March 13, 2017

DAVIES | Democracy’s Jury

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In The People v. O.J. Simpson, Johnnie Cochran, a member of O.J. Simpson’s dream team legal squad, tells his colleagues, “Evidence doesn’t win the day. Jurors go with the narrative that makes sense.” The show presents DNA analysis as being so new that most jurors could make neither head nor tail of solid evidence presented that tied Simpson directly to the scene of two murders. Simpson’s defence relied on muddying the waters with accusations of systemic racism in the Los Angeles Police Department in order to prevent any conclusions being made beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury was enthralled by show tricks and rhetoric, smoke and mirrors around the fire of what actually happened on the night of the murders for which Simpson stood trial.

Such seems to be the state of much political discourse. The facts of which policies will benefit citizens are sacrificed to the story that fits their beliefs. Tariffs on tequila, confiscated healthcare subsidies, and polluted waterways are so quotidian when compared with the feeling of knowing that Mexico is hurting or that your taxes won’t be paying for those skiving bottom feeders any longer.

While hot-blooded narratives have always held greater sway than cold facts, it was only recently that our era offered the promise of moving definitively towards a more rational political discourse. The technological promises of the new millennium — a computer in every home, the internet connecting us all across borders — heralded an erosion of boundaries to information. Information’s instant diffusion would broadcast the plight of the downtrodden or the abuses of the powerful. With dendrites spreading to faraway lands, the average person could make informed decisions on issues that were once inaccessible.

Instead, the tide of new information has overwhelmed the average citizen. Encountering this, it is easier to retreat into what Willard Van Orman Quine termed a “web of belief” — the set of interconnected ideas and understanding that help us make sense of the world. At the core of this web are foundational beliefs while on the periphery reside less substantial views. Because of their centrality the core beliefs are seldom altered, for doing so would require reconstructing large areas of understanding that rely upon them. Peripheral beliefs are more flimsy given the ease with which we can plug any gap with a comparable belief.

Faced with the breadth and depth of information now afforded to us, individual confirmation bias seems a natural development. The Internet allows us access to a vast set of competing ideas to make up and shape our worldview. With an infinity of competitors for space in our web of belief, we each require some heuristic that allows us to balance the competing requirements of conforming our beliefs to some external reality and retaining security in our understanding of the world.

Constantly altering our views would unmoor the individual from any reference point. Considering today’s information landscape in light of the mind’s web of belief, it seems reasonable, almost sensible, that citizens choose to follow the stories that ring true rather than the evidence so solid it makes no sound. Narratives retain some hollowness to them in order to resonate with us whereas facts are too certain to produce the right melody.
This “stickiness” of understanding suggests that polities cannot move towards greater openness merely on the merits of fact. The ivory tower and the halls of power must offer some cogent narrative that persuades citizens. Politicians on the pro-openness side of recent political debates (Hillary Clinton, David Cameron) have failed to do this, instead believing that truth is enough to win the day. We need new narratives if we are not to cede ground to those who spin the old yarns of tribe and nation. It is a blessing and a curse that in a democracy, however removed we may consider ourselves to be, we are all jurors.

 

Alex Davies is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at adavies@cornellsun.com. Have I Got News for You? runs every other Tuesday this semester.