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Confirmation Bias

eye on the news

Confirmation Bias

Interpreting a mundane hand gesture as evil incarnate, the anti-Trump #Resistance races over the edge of rationality. September 5, 2018
Politics and law

The anti-Trump #Resistance crossed the fever line yesterday, the opening day of the Senate confirmation hearing for the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh’s former clerk Zina Bash, currently a White House attorney, sat behind the judge, and at one point rested her fingers on her crossed arms so that they formed the universal “OK” sign, with thumb and index finger making a circle. According to social media lore, this symbol has been appropriated by the white supremacist movement to signal “white power,” and Bash was knowingly doing so. Twitter exploded over the allegation, with many prominent Twitter users expressing outrage that the Trump administration would advertise its racist ideology in such a high-profile setting. To others who examined the Bash footage, she merely seemed vaguely bored, fidgeting slightly, and listening to the senators on the Judiciary Committee make their predictably partisan opening statements.  

The question necessarily arises: If Bash were really doing such a thing, what would be the purpose of making this arcane gesture, and for whom would the message be intended? Everyone, according to the #Resistance, already knows that President Trump and his appointees are avowed white supremacists; and the white supremacists themselves must surely already be aware of the intentions of the Trump White House, which is so devoted to their cause. Is Zina Bash—a woman of mixed Jewish and Mexican descent—supposedly giving the high sign to the few remaining white-power aficionados still on the fence regarding Trump, letting them know that they should support Kavanaugh’s nomination?

The aggressively paranoid interpretation of Zina Bash’s arm-crossing resembles the Left’s continual insistence that racist politicians are “dog-whistling” to their base. The idea behind dog-whistling is that the Right speaks in code, saying things that sound like normal, civil utterances, but which, when decoded, express the most vile sentiments imaginable. Just as a dog can hear a whistle pitched beyond the range of human ears, racists can supposedly communicate subtly with one another by using special words whose double meanings escape the comprehension of normal people.

So when Trump called the Koch brothers “globalists,” that was “an anti-Semitic dog whistle,” though the Kochs are Protestants. When Trump said, last week, that Democrats want to raid Medicare to enact a socialist agenda, it was a “racist dog whistle.” When Trump cited Tucker Carlson’s report on South African farm invasions, that was dog-whistling, too—to people who find racial violence newsworthy.

The funny thing about political dog-whistling, though, is that it apparently doesn’t work. All the wrong people understand it immediately, while it seems to go over the heads of the intended audience. Leftist commentators and activists are like tuning forks pitched to the highest imaginable frequencies; they can detect a sexist insult or racial imprecation at any distance, no matter how opaque. No sooner has a supposed racist opened his mouth then a whistle is blown on his dog-whistling. All language—“welfare,” “globalist,” “articulate,” “illegal,” “he”—is primed for redefinition by self-appointed scholars of dog-whistling, trained to hear the secret language of hate transmitted between the lines of innocent-sounding discourse. 

The discipline of deciphering dog whistles—or reading secret hand gestures—requires a quasi-religious superstructure to have any coherence. The mystical belief in prevailing institutional racism and prevalent white supremacy is a doctrine of faith by which the anointed—professors, editorial board members, implicit-bias trainers—can detect hate in the ostensibly blameless heart. Since white supremacy is everywhere, on this view, it’s paradoxically nearly impossible to detect, like orgone or phlogiston; its power lies in its ineffability. Like the devil to a Puritan, it is crafty and subtle, a great deceiver. Though segregation is illegal in the United States and racism is harshly punished, white supremacy paradoxically grows stronger, as in homeopathy, through its dilution. 

And it is the magical thinking of homeopathic treatment—also common to belief in witchcraft, sorcery, and demonic possession—that infects the most impassioned among the #Resistance. Imputing evil motive where there is only distraction, reading the foulest intentions in every banal utterance, their reactions to mundane phenomena increasingly represent a collective cognitive split, one that will not be mended readily or easily. We can expect much more of the same.

Photo: Pool/Getty Images

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