Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ideology Trumps Reality

Wait...no, I got that title wrong. It's the other way around, I think. Reality surely trumps ideology. The real world isn't obliged to conform to our ideas about what it will do or should do. That seems obvious, but it's amazing how many people act as though I got the title right the first time, and reality will always turn out to match our ideology. It almost never works that way. Reality is messier than that.

What's gotten me thinking about this are the tragic events surrounding the Michael Brown shooting.* As soon as the story hit the news, people started talking as though they knew EXACTLY what had happened in that 90-second encounter. I heard conservatives who were positive Brown was an unredeemable thug who went for Wilson's gun, and Wilson acted purely out of justifiable self-defense. Then I heard liberals who were equally sure that Wilson is a murderous racist who gunned Brown down in cold blood. These armchair verdicts emerged before almost any real information had come out. People heard one version or the other, found that it matched their worldview, and believed it.

The problem is, as I mentioned, reality doesn't have to conform with our worldviews. It's bigger, messier, and more REAL than our puny little preconceptions of it. I've read through some of the conflicting testimonies, and the most honest thing I can say is that I don't know what happened. I'm not sure anybody does, except Darren Wilson and some eyewitnesses, and any psychologist can tell you that their memories will be faulty, too. We live in a world where--despite what conservatives want to admit--a cop might be a murderous thug in a racist department, capable of shooting someone in cold blood. There are cops and departments like that out there. I've met some very good cops and some very nasty ones, and I'm a clean-cut white guy who isn't likely to see the worst nastiness. The people of Ferguson probably have, and if I grew up black there I'm guessing I would take it for granted that racist, killer cops are out there.

On the other hand, we also live in a world where--despite what liberals want to admit--a young black man might have been in a violent frame of mind and gone for a cop's gun after robbing a store. There are young men who do that kind of thing. Some of them are black and some of them are white. Whether the store video should have been released or not, it's out there, and it suggests pretty strongly that Michael Brown was not in a benign frame of mind.

Does that mean he deserved to die? No. Does it means Wilson shot Brown in justifiable self-defense? I don't know. I tend to to doubt it, but I wasn't there, and I honestly don't know what I might have done in Wilson's place--I've been surprised at myself before, and in much less intense situations. Most of the people pronouncing their verdicts on this weren't there either. I dare say they don't know what they would do in the same position either. So why do people think they know what happened? Why are people acting as though facts will obediently bend themselves to their ideology--whatever that ideology is? They won't. Facts are, as John Adams said, stubborn things. Whatever your ideology, even if it's well-aligned with the real world, things will happen that run counter to it. Reality trumps ideology, and it doesn't always do what we want or expect it to do. If we want to learn what's actually true, instead of what we want to be true, then it's vital that we remember that. After all, what good is an ideology that blinds us to the real world?


* Please believe me when I say I only want to focus on this one topic--people acting as though their ideology can dictate reality. I'm not defending or denouncing Wilson, Brown, the Ferguson Police Department, or the rioters. I'm not saying whether Wilson should have been indicted, or making any other points beside the ideology thing. I have opinions on those things, but expressing them would be a distraction from my point here. My opinions aren't important anyway.