistles far and wee."

    Somerby gives this as an example of storyline. It is a line from an e.e. cummings poem. But how does Somerby know whether cummings made this up as part of a story or whether it actually happened and was described because it was present. The specificity of the balloon man being lame when there is no purpose served by him being so, suggests that this is a realistic detail included because it was true.

    But is a poem really an example of journalism? Are people not permitted to make up stories as part of literature -- cummings was a poet after all? Is non-literal symbolism not permitted in poems? This seems like a counter-example to Somerby's criticism of stories, yet he throws it into a list of stories as if it were a created narrative (when it is just an atmospheric detail). But shouldn't someone reading a work of fiction be able to tell what is made up simply by the fact that he or she is reading fiction? And how made up is a balloon man, if everyone recognizes what such a figure is and what is doing and why?

    Somerby hasn't thought this through. His main demand seems to be that we accept his version of what happened to Trayvon Martin, and I doubt whether he cares about the nature of facts and whether any facts would make any sort of sense without narrative to organize and interpret them.

    We may not know what happened in the exact moment between Zimmerman and Martin, but we have Zimmerman's own account of what he was doing outside of his truck, and that makes him clearly the instigator and thus the person responsible for what happened. Further, he is the adult in the situation. He bears the responsibility, no matter what the court decided under a misguided law in FL. A recent study has found a significant increase in gun violence following the enactment of that law that protected Zimmerman. If that is what Florida wants, that is an entirely different subject, but Somerby's refusal to let go of this issue raises another point -- what is Somerby's vested interest in situations involving shooters who kill other people in the name of a self-defense that occurs in public, in situations where those others were exercising their own rights to exist? Rittenhouse comes to mind. What made Martin less entitled to defend himself than Rittenhouse? It seems like only the gun in hand was different and is Somerby really willing to say that might makes right? It seems like it.

    1. It is worse than you write. Somerby has repeatedly lied about the Zimmerman case, claiming things no witness testified to, things Somerby was reported to by FOX. No, Zimmerman's head was not pounded into the concrete, no Zimmerman was not being pounded on in MMA style, these claims were reported by Fox, but no witness testified to this nonsense. These claims are false, made up, pushed by right wingers, yet and with no irony, Somerby repeats these baseless claims. Somerby has no integrity.

  6. Is there anything in particular that has brought this to Somerby's mind today? In a less symbolic way?

    I know it's a continuing theme, but I'm wondering if he's thinking about the events in the Ukraine.

    Their president and those people are great,y to be admired. They are examples to all of us.

    However, every video looks like it's right out of central casting. It's uncanny.

    1. If you tell us that Somerby is thinking about Ukraine when he has said nothing about it himself, that is surely telling a story, creating a narrative about Somerby as a caring person.

      And when you say that the videos about the Ukraine seem to be "right out of central casting" are you implying that the brave Ukrainian soldiers are crisis actors? It seems more likely that art imitates life than vice versa, so perhaps the movies like to portray stories of bravery, from real battles and that's why it seems familiar to you.

      Given that Somerby has said nothing whatsoever about Ukraine in today's essay, your recruiting him to support your idea that news from the Ukraine is somehow false, strikes me as a slap in the face to those who are defending their country from invasion.

      I doubt even Somerby would agree with a suggestion that the news about the Ukraine is being manufactured. For one thing, a lot of it is supported by cell phone videos and tweets from those on the scene. It would be much harder to fake that corroboration than to write an inaccurate news report. And what about the agreement across various cable news and print news sources? That might be hard to manufacture too.

      But don't worry about starting new conspiracy theories. The fringe can do that without your assistance. They do it in servce of their need to preserve their own favorite narratives, intact, unchallenged by reality.

    2. Such stories about Ukrainian heroism may be spread as propaganda, but it seems doubtful that the videos are being manufactured.

      But this does illustrate the danger in Somerby's rants about storyline and narrative, his equivalent to calling the media "fake news" as Trump and the conservatives have been doing. It provides fodder to weak minds and encourages conspiracy theories.

      If you ask which is the greater threat to public discourse, I would consider the latter to be more dangerous than an occasional mistaken fact in an otherwise true account written by a journalist.

    3. No, Anonymouse11:13am, I'm not doing anything nefarious towards Somerby, the Ukrainians, or you.

      I understand you have, at all times, strict parameters on what can be uttered, and that you're more than delighted to extrapolate anything the slightest off script into something worthy of the Nuremberg trail.

      However, I'm voicing puzzlement. The most realistic video I've seen is of a Ukrainian with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, hand carrying a landmine out from under a bridge. (It's a fresh cigarette and he's loathe to waste it.)

      THAT video is grainy, gritty, and realistic down to the millisecond of nervous laughter from man.

      THAT video is enough to tell you everything you need to know about the spirit of these magneficient people.

      Otherwise, it's a puzzlement as to how everything else is so perfect.

      I know nothing of modern video, even on a cellphone. I rarely do that, so am unfamiliar with techniques that add a professional look of which people age five are doubtlessly now familiar.

      Again, it's uncanny to me and it makes me fearful that we can think things are better than they are very easily. That makes me nervous.

    4. "but it seems doubtful that the videos are being manufactured."

      But of course it's all manufactured: it's wartime propaganda, for crissakes.

      See here, for example:

      Or the Snake Island story:
      ...while in reality:

      Or this:

      It's all bullshit.

    5. Mao, we're already SURE we can't trust Russia.

    6. So Thursday I was driving and NPR and BBC had nearly continuous coverage of events in the Ukraine throughout the day.

      Sunday I was making the trip back and the opposite was true. BBC had sports coverage throughout the morning and afternoon, and NPR played its usual Sunday shows like Hidden Brain and stuff. Which are good shows, let me say.

      But I wanted to hear more about the Ukraine. Was Chernobyl at risk? Were there any developments?

      The lack of coverage was surprising.

      Anyway, one of the NPR pieces was about Trayvon Martin which is what I wanted to also mention.

    7. 12:34
      It’s been 24-hour a day coverage of Ukraine on msnbc. CNN is doing a good job covering it.

      But according to Baghdad Bob, they’re busy reporting on a crazy truck protest.

    8. “Their president and those people are great,y to be admired.”

      Cecilia, I’m sure you strongly supported them when Trump was extorting Zelensky for dirt on Joe Biden. Right?

      Or when he was impeached over that?

      Or when Trump decided to exit NATO after his re-election?

      The GOP needs to go fuck itself.

    9. “ while in reality:” and “Tass” in the same sentence: utterly laughable.

    10. Cecilia, could you please link to a couple of the videos you describe? Thank you,

    11. mm , it's true. This whole thing has been manufactured by Democrats. The aim is to get Europe to buy gas from us, not Russia.

    12. mh, I never blamed impeachment on anyone, but Trump and Democrats.

      I thought Zelensky was probably typical of a leader in that region in that they are not all "scrupulously honest", but had I been asked, I'd have never thought him less than compelled toward anything other than holding onto to his country, his boulders, and his nationality... I wouldn't have considered that he down in the street doing that from jump.

      mh, please. Don't get carried away with yourself by suggesting that you, at the time the time of the investigation, had an inkling of Ukrainian tenacity and spirit, rather than just being glad Zelensky wasn't absolving Trump.

      Same "F- you" towards your contrarians just like tomorrow.

    13. @ 1:05 PM,
      yes, dear mh, it is indeed reality, believe it or not. Confirmed by multiple other sources. Yandex it.

      But of course you're free to drink the kool-aid, as much as you like.

    14. Anonymous 1:129m,

    15. "Or when Trump decided to exit NATO after his re-election?"

      Now, that would definitely prevented this war. Not even exiting NATO, but just guaranteeing that Ukraine won't be allowed to join.

      The Commander would've done it in a second. And that would've definitely prevented this war, and the global thermonuclear war that is now so much more likely.


    17. "carries-landmine-with-bare-hands"

      Hopefully it's a fake, but if not: there are halfwits everywhere, in all countries.

      ...but then someone would have to participate by filming it. So, two cretins together, on a road? Tsk, well, also ain't unheard of...

    18. ...incidentally: if, apparently, Russian troops are advancing and Kiev-controlled troops retreating, which side would be planting mines on the roads?

    19. Rationalist, I have you beat the NPR/Treyvon Martin thing.

      The head of the British intelligence service MI6 used the invasion of the Ukraine as a pretext to tweet congratulations to his agency on its "LGBT+" policy.

    20. Yes, it's incredible to me that this story is fading from the top of the news.

      The idea of covering an old story, "killed after buying a bag of skittles" was the tagline offered, by the way - instead of covering a conflict that could potentially spill radiation across the world from either a breached Chernobyl or nukes launched by Putin himself... it's madness.

    21. There is no danger in carrying a landmine while smoking a cigarette. They are made with plastic explosives these days. It would only be set off by triggering the detonation mechanism. The cigarette however is deadly.

    22. Rationalist,
      The tagline should have been "For the crime of walking in public while black."

    23. Yes Cecilia, it's all faked. Like The moonshot and Covid.

    24. Not faked, but zhuzhed to the point where we're high-fiving on social media and tv rather than saying " what do all sides want and how can we convey that they might get it?"


    25. AnonymousFebruary 28, 2022 at 6:15pm, "... The cigarette however is deadly."

      Ukrainian derring-do knows no limits!

    26. Right wingers have lost the narrative with the Ukraine events; right winger Trump praises right winger Putin, an obvious loon, so now rank and file right wingers just offer the weird, incoherent babble we see here.

    27. It is kind of sad, with the passing of Rush, watching the radical right run around like chickens with their heads chopped off, totally confused about what they're supposed to say in reaction to daily events.

  7. Part of the consideration of whether the woman in Somerby's story was likely to have committed domestic violence should be the relative occurrence of such violence in statistics about domestic abuse. Here is a summary:

    "The major points of this review are as follows: (a) women’s violence usually occurs in the context of violence against them by their male partners; (b) in general, women and men perpetrate equivalent levels of physical and psychological aggression, but evidence suggests that men perpetrate sexual abuse, coercive control, and stalking more frequently than women and that women also are much more frequently injured during domestic violence incidents; (c) women and men are equally likely to initiate physical violence in relationships involving less serious “situational couple violence,” and in relationships in which serious and very violent “intimate terrorism” occurs, men are much more likely to be perpetrators and women victims; (d) women’s physical violence is more likely than men’s violence to be motivated by self-defense and fear, whereas men’s physical violence is more likely than women’s to be driven by control motives; (e) studies of couples in mutually violent relationships find more negative effects for women than for men; and (f ) because of the many differences in behaviors and motivations between women’s and men’s violence, interventions based on male models of partner violence are likely not effective for many women."

    This suggests that the situation may be more complex than an outsider can evaluate in a recommendation letter.

    1. Given that women are less likely to injure others, more likely to be reacting to violence against them, less likely to engage in serious violence and terrorism, more likely to be motivated by self-defense and less likely to be driven by control issues, it seems like the wife should be given custody of kids, not the husband. Of course, specifics (as opposed to allegations) should determine the decision, but in the absence of details, the wife should get the kids.

  8. Wasn't Somerby recently complaining about advice columns? Why is he now borrowing from one to build today's essay around? Didn't he suggest that such letters are made up? If one cannot believe the letters, why are we being asked to consider them as examples of anything? (And this is the danger of calling everything fake.)

  9. Covid has increased the divorce rate by 34$ and decreased the marriage rate.

    Here is information about false allegations of abuse:

    "False allegations of abuse are an all-too-common phenomenon during divorce and child custody proceedings. One parent fabricates a false allegation against the other parent to gain leverage in court and to undermine the parent-child relationship going forward. The frequency of false allegations in custody cases is not fully understood, with estimates ranging from 2% to 35% of all cases involving children.1 Whatever the percentage, attorneys, judges, and mental health experts all know firsthand that it is a vexing problem in court cases. And nothing can disrupt, sidetrack, or impede a case more than an allegation of abuse that eventually proves to be false.

    Parents never admit to their conniving and harmful behavior during a legal action. As such, proving an allegation is false can be extremely challenging. Why? Because a false allegation is hatched in the mind of the offending parent, who then enlists the help of their child to unwittingly carry out the plot. The intent is to harm the other parent, but to do so as if the offending parent is the real victim. Parents know that an allegation of abuse has the potential to help them win their case, which is their ultimate goal. Unfortunately, being honest and fair is not always a virtue in a contentious child custody case.

    Detecting a false allegation is critical because judges can be swayed by the accusation, even if it is not substantiated by the evidence. More often than not, custody decisions go in favor of the accusing parent.2 So, uncovering and exposing a false allegation is vital in making sure the offending parent is not rewarded for his or her destructive behavior."

    The article goes on to explain how to detect false allegations during an examination by a forensic psychiatrist.

    A custody dispute is a special situation in which there may be a strong motive to lie about one's spouse. Generalizing from such a situation to narrative in the news is ridiculous. There is nothing comparable about normal storytelling to organize facts and make sense of the world and motivated lying to achieve child custody during a divorce. Or the kind of lying Rittenhouse did during his trial to achieve his not-guilty verdict.

    If Somerby cannot tell the difference between use of narrative to structure thought and such motivated lying, there is something seriously wrong with him. Or he is so strongly motivated to discredit everyday journalism that he will bend truth himself by presenting these false examples.

    1. Really? You found fault with something that was written here? And ascribed devious motives to it? What a shock! :)

    2. You have to love the "we're not evil, we're morons defense" the Right always defends itself with, when they are called out for being evil.
      As if they couldn't be both.

    3. I have a similar story of the pandemic, without the sad turn of events for the estranged couple.

      During the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was in full swing and there was an air of ghost town everywhere, the old man and I spent a couple months sneaking across the back of our property into the neighbor's backyard.

      We took turns hosting, having a big dinner a couple of nights a week, and on the other nights we ate appetizers outside till the evening turned into a stranger. We dresed up every night, making an occasion of it.

      I'll always remember my husband and I sneaking back home through the dew and the dimness, whispering, trying not to be loud, arm-in-arm, more often than not tipsy, as though we were eloping.

      I feel sad for that other couple.

    4. My favorite story from the pandemic was how the Libertarians in the executive suites of corporate America were begging Daddy Government to save their businesses.

    5. There is not a little smugness here in your story Cecelia.

    6. Absolutely, Anonymouse6:08am, and if a satellite falls out of orbit and lands on a family down the street, I'll congratulate myself for having bought four doors up.

  10. This advice show thing might be the biggest story since the Quiz Show fixes. Great work Bob.

  11. Bob only really writes now when he can gloat, and yes, the Martin case gives him the opportunity. The Micheal Brown story is even worse, though the Post did call some major Dems to account for their version of the "Murder."
    Is this worse than the war on Christmas or other garbage one would find at Fox News? Maybe not, but that's a poor excuse for it.
    But in sticking to a strict policy of only gloating at the sins of one side, Bob is of course the ultimate in what he claims to condemn. -Greg

    1. "War on Christmas"...Burning down Ferguson, MO...?

      Burning down Ferguson, MO..."War on Christmas"?...

    2. Trying to overthrow the United States Capitol because black people's votes counted in an election...Protesting the shooting of unarmed black men by police officers...?

      Protesting the shooting of unarmed black men by police officers...Trying to overthrow the United States Capitol because black people's votes counted in an election?...

  12. Here is someone with his finger on the pulse of American politics:

  13. The letter writer can say that she spent numerous weekends with the family, never saw the mother engage in any behaviors of the sort she was accused, and never saw the children engage with her in a manner suggestive that they were victims of such behavior. WTF is so hard about that?