Monday, July 27, 2009

False Lessons, Universal Truths

I think this is a really savvy point (via Andrew Sullivan):

Ever notice how the criminal justice incidents that seem to capture the national attention are those that are either amenable to drawing false lessons (Gates was wrong about Crowley profiling him, therefore all claims of racial profiling are bogus; the Jena 6 were inaccurately touted as saintly victims, therefore there is no racial injustice in Louisiana), result in outcomes that almost never happen (false charges against Duke lacrosse players resulted not only in a public pronouncement of their innocence, but actual criminal charges against the power-tripping prosecutor), or otherwise give completely inaccurate assessments of how the criminal justice system actually works (like O.J., violent crime suspects are able to win acquittal via slippery defense lawyers, high-paid and hackish forensic experts, and racially sympathetic

Not sure why or how it works out that way, but it certainly seems to. Unfortunately, the public’s education about the criminal justice system seems to come chiefly through these high-profile cases.

There are always problems when we draw broad conclusions based on specific examples.

I think the reverse is also true. We need to acknowledge social context -- especially because that context often influences our behavior. But we shouldn't let that context bias our reading of particular events. There are execptions to every rule.

It's important not to mistake general truth for universal truth.


petpluto said...

we shouldn't let that context bias our reading of particular events. There are execptions to every rule.

How do you (does one?) decide when the event fits into the general social context, and when it is the exception?

Just as an FYI, I'm not trying to be a smartass; but it is something that I'm genuinely curious about. How we decide what is an exception and what isn't, what counts and what doesn't, and in what way our own viewpoints dictate what we privilege as being part of the system and what we take as a tale apart. And who gets to make the final decision on all of that.

petpluto said...

Some of those periods should be question marks. I guess my coffee is finally wearing off.

mikhailbakunin said...

I think we need to acknowledge the broader social context, but when we're investigating specific incidents, we also need to step back from that context and let the facts speak for themselves.

There's no perfect dichotomy here.

Situations involving race (and gender) tend to be intensely personal and extremely complex. Often, it's difficult to get at the actual facts. Sometimes those facts don't even make sense if they're divorced from a social context.

But I don't think we should begin to examine specific instances with a bias perception of events -- even if that perception is based on a narrative that is largely accurate. (By "we" I mean both individuals and society.)

I also don't think anyone in particular gets to decide what's true. If our goal is to get beyond bias perceptions, we all need to try harder to step outside our personal experience.

But, if I really had to choose, I'd say that George Bush should probably be the one to decide . . . since he's, ya know, The Decider.

mikhailbakunin said...

My sources tell me that George Bush is no longer The Decider. My bad. :)