Eating your Vegetables

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. The trouble is nobody takes the time to form one. Truly forming an opinion takes time. Gathering facts, considering cause and effect, considering causes from all angles without judgement and coming to a conclusion is exceedingly difficult. But it doesn’t stop people from trying. Most people end up trying by taking a quick look and offering a hot take. These bad habits which keep us from forming strong opinions are kicked back to us in a feedback loop by leaders who stoop to our attention levels. We’re left talking about big things with little knowledge in the form of stolen hot takes that sound like they’re from bumper stickers.

Show Your Work

Growing up in school, “show your work” was probably in my top 5 of most hated phrase a teacher could say. Math class was especially difficult because I thought everything moved so slowly. I could think faster than I could write and enjoyed solving problems, but the proper way of doing things made the work extremely boring.

Not seeing the benefit to showing your work is a predictable childish shortcoming. The point of math is to get the answer, so I gave you the answer! Why do you need to see my work? Teachers in my years of schooling had different excuses for why I had to show work. “I won’t know if you cheated and just looked at your neighbor’s answers” or “you won’t always have a calculator in your pocket*” were common excuses. And that’s because the real reason for showing work- so you know the fundamentals inside and out and can apply these concepts anywhere in your life not just as a means to passing a class- doesn’t land well with kids. 

*LOL

“If you want to sit at the grownups table at Thanksgiving, you’ve got to eat your vegetables.”

Something wily old Kentucky people say

Everything I ended up being mediocre in was a result of interest while skipping the fundamentals. I wanted to shoot fade away three pointers, not free throws. I wanted to learn the “knuckle-puck” from Mighty Ducks 2 but didn’t bother to learn how to skate well. I wanted to hit home runs before I could hit ground balls. I wanted *fun* before *work*. The things I got best at, guitar and swimming, were things that I practiced relentlessly at a fundamental level. Scale exercises and interval training isn’t exactly fun, but it paid off to take me to a level above what most kids could do. 

And if you enjoy math at all, solving the problem is fun- in a way. But the work stops you from having more fun. Completing one problem would take 30 seconds but now it’ll take 60 because you have to write everything down. Waiting an extra 30 seconds is basically micro-aggression torture for a kid. Especially when the mini-dopamine rush of the next puzzle to solve is awaiting them on the same page. The kids who know and learn the fundamentals of math- memorizing their multiplication tables, showing work, writing out long division- are more likely (assumption) to be competent at math when they get older and are faced with more complex problems. Sure, some kids will have raw cleverness that will take them far, but there will eventually be a wall that they hit. Kids want the home run, they want the fun part and see the work merely as a delay in them gaining their next bit of fun. It’s not necessarily laziness, but it will lead to laziness. Hopefully as we grow into adults and start becoming interested in adult things, we have grown out of this. 

“If you want to sit at the grownups table at Thanksgiving, you’ve got to eat your vegetables.” – Something wily old Kentucky people say

Headlining

Susan Hennessey, a former lawyer made author, hosts a podcast and has written exhaustively about one of the most adult things there is today, the Mueller Report. Hennessey and her colleagues have delved deep into the details of the report, scouring it for context and unreported information and distilling it into simple terms for the layman to understand, but she seems frustrated that nobody seems to understand the report. The Mueller Investigation wrapped up our national attention from 2017-2019. It was all that was talked about on the news, and pervaded social media and conversations even where it didn’t fit. Experts claim the report that followed the investigation is absolutely damning. But nothing happened. Why?

The contents of the Mueller Report seem to be a mystery to a lot of people. The document is long, complex and technical, and fails to produce a proper ending summary. Sure, it would be easier if the point of the report was wrapped up in a neat little bow, a lesson spelled out clearly like one of Aesop’s fables: And the moral of the story is [insert personal truth here].

Most people are too busy, or lazy, and simply have not and/or will not read the report. They’re the big kids who think they can sit at the grown up table during thanksgiving, and they don’t want to eat their vegetables. There is a need for us to be aware of this stuff. Deciding on this information is a public duty- we have to understand it at some level and give feedback. So we digest our news, the boring stuff, in any way we can. We consume this most important news of our day through headlines, which is the equivalent of eating your green beans and broccoli at thanksgiving by covering it in gravy. 

On the internet, 55% of readers only look at an article for a max of 15 seconds. Average adults read at 250wpm, so most people read, at max, 60-70 words in an article. And that’s if they click on it at all and get past the headline.

I’d argue (with no facts) that we probably read more headlines than ever before in the modern age. Everyone knows basically what is happening. The details listed out in the remaining 1530 words in the average online article are not interesting enough to most people. If a headline says “Humans land on the moon”, we get the general idea.  But that’s the problem. We end up knowing generally what happened, but not really why or how it happened.

When we consume only headlines we’re only capable of producing headline statements.

Just knowing the headline doesn’t give any insight as to why we went to the moon, or why we haven’t gone back. We don’t know if it was a good or bad thing, or what came out of our trip to the moon. Sure, we can guess. And a lot of times we are probably right. We know enough surface stuff to form a certain form of context, or maybe we’ve heard an entertaining talking head spout off an opinion in a novel way. But I firmly believe that the reason we’re so ill informed today it is because we’re so well entertained. 

Information via Headlines

When Susan Hennessey talks about the Mueller Report in interviews, she seems bewildered. She’s a professional, an obsessive who clearly loves diving into the minutia of the law. But she isn’t single minded. You hear stories of high performers who can’t grasp the lack of dedication of the average contributor like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, who can’t believe people don’t like sweating out the fundamentals and dedicating every waking moment to their obsession. But Hennessey understands people can’t all pay attention like her, and the whole point of her show is to break down the complexities. She believes that there has been some really good reporting about the investigation and report. And that’s all the more reason for her to be astounded at the public’s lack of understanding of the incident. 

Both sides of the political spectrum seem to know nothing about the Mueller Investigation at all beyond their respective party talking points. Whether one party’s talking points are more accurate than the other remains important but not the point here- nobody read the damn thing! Not even our congressmen! The book was a #1 BestSeller, but when polled only 3% of people asked said they had read all of the report, 75% said they had read none. At least we know 75% of people are honest.

People bought the book as a conversation starter, a coffee table book that they stuck a bookmark in hoping one of their guests would comment on it. They’ll stick it on their bookshelf next to the other classics they’ve never read but want to be seen as owning, like Ulysses, War and Peace or Moby Dick.

Hennessey produced the point that reading the Mueller Report in headlines and summaries is kind of like reading a book which has been turned to headlines. She then surmised a world where phrases like “Man hunts whale” and “Whale sinks boat, kills captain” would be enough to summarize Moby Dick. But because there’s no chapter title referencing the biblical allegories, life and death, obsession, the nods to race and treatment of native Americans or subtle critiques of American writing styles, the book takes on almost no meaning. It becomes something that merely happened, something that gets referenced because people a long time ago thought it was important. Reading Moby Dick in headline form destroys one of the most important books of the 19th century.

Do all of us need to be experts on the Mueller report? Do we all need to read the whole document? Well, no. But if you want to offer an opinion- and countless people have- you should inform yourself beyond headlines and summaries. It is possible to know what happened in headlines, but impossible to know what a story is truly about. This isn’t exactly a hot take- but we shouldn’t be just perusing headlines to get informed, we need to go deeper. 

Everyone has an opinion

They say everyone has an opinion- but that’s not really the case. What people typically have are impressions, talking points and emotions. This post could easily be argued as being more emotion than opinion. I have synthesized some ideas in the back of my mind on gut feeling, tied it to a few allegories and sources and posted it. And these are synthesized by our obsession with skipping our vegetables, by skipping the fundamentals, the content in favor of the highlights. When we consume only headlines we’re only capable of producing headline statements. When we learn from headline information we don’t understand what we’re actually saying, even if we can string together enough points to sound informed.

They say everyone has an opinion- but that’s not really the case. What people typically have are impressions, talking points and emotions. This sentence included.

We’ve all lived this nightmare: walking into a conversation that we are genuinely interested in and want to join in a discussion about but accidentally start engaging a person with real knowledge and context about the situation. Or trying to join a conversation at a party and get in way over our head with someone who isn’t. It’s an uncomfortable and humbling feeling, one that makes you feel maybe you don’t truly know enough to have an opinion. You can correct that fact with research and reading, and or simply accept ignorance on a topic and stick to asking questions in a conversation as opposed to answering them. 

Who, what, when, where, why?

How are you able to give an actual opinion without the knowing facts surrounding that opinion? What is your opinion worth if you know so little about the situation that you speak beyond one layer of background? One of my favorite authors, Neil Postman, made this point about American opinions in the early 80’s:

“Let us consider, instead, the case of Iran during the drama that was called the “Iranian Hostage Crisis.” I don’t suppose there has been a story in years that received more continuous attention from television.  We may assume, then, that Americans know most of what there is to know about this unhappy event. And now, I put these questions to you: Would it be an exaggeration to say that not one American in a hundred knows what language the Iranians speak?  Or what the word “Ayatollah” means or implies?  Or knows any details of the tenets of Iranian religious beliefs?  Or the main outlines of their political history?  Or knows who the Shah was, and where he came from? Nonetheless, everyone had an opinion about this event, for in America everyone is entitled to an opinion…”- Neil Postman

For a modern take, let’s look at the Supreme Court. The majority of American’s have some thoughts on the makeup of the Supreme court. Go one place and people are likely to say it is too liberal, and drive 30 miles away and most will say it’s too conservative. But could the majority of people: 

  • Name the Chief Justice?
  • Could they name any of the 7 justices?
  • Would they know that there are really 9 justices?
  • Maybe titles aren’t important, people’s names don’t matter. Do they know the makeup of the court in a left vs right breakdown?
  • Do they know what cases have gone for which?
  • Do they know the difference between a liberal and conservative interpretation of the constitution?
  • Do they know what originalism is?
  • Or precedent?
  • What is an example of a case that proves your point?

Does everyone have to know all of these things to be an informed citizen- that’s not for me to say. But how many of these questions can we accept “I don’t know” as an answer and think that person’s opinion still has value? At what point do they have an opinion, at at what point are they expressing their feelings or repeating a talking point? Does parroting an answer we read or heard somewhere cut it? If we operate this way we might as well read a bumper sticker on our way to the polls to be convinced of our presidential vote. 

We don’t want to be opinion gatekeepers. We can’t develop a crooked pass/fail exam like a Jim Crowe era literacy test in order to count someone’s opinion as valid, but there has to be some sort of limit. It’s frankly childish (I’m admonishing myself as much as anyone else) for us to digest news in the way we are. But at some level we can’t help it. Taking the good part off of the top and leaving behind the substance is just too easy and satisfying to do. We could look to our leaders for guidance, but they’re too busy following the masses and their preferred communication style.

What we have done to ourselves

How we got here seems pretty obvious and has been mentioned many times in this piece- its easier. Digesting headlines and tweets is essentially effortless. And reading gossip is fun, so it’s easier to digest more of it. But that’s just a guess. I don’t have any information specifically about how we got caught up in this. And to be fair, this problem has existed for decades. Yellow journalism, tabloids and editorials go back centuries. But now we’re either more aware of the unreliability of our sources or simply don’t have anywhere to turn to for basic info, so headlining is as deep as most of us get. Getting into the how seems impossible, but we can look at an example of the progression in the public eye, or maybe one of the main consequences. 

…the famed “Lincoln-Douglas Debates”….were longer than long. They were the unabridged Stephen King novel of debates. By comparison the 2012 debates were One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

Barack Obama went into the 2012 debates against Mitt Romney with a lot of confidence. In his mind, he had been prepping for this debate for 6 years. There was no way that a former governor of Massachusetts was going to outperform the President of the United States by being briefed for a few months what he had been living for the past half a decade. In the first debate, Obama went in clear headed, rational and delivered thoughtful responses to the actual questions asked of him. He was articulate, believable, and gave detailed responses specifically addressing the question that was asked of him- what a dummy. Romney clearly won the first presidential debate of 2012. That’s because you don’t win debates like Obama tried to. Any pause after a question where you might be putting together a complex, comprehensive, yet understandable answer shows weakness. It makes you look slow when your opponent comes out of the gate before the moderator has even finished asking the question. Obama sent in a videotape of his fundamentals to Sportcenter while Romney sent a highlight reel. Obama made steamed lima beans and Romney brought cheesy potato casserole. You have to speak to people how they want to be spoken to. 

Debates in the Past

In US schools we all learned about, or at least heard about, the famed “Lincoln-Douglas Debates”. A set of regional debates attended by thousands that would eventually help Abraham Lincoln be propelled to the head of a new party and become the President of the United States. These debates were nothing like you and I have ever seen. They were longer than long. They were the unabridged Stephen King novel of debates. By comparison the 2012 debates were One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. These were hours long epics, sometimes spanning the course of entire days. Douglas might speak for an hour with a prepared statement, and then Lincoln would reply for a cool hour and a half. Once, Douglas opened with a three hour speech. Lincoln, reading the crowd, announced that everyone should probably go home, have some dinner and come back so he could then yammer on for four more hours of discussion. (Postman)

Why don’t we do this anymore? Well, for one, it would suck. I don’t think we’re too dumb to talk for 6 hours, I think we’re too smart. There’s something to be said for making your point succinct. If you’re allowed to go on and on for hours then maybe your idea is being swallowed up by your way of speaking, or your personality. This would obviously be done on purpose- winning an argument on the merits of everything but the argument itself is very human- but it takes away from evaluating the pros and cons of various positions.

We also have more things to do than a sleepy farm town in the weeks before harvest. And it’s clearly not 1858 anymore. Two politicians wheezing on for 12 hours on a Saturday doesn’t even come close to the best entertainment available to us at all times in our own pockets. I differentiate from my source in that I don’t necessarily think the Lincoln-Douglas debates are something that we should aspire to. It’s not like the outcome was any better back then. People’s willingness to listen to hours and hours of debate in 1858 didn’t end slavery amicably or stop the US from tearing itself apart in the Civil War. 

Let’s look almost 100 years later at the 1948 debate for the Republican Nomination to run for president- Stassen v. Dewey. Stassen was asked a question where he was allowed to give an affirmative response for 20 minutes. Dewey would reply with a negative response to Stassen’s answer for 20 more minutes. Then Stassen could rebut for 8.5 minutes, and then Dewey could come back with 8.5 minutes of his own. 

Now look at today’s debates. In the 2016 debate between Clinton and Trump, a question was asked and answered for 2 minutes. Then a rebuttal of 1 minute was allowed. What followed was 10-11 minutes of back and forth, partially moderated jabs at half statements and prepared buzzwords that devolve often into personal attacks and non-sequiturs. These 10 minute segments were television, not debate. It’s the same model that 24/7 news networks use for their “infotainment” shows. Look how far we’ve come in 150 years. Again, nobody should have to sit through a 12 hour wheezefest between two politicians, but we deserve more than a 2 minute setup for a headfirst dive into incomprehensible talking head-like argument sessions. 

Of course there are points where debates aren’t like television shows. Sometimes they’re commercials- and a commercial needs a good tagline. Almost all professional televised debaters have purely pre-planned answers. That’s why, when a question is asked, it seems that politicians don’t answer the question directly. A moderator asks, “What will be your plan to fix our city’s roads?” and the candidate will say, “ I think fixing roads are very important, but that’s just one element of my FIX UP THE CITY initiative-” and then they go off answering however they want. They aren’t doing this on accident. The candidate simply did not prepare a 1 minute answer to a question about roads and they don’t trust themselves to come up with one on the spot. They have a mental answer bank to choose from, and they pick the topic which is most closely related and is highest on their priority list and just give a stump speech with pre-planned answer.

One must also follow the basic rules of brand marketing. If you’re in the lead, don’t mention your opponent by name, say “my opponent”. If you’re behind, keep hammering home your opponent’s name to get you on similar ground- maybe even call them by their first name to come off as equals. Tall people do better than short people in elections- if you’re able, try to stand near your shorter opponent to make them seem lesser. Wear a like color tie to appeal to your base, wear neutrals or the opposite color to appeal across the aisle. Control your image. Be happy, but not aloof. Be strong, but not mean. Be knowledgeable, but not elitist. Be proud, but humble; cool but approachable; nice but not a pushover; be serious, but not too serious. All of these strategies, which debate prep is very much concerned about, appeal to emotions.

“If you want to sit at the grownups table at Thanksgiving, you’ve got to eat your vegetables.” – Something wily old Kentucky people say

There is no ideological struggle during a debate, it’s a reality show. The ideological sides have already been drawn, the only question now is excitement, voter turnout and the few swing voters actually left out there. The shorter and catchier the better. It’s bumper sticker politics- and it’s everywhere. That right there, what I just did calling it “bumper sticker politics” is also bumper sticker politics. It’s in our natural discourse. We take nuanced information, distill it through the minds of writers for famous people and then take the catchiest part of what they say and claim it as our opinion. We debate in talking points.  

So when we realize that we are too lazy or not focused enough to hammer out a real opinion, and that the people who are selling things to us- whether it be news or a candidacy- are giving us exactly what we want, what can we do? There’s not much we can do, honestly. Eventually this will become the new normal. Even if you take the time to read the entire Mueller Report, nobody else is going to. And you can say “I’ve read the report, I know what I’m talking about” all you want, but your opinion will never land as well as the zinger that someone stole from twitter or a talking head on the news.

This is affecting more than politics. There are christian groups who call for bans on Harry Potter because they say it promotes anti-christian values, but JK Rowling said that Christianity was a major influence for her book series. Harry Potter showcases the christian themes of the struggle of good vs evil, self-sacrifice, love and care for the oppressed. But because these American Evangelical groups have likely never read the book they must assume it’s against their brand of Christianity. They might just know a few things are in there like Magic, Witches and the fact that it’s based in Europe, so they assume the worst. There is a similar effect for To Kill A Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, where the controversial character language in the book is focused on instead of the message. These books are absolutely powerful messages, specifically written to move people against racism and prejudice, but we can’t see the forest for the trees. This is a symptom of us not reading the whole story, of merely skimming the headlines. It’s difficult to make a real opinion based off of substance, and it’s even more difficult to make an accurate point based off of just the headlines. But it sure is fun.

Substance isn’t fun if you aren’t patient or in the right mood. But maybe we can make it fun enough soon. Just like long form podcasts are gaining in popularity over shock-jock radio, or how character study tv dramas are considered better than movies and may even be challenging their popularity. Maybe we can find the gravy to make our vegetables more tolerable. There’s a solution to this, there always has been. There’s gravy out there. Now, we just have to hope that we don’ take that gravy and skip the veggies in favor of bacon and almost kill ourselves. If that’s the case then we’ll come out of the hospital able to eat nothing but veggie shakes and carrying a colostomy bag. Either way, I think it’ll be better, it just depends whether we go quietly like a grownup or end up carrying our shit in our own hands.