Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at what happens when you judge too quickly. See his previous OUPblogs here.
In his press conference on July 22, President Obama’s knee-jerk reaction to call what the Cambridge police department did “stupid” was poor form. The president thought he was avoiding the hot spot when asked about the Gates arrest by saying that the controversy offered a “teachable moment.” But having admitted that he had imperfect knowledge of the facts, he went on and assumed that this particular incident invited a lesson about racial profiling and made the very indictment that his conversational segway was intended to avoid. In so doing, Obama confirmed conservatives’ belief that minorities love to whine about their beleaguered status (also another knee-jerk belief, incidentally) even if Obama could have made a case had he marshalled the evidence appropriately. Obama spoke like a liberal before he thought, and that was his mistake.
In so doing, he repeated the same mistake that Professor Gates made. Like Obama, Gates, too, jumped to the conclusion that Sgt Crowley was racist. I do not know if Sgt Crowley acted hastily in arresting the Professor for allegedly exhibiting “tumultous” behavior, so I won’t jump to conclusions but simply note my suspicion that there was probably a contest of egos on both sides. Those who have rushed to Crowley’s defense should ask themselves if they do not also have a knee-jerk reaction to give the benefit of the doubt to a law enforcement officer (or a soldier or a partisan affiliated with the Commander-in-Chief.)
Gates, Obama, and possibly Crowley were not the only people who have been jumping to conclusions, substituting unreflected intuition for a careful weighing of the evidence. Frank Luntz and his political students are encouraging Americans to become thoughtless automatons responding to carefully researched code words like “government takeover” and “health-care rationing.” The issue domain is different, but the error is the same.
It is very difficult to prove racial-profiling, for it demands an investigator to go inside the head of the alleged perpetrator. It is equally difficult to prove that the president’s and Democratic Congress’s plan for a “public option” is a precursor to a completely government-run health-care system. If it is not appropriate to rush to accuse someone of being racist, then it is at least premature to rush to accuse of someone of being socialist (assuming that that is a bad thing).
Those who are accusing Obama and Gates for rushing into judgment should look into the mirror to see if they too have not rushed to conclude that liberals are whiners and socialists who want a government takeover of health-care. At some level, we all have the instinct to cherry-pick the evidence to come to the conclusions we want.
Ideologies, like stereotypes, are cognitive cues or heuristics. They help us to “think” before we get the facts. They allow us to abdicate our duty to make sense of the world with our own independent judgment. They do the easy but intellectually dishonest work of guiding our reactions to the conclusions we want without us having to do the hard work of getting to know a person or a proposed policy before we came to a judgment. The people who are reinforcing such behavior in our politics are destroying our democracy and robbing us of our first freedom – the freedom of independent thought.
So the Gates controversy is a teaching moment, and the lesson is quite simple. Look before you leap; think before you conclude. It is probably the first lesson of critical thinking, but two professors forgot it last week. If Obama wants us to learn this lesson, he should have been clearer about what the nature of his lapse was. It wasn’t that the president miscallibrated his words – for the question wasn’t about the intensity of what he said, but the very fact that he said something at all. Obama should have apologized for expressing what he felt and intuited without having first perused the evidence. If he had done that, he would have claimed the moral ground to shame some of his opponents in Congress into admitting that they too are doing the same thing in their knee-jerk opposition to what they call “Obamacare.”