He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.
– Stephen Colbert on George W. Bush (referring to the events of 9/11 which occurred on a Tuesday)
There’s a psychological phenomenon known as motivated reasoning which leads people to infer an opinion based on a desired outcome rather than a reasonable analysis of observable truth. This theory, I believe, is the destructive force in American government and politics, but it’s most relevant occurrence these days is in a recent rash of incidents that have occurred in both sports and the justice system.
Back in 2003, Kobe Bryant was a top player in the NBA. And on July 1st of that year he was in Colorado for a knee surgery when he allegedly raped a hotel employee. The facts of the case are what they were, but there was a moment that stuck out to me that’s never worn away: that there were fans who came out to support Kobe Bryant. Now, it would be a reasonable show of support if the message was, “Let’s not jump to conclusions. Let the facts come out. This accusation may be financially motivated after all.” That would make for a lousy protest sign, though.
No, the message was “Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player of all time!” and “Kobe is my hero!” This is irrational. You can love Kobe Bryant the basketball player and object to Kobe Bryant the rapist. The case never went to court, thanks to a settlement, but I still recount how a man’s NBA prowess can be brought to bear by supporters in a criminal accusation when the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
Fast forward to July of 2014 when Eric Garner was murdered by NYPD cop Daniel Pantaleo in broad daylight and with the whole incident video taped. Soon after, teachers wore NYPD T-shirts in support of a fellow union with the message, “Thank you, NYPD.” Fascinating. Despite watching a man be choked, tackled, suffocated and ultimately killed having never threatened, attacked, or posed any threat to any police officer, support was thrown at the NYPD with no regard or mention of the specific instance at the center of the firestorm.
The question begs to be answered: what does one’s support of the NYPD have to do with the case of a cop, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, and his seemingly unjustifiable actions in the specific case of the death of a New York citizen? In other words, how does the support of a group warrant the approval of such a despicable act committed by one of its members? Shouldn’t identifying and rooting out such objectionable behavior be the very responsibility of such a supporter?
In a recent poll, 75% of Americans believed Pantaleo should’ve faced charges in Garner’s death. Many of these people support the police in general (source: common sense), so there’s a significant overlap of people who both support the police and the indictment of Pantaleo. I count myself as one of them. As the brother of an ex-cop, I always support the police who have a tough job and, by and large, execute on that job well. Even when a terrible mistake is made, unwavering support for the police as a whole is warranted. However, to witness the actions of Pantaleo and support them would be ridiculous.
This is where motivated reasoning comes in. There’s a percentage of Americans (probably between 5-10%) that insist Pantaleo’s actions were justified, that Garner was a threat (huh?), and that the NYPD is always right. It’s the latter belief which hints to us why they insist on believing the former. To object to Pantaleo’s actions is to come into conflict with the belief that everything the NYPD does is to be supported. This motivates the person to “believe” the action was justified. The person convinces themselves to believe something they objectively wouldn’t. Avoiding this conflict in world view brings comfort and the resulting satisfaction avoids inner struggle and a difficult internal dialogue. (Perhaps a difficult dialogue at the dinner table, too.)
Going back to Kobe Bryant, ardent fans of the NBA player who’ve invested hundreds of dollars int posters, jerseys and even sneakers would have to allow these items to become anchors around their necks. Years of bragging about their favorite player would look silly and, unjustifiably, call into question their credibility on other topics of interest. How do they come to grips with this conflict? Support Kobe! Support him no matter what. He did nothing wrong. Call his accuser a liar and that he’d “never want to fuck a ugly bitch like that.” When he admits that he did have sex with the woman, insist it was consensual! When there’s a settlement, insist it proves it was a money grab after all! In the face of all the evidence, the person is constantly looking for any excuse to side with the person or group that validates their world view.
It happens all the time. Fans wearing Ray Rice jerseys just days after video showing him severely beat his fiance. Fans supporting Michael Vick after evidence revealed he was killing animals as part of a dog-fighting ring. Justifying CIA torture. Supporting Joe Paterno when he covered up a friend sexually assaulting children. Catholics supporting the the church’s coverup of rape. Again and again no new information, no matter how damning, will sway the person. Their world view is already set, thank you very much.
And when it comes to the Eric Garner case, the results are even more heartbreaking. NYPD support, rather than direct condemnation of the act and party involved, only serves to dilute and frustrate an opportunity for change. Citizens’ respect and opinion of all NYPD officers will skew more negative because of the perceived lack of action in the specific case. If, imagine the scenario, the officer in question was indicted and given even a small punishment, the rest of the NYPD would be looked upon as “the upstanding ones. As it stands now, I fear, the lack of action only suggests that the coverup could only be staged by those equally guilty.
Motivated reasoning, over intellectual honesty, is what holds us back as a people. If our belief is unwavering, we’ll march forward as a group supporting actions we are morally opposed to. It is defending the indefensible, supporting the unsupportable, and a vote against our own self interests.