Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Latest Failure in Critical Thinking

Just as I wondered, as a child, whom my mother went to when she was frightened or had bad dreams, I sometimes wonder how someone like Noam Chomsky deals with feelings of discouragement and hopelessness after half a century of apparently indefatigable contending with the depressing state of the world.  Like Chomsky, I try to remember the good things that happen, the independence and resistance of ordinary people in their day to day lives.  So, in the wake of the Orlando massacre and the tremendous brabble it inspired, I was totally ready to be moved by this story posted to Facebook.  So was Glenn Greenwald, whose retweet led me to it.  I shared the link to my page too.
Just now, on my way to work, a man got on my train yelling as he came onto an incredibly packed train for the "two terrorist foreigners to go back to where they came from." These two "terrorist foreigners" were two (understandably terrified) hijabi Muslim women. Before I could say anything, the entire train erupted in anger. A black man, a Romanian, a gay man, a bunch of Asians, and a score of others came to their defense demanding that this man leave these women alone and get off this train. The man insisted that the two women go back home and take their bombs with them.

After some back and forth, one man said, "This is New York City. The most diverse place in the world. And in New York, we protect our own and we don't give a fuck what anyone looks like or who they love, or any of those things. It's time for you to leave these women alone, Sir."

I couldn't have said it better. Sure enough, our train was stopped. This royal douche got off the train to the sound of cheering.

I say all this to say that in light of all the bad happening around us, remember that there's so much good and so much love.

I'm late to work, but it was for the best reason.
Several of my friends liked it too.  But one commented:
Duncan..... why do I have an uneasy feeling that this story was made up? A ...."Romanian, a gay man..." - did they wear labels? And who stops the train over a brawl in one of the cars? Sure, it's a feel-good story, and we need more of those, but maybe without details that make them appear suspect. Because if people are making up good stories, it means there are not enough of them in real life.
Abashed, I replied:
You have a good point. I should have thought about that. You may well be right. You're definitely right about the lack of good stories in real life. In real life, as we see on Facebook and elsewhere, it's more likely that anyone who spoke up about a racist incident on the subway would be shouted down: "Why do you want ISIS to destroy us? Take your political correctness somewhere else! I don't want to get involved, it's their problem. There's so much evil in the world, we can't do anything about it except vote for Donald Trump. (The more evil, the better!) And pray -- it's always fixed things before."
I don't mean to dismiss the story completely.  Something of the kind may well have happened.  I believe that my friend was right, however, about suspicious details in the story.  I've been in some "packed," even "incredibly packed" subway cars, and I wonder how everyone could become aware of something that was going on one spot, let alone react as one ("the entire train" - I presume she meant "the entire car," which strains credulity enough, not every car in the train).  Compare the stories in the gospels in which large crowds, even "multitudes," speak to Jesus like a Greek chorus, in apparent unison.

As my friend (also a city dweller with experience of crowded subways) noted, the narrator's ability to identify the ethnicity and sexual orientation of every individual involved is also suspect.  I don't know whether a train would be "stopped" to remove a "douche" (!), as "cheers" sound in the background.  I feel sure that the narrator at least embellished her tale in the telling, in ways that will be familiar to anyone who's encountered folklore before. Which -- to repeat -- doesn't prove the whole story a fabrication, though that's also possible; I hope not.  As my friend said, we need good stories, and it's important that they be true as well; maybe that's too much to ask.  The Internet is clogged with feel-good and feel-bad stories, and those who debunk them are dismissed lightly: Well, I don't care if it's true, I liked it.

(For comparison, see this story, which attempts to shoehorn a [gay? Muslim?] ex-Marine bouncer's escape from Pulse during the massacre as a heroic rescue of an unknown number of patrons, despite his insistence that it was nothing of the kind.  I don't mean to demonize him; he behaved totally reasonably, and his actions did allow others to escape with him.  If anything I want to honor him for his determined honesty.  I only want to point out the way that stories are shaped by people's, and organizations' in this case, desire for heroes and happy endings.)

The crowning irony, for me, is that I'm constantly being reproved for being, allegedly, too cynical and skeptical.  Once again I find I'm not cynical enough.