Two worthwhile reads this morning from Edward Keenan and Navneet Alang.
Nav first: Over on Hazlitt, he discusses the virtual impossibility of faking what’s in the putative Rob Ford crack video. The technology simply doesn’t exist. Nav goes through that and, in the first three or four paragraphs, disposes of it neatly and persuasively. (Disclosure: I’ve met Nav at an @EthnicAisle event.)
More troubling, though, are the issues he raises about the mutability of fact, and thereby the basis of evidence upon which we all rely in forming our own opinions and making our own interpretations. As he puts it:
Whether or not this means the allegations are true, however, isn’t my concern here. Rather, interesting to me are the implications of the seemingly widespread belief that creating such believable alternate realities using technology is not only possible, but easy.
Nav’s essay speaks for itself. I can’t really do it justice by trying to summarize it here, so please — go read it. There are a lot of valuable takeaways from it, but for me the most troubling runs tangent to the truism about being entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. That has clear and uncomfortable implications for the argument about picking and choosing which facts you want to believe, based on your ideological predispositions. Those of us who like to criticize Ford Nation for ignoring the facts, rationalizing away the evidence, and dismissing everything as a condescending-downtown-elite-gravy-train conspiracy have just felt the ground shift under our feet.
Ed’s argument is a little more concrete, but no less troubling. (Disclosure: I’ve met Ed, had a few beers with him, and taken a course with him. I think of him as a friend and as a teacher. For as long as I can remember, I’ve admired his writing, not just for its clarity and cogency, but for its generosity. If you’re looking to filter out the important stuff from the bullshit, make sure you’ve got Ed on your daily reading list.) Earlier this week, he argued that collectively, we are hurt by the Ford Follies’ all-consuming occupation of energy, attention, and oxygen; it’s not a new argument, but I haven’t seen it made more convincingly and compassionately than this in a long time.
Today, however, I have to disagree with him, albeit on technical grounds. It’s about hearsay: in today’s essay, he suggests that the accounts we’ve read in Gawker and the Star aren’t hearsay, but
eyewitness testimony from people who have seen the video.
With respect, I think he’s wrong. Right in his intent, but wrong in his argument.
Let’s put this in context: if I read him correctly, he’s distinguishing between the evidence we use to form opinions and the evidence upon which courts make legal determinations. And in that regard, he’s absolutely right; we don’t need to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of what we believe in order to have a defensible basis for believing it. That’s part of the distinction between what’s admissible in courts of law and what’s admissible in the court of public opinion. It’s also part of what makes dealing with the members of “Ford Nation” so challenging. We don’t have to like it, but they’re entitled to believe what they like, regardless of how questionable or irrational it may seem.
But when it comes to hearsay, there’s a very specific and technical definition that comes into play. There’s a reasonable summary of it on Wikipedia, but in the present circumstances, it boils down to this: We don’t know what’s in the video. We can’t know because we haven’t seen it. We’re relying on the accounts of John Cook, Kevin Donovan, and Robyn Doolittle.
Now, I don’t have any reason to think John, Kevin, and/or Robyn are lying. (Disclosure: I’ve met Robyn at one of the inaugural #WiTOPoli events.) This goes back to the question of ideological predisposition I touched on earlier; while I don’t think they’re lying, there are a lot of people who, for whatever reason, do want to think that. But that’s not the question here; the problem is that in the absence of the video itself, we have no way of knowing. We can evaluate the truthiness of what they’re saying in light of past evidence of Rob Ford’s behaviour and in light of our own political views, but we can’t make definitive factual evaluations of what’s in the video. We simply can’t. We haven’t seen it. If we believe that the mayor’s been doing crack because John Cook, Kevin Donovan, and Robyn Doolittle say they saw him doing it in a video, we are basing our beliefs on hearsay.
In fairness to Ed, it’s a fact of life that judgments in the court of public opinion are frequently based on hearsay. We’re entitled to make up our minds on the basis of whatever we like. My reasons for believing what I believe may not be the same as your reasons for believing what you believe. In a perfect world, I’d be able to convince you of the rightness of my position through civil discourse — rational argument, factual evidence, appreciation for nuance, plausible interpretation, and maybe even a soupcon of generosity of spirit. Or vice versa.
But that’s a very different thing from a judgment in a court of law, and it’s why the evidentiary standard is so much more demanding. If we’re going to work our way through this properly, then it’s important to be clear.