Saturday, March 31, 2012

Trayvon Martin, Fox News, and the Web of Belief

We were all deeply saddened by the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. For some of us, the shooting reaffirmed our belief that, despite the optimistic talk of a "post-racial" America, this country is still deeply divided along racial lines. Martin's shooting caused others to question their belief that America is now "post-racial."

Still, others remain reluctant to view this shooting and the Sanford police department's treatment of George Zimmerman as revelatory of the racial problems that continue to plague this country. Geraldo Rivera claimed that Trayvon's hoodie was to blame. Sean Hannity wondered if Trayvon's shooting could have been "just a big mistake."

But, how can this be possible? How can these geniuses at Fox News be so blind to the gravity of Trayvon's death?

I'll try to offer an answer to this question, utilizing W.V.O Quine's "web of belief," metaphor.

Quine believed that our beliefs form a web, so to speak. Each belief, for Quine, is connected to all other beliefs via inferential relations. For instance, my belief that my name is "Brandon" is connected to my belief that my parents and relatives have not lied to me about my name. I can infer the former belief from the latter. Additionally, for Quine, if I have reason to question the former belief, I have reason to question the latter. If you damage one part of the web, many other parts are affected.

For Quine, there is nothing supporting the web, no belief(s) that ground all other beliefs. As such, all of our beliefs are subject to change. While Quine takes it that there are no foundational, unalterable beliefs, he does believe that there are some beliefs which are more resistant to change than others.

For example, if one day my uncle referred to me as "Joe," I would not immediately start to question whether my parents had been lying to me about my name all these years. I'd most likely figure that my uncle was confused, or that I was mistaken in believing that he was referring to me.

My belief that my name is "Brandon," is very resistant to change, it is a core belief. On the other hand, my belief that my uncle is not confused in this instance is a belief that lies on the periphery of my web. I'm willing to give up this belief without much worry.

Quine believes that our core beliefs change when we reach a point at which we can no longer square them with the evidence we are faced with. To continue the example, assume I find out that my uncle was referring to me and wasn't simply confused. In this circumstance, I would try to come up with another explanation for his referring to me as "Joe."

If, after racking my brain for an alternative explanation, I came up with nothing, I may decide to just give up the belief that my name is "Brandon." This would be a drastic move, but, for Quine, there is nothing about the nature of belief that rules it out. In fact, Quine thought that even our beliefs about math and logic could be revised.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Rivera and Hannity?

It seems that the beliefs that America is in fact a post-racial country and that most charges of racism are misplaced or exaggerated are a core beliefs of many who work for and watch Fox News. Because these are core beliefs, the Fox News crowd seeks to explain Trayvon's shooting in a way that allows them to deny the reality of racism in America.

"Maybe it was a mistake."

"Maybe Trayvon was shot because he was wearing a hoodie."

"Perhaps Trayvon attacked Zimmerman."

"We shouldn't rush to judgment before we have all the facts, right?"

"It could be that the Sanford police have a really good reason for not arresting Zimmerman."

"Zimmerman has a black friend, so he's probably not a racist, right?"

All of these statements represent attempts to keep the conservative web intact. We know why this happens. No one wants their web to fall apart. When one gives up one's core beliefs, one feels a sense of homelessness, as Heidegger puts it. But, to face the world with courage and intelligence is to risk giving up one's core beliefs, to risk (temporary) homelessness.

It is past time for people like Rivera and Hannity to wake up. I doubt, but hope, that Martin's death will cause many of the Fox News conservatives to question their core beliefs about race in America. But, I admit, asking the Fox News conservatives to approach the world with courage and intelligence may be asking too much?

What do you think?


  1. You're asking way too much. Most haven't approached anything with courage and intelligence.

  2. Brandon,
    I think this might be slightly unfair, or at least your criticism is limited in scope. Is Fox News biased, on these and other issues? Yes. Is Trayvon's death a tragedy? Most certainly. Is Zimmerman responsible? Probably, to some degree.

    But something that really bothered me was NBC's editing the 911 call so as to make Zimmerman sound more explicitly racist than he was over the phone. NBC edited out the dispatcher asking for Martin's race, so that Zimmerman seems to volunteer this information in a racist way. However, in reality, contrary to NBC's reporting, Zimmerman did not mention Martin's race until he was explicitly asked.

    I'm not sympathetic at all with Zimmerman's cowboy mentality, but I'm also disappointed in NBC. Fox News isn't the only media outlet with a web of belief that they're desperately trying to preserve.

    Just a thought,

  3. Good analysis; I appreciate that. The belief at the centre of the web that US is indeed in a "post-racial" phase might be influenced by the persisting faith in the human goodness as well as pretensions of "civilized world" apart from the Fox news inputs.

  4. Eloquent analysis of an abysmal situation. Fox News' defense of this and other equally mind-boggling positions makes much more sense when viewed from Quine's metaphorical viewpoint. Inferred justification of an agenda that they and the audience hold near and dear.

    Appalling and frustrating to watch, but don't hold out for that sea change.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. Bootach, I think you're right that we are all dishonest with ourselves at times in order to preserve our core beliefs.

    I'm not sure that NBC is as bad as Fox though.

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