The Myth of Objectivity: Choosing our Facts

The Myth of Objectivity: Choosing Our Facts     —by Jinny Batterson

This fall’s election season left me both physically and emotionally exhausted. In October, as attack advertising on all sides escalated and early voting started, I finalized plans to visit extended family on the west coast shortly after the election was over. It seemed a good way to regain some longer term perspective—the two generations that come after me would help me regain balance.

Now that I’m in sunny California, we’ve mostly avoided talking politics. I’m sure we don’t agree on everything. Avoiding hasty words is an antidote for having to take them back later. The grandkids are cute, and generally uninterested in grown-up concerns.

However, I haven’t escaped political repartee entirely.  My first Sunday here, I was sitting under a shade tree, watching the kids play as the awards ceremony for our son’s final cross country race of the season droned on. A man also watching from nearby piped up with unsolicited advice: several of the kids were playing in a way that might result in injury, he said. A friend of his had had a dangerous fall and lost an eye. I thanked him, mentioned his concern to the kids, asking them to be a little more careful, and thought that would be the end of our interaction. No such luck. 

“What do you think about the results of the election?”  he inquired.

“I’m not too happy,” I responded. “I would have preferred that the other presidential candidate had won.” 

“How could anyone support someone who violated the first tenet of public service?” he jibed. “I was in the Coast Guard. If I had sent classified information over a private email server, I’d forever have been disqualified from further service, let alone from becoming Commander in Chief.” 

Not wanting to get further enmeshed in a discussion that didn’t seem likely to have any positive result, I tried for more neutral ground.

  “Neither candidate was all that appealing,” I ventured. “I didn’t like the way Mr. Trump repeatedly insulted all sorts of people.” 

“Most of that was just bluster,” he responded. “After all, Trump is a brash New Yorker. Still, he has valid points. For example, there are over 750,000 illegal immigrants in New York City alone. That makes more than 10% of the population. They’re taking up housing that should be available to those of us who were born here or came here legally.”

Succumbing to continuing a conversation that I was pretty sure would end badly, I responded, “In the part of the country where I live, immigrant labor harvests nearly all of the crops. We need those workers.”

“Ha!” he said. “There was a time, during World War II, when there was a shortage of local workers for harvesting because so many American men were serving overseas, so immigrants were allowed in. However, once the war was over, Eisenhower sent them all back where they came from.”    

‘Look,” I said, “it seems that you and I view very different parts of reality. I respect your perspective, but I can’t agree with it.”

“Lady,” he said, “you’re entitled to choose your opinions, but you cannot choose your facts.”  With that, he strode off, triumphant. 

Not one gifted in coming up with snappy responses, I later did a bit of further research. Estimates of illegal immigrants/undocumented workers in New York vary widely, with the high-end 750,000 figure most likely coming from an online 2015  post by conservative-leaning publisher Newsmax. Every article about immigration has an editorial slant, explicit or implied—emphasizing either the costs or the contributions of this section of the American population. Some sources stress the need to keep families together, the need for skilled workers, or the aging of the U.S.’s native-born population. Others emphasize the need to reserve jobs/housing/advancement opportunities for the native-born. During the presidential transition, immigration remains a hot-button issue. 

I don’t have a pat answer. I’m not hopeful that our national immigration policies will become either more sensible or more humane for the near-term future. However, I believe that there is a way toward consensus in our nation of immigrants.  As recently as 2013, the U.S. Senate managed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill,  S.744, with a substantial bi-partisan majority.  No comparable bill has so far passed the House of Representatives.

To further chances for reform, I believe we’ll need to listen to each other’s stories more deeply. We’ll need to broaden our array of “facts” beyond the mostly biased reporting we’re being subjected to on all sides.

To get a more general view, I turned to a different Internet site and searched for TED talks about “search engines.” I found the following brief talk by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekstrom—“The moral bias behind your search results.”  (http://www.ted.com/talks/andreas_ekstrom_the_moral_bias_behind_your_search_results/transcript?language=en)  

Ekstrom uses two examples of image search results that got temporarily distorted by massive bias: the first, a 2009 derogatory representation of Michelle Obama, was quickly removed by Google; the second, an equally derogatory 2011 representation of mass murderer Anders Breivik, was allowed to continue until it died out on its own. Ekstrom concludes: “And I (emphasize) this because I believe we’ve reached a point in time when it’s absolutely imperative … to remind (ourselves) that that wonderfully seductive idea of the unbiased, clean search result is, and is likely to remain, a myth.” 

Let’s choose our “facts” carefully.      

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