That Shall Not Pass (for Quality)

Image: Weems Works

Liz Peek’s June 15 opinion piece for Fox News cites a “silent majority” of Americans alarmed by ongoing protests about policing and racial injustice. She’s also presumably writing to members of it, including a Facebook friend who shared the piece, adding “agree 100%.” That made me curious about what percentage I might be down with. It turns out to be a lot less.

My main finding: she cuts corners in making arguments. If an actual majority of voters find such approaches acceptable, it could help explain why indefensible unjust policies persist. Arguing in good faith includes defining key terms, being specific, and providing links so readers can easily access primary sources to learn more. She fails in these areas and more. And while just booing such a lackluster effort might be cathartic, it doesn’t improve debate quality. With that intention, as a random case study I took a deep dive into her references and claims. Below are a few that resonated and brief explanations of why others are problematic.

Areas of agreement:

  • Groupthink and mob mentalities are non-partisan challenges. For instance, certain people claiming to be “woke” are berating conservatives and liberals on social media in ways that can stifle quality debate.
  • Calling for removal of any TV show portraying cops in a positive light could be a way for some people to feel good about doing something without addressing more significant issues.
  • Policing is a challenging and at times dangerous profession.
  • A number of supporters of the current administration are likely afraid or embarrassed to show that support publicly.
  • There is polling and other evidence that the POTUS has made “missteps,” including on the pandemic.
  • The ongoing racial injustice protests and polls on his response to them have put him on the defensive.

Problematic claims in order of appearance:

Reference: “…an entire section of Seattle ‘occupied’ by anarchists”

Problem: Lack of acknowledgment of recent Fox News false depiction of the overall peaceful nature of the Seattle occupation.

Reference: “…the city council of Minneapolis voting to eliminate its police department”

Problem: Excluding important information. The City Council voted to REPLACE the existing police department with a community-led model, not just eliminate it.

Reference: “…public monuments and statues trashed”

Problem: Generalizing. This fails to acknowledge that the targeted monuments and statues have nearly all been of Confederate leaders or others linked to slavery.

Claim: “They know that objecting to the violence or challenging the overarching accusation from the Left — that our country is ‘profoundly racist’ — is dangerous.”

Problem 1: Not providing a source for the quoted terms.

Problem 2: Failing to define what those words could mean.

Claim: “Most of the country oppose[s] the chaos in our streets.”

Problem: Oversimplifying/lumping protests of various kinds under one derogatory and misleading term.

Claim: “It turns out a solid majority of Americans agreed with [Arkansas Senator Tom] Cotton” (to use the military to quell violent riots).

Problem: Failing to cite a source. In a recent ABC News poll 52% of respondents DID favor military intervention “where there are violent protests.” 47% were opposed. This would be more accurately described as a near-even split or slight difference than a “solid majority.”

Claim: “The majority of the country — 64 percent according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll — also disagrees with the Left’s calls to Defund the Police, the latest craze to sweep the nation’s liberal hot spots.”

Problem 1: Failing to provide a link/forcing others to track down the source.

Problem 2: Failing to acknowledge the debate among different protesters about what it means to “defund the police.” For some it can mean abolishing departments, while for others it’s about shifting funding for different public health and safety programs.

Problem 3: Overgeneralizing about “the Left.” Views about defunding police departments vary among liberals, progressives, social democrats, democratic socialists, full-on socialists, communists, or leftist anarchists. For instance Joe Biden’s campaign spokesperson publicly stated last week that “Vice President Biden does not believe that police should be defunded.”

Problem 4: Suggesting generally and without evidence that liberals are subject to crazes.

Claim: “Only 22 percent of the country agreed that violent protests are an appropriate response. Fully 72 percent disagreed with that statement, including 58 percent that “strongly disagreed.”

Problem 1: Failing to provide a link/forcing others to track down the source.

Problem 2: Data cherry-picking. The poll also found that 90% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 69% of independents agreed that “Peaceful protests and demonstrations are an appropriate response to the killing of an unarmed man by police.” An additional finding: that 79% of respondents (83% of Republicans and 77% of Democrats) felt that “property damage ultimately undermines the cause of the demonstrators.”

A related NBC/Washington Journal poll found that 27% of respondents were more concerned with “protests that have turned violent” compared to 59% who were more concerned with “actions of the police and the death of an African American man.”

Claim: “The majority of Americans disapproves of flying the Confederate flag in public places, but at the same time most do not want to see statues and memorials of Confederate leaders torn down or removed, as is happening now across the country.”

Problem 1: Failing to cite evidence.

Problem 2: Failing to acknowledge trends. Attitudes on this appear to be shifting. A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll found that “44% of voters say statues of Confederate leaders should remain standing, down from 52% in 2017. 32% now say those statues should be removed, compared with 26% in 2017.”

Problem 3: Oversimplifying/generalizing. Americans’ feelings on this subject appear to depend on options given. Notably, in a Public Policy Polling poll 58% supported “relocating [Confederate monuments] from government property and moving them to museums or other historic sites where they can be viewed in proper historical context.”

Claim: “The CEO of CrossFit, a Libertarian who refused to embrace Black Lives Matter, but who has no history of racism, was forced to resign from the firm he founded.”

Problem 1: Misleading use of passive voice. In reality Greg Glassman chose to step down after a slew of employees and affiliates left or said they would if he didn’t. As 100% owner of the company, he can choose his actions regarding it.

Problem 2: Providing no context or suggestions for finding it. The affiliate backlash relates to multiple issues. Those include Glassman’s public statements on COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death, his response to a letter about community health and injustice concerns from Rocket CrossFit, and alleged mistreatment of women at CrossFit HQ.

Claim: “New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was slammed for supporting the American flag.”

Problem: Misleadingly characterizing why teammates and others criticized him saying he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” Malcolm Jenkins posted a video on Instagram about how that comment disregarded his family’s history and those of other black Americans. On June 11 Brees wrote “I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country.”

Claim: “The silent majority doesn’t believe a country that twice elected a black man president — by a majority vote — is racist; they don’t think a country that celebrates the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King is racist. Most important, they search their own hearts, and do not find racism.”

Problem 1: Failing to define “racist” or “racism.” This is essential to having a productive argument on those topics. For instance, Google defines it as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group.” Many readers might not know how to identify subtle ways those can occur in interpersonal and institutional contexts.

Problem 2: Providing no evidence other than her feelings. It makes sense that a “silent majority” would by definition not say these things aloud, so there might not be any polling evidence. But that also warrants a qualifier like “my expectation is that” or “it’s likely that.”

Problem 3: Oversimplified/binary framing. As she presents things, the country is or isn’t racist. She needs to (a) define what a “racist country” would entail, and (b) defend characterizing a whole country with a single term like that. In reality we have communities facing a variety of forms of personal and systemic prejudices. Signs include racial disparities for voting access and governmental representation, healthcare access and treatment quality, and exposure to air, water, and soil pollution. These are all worth addressing and acknowledging how they disproportionately impact certain communities, regardless of whether they indicate the U.S. being racist as a whole or not.

Problem 4: Failing to acknowledge the role of confirmation bias. It may be true that a lot of Americans don’t consider themselves racist. 65% of us also believe we’re smarter than average. We’re biased about a lot of things.

Claim: “Those arguing the essential evil of America point to police brutality, epitomized by the ugly murder of George Floyd.”

Problem 1: Failing to define “essential evil of America.” Who is using that characterization, when, and what do they mean by it?

Problem 2: Conflating criticism of American policing policies and outcomes with considering the whole society evil. Is there any polling or other evidence to defend this point? Personally I consider self-improvement efforts deeply patriotic. A country that doesn’t seek to shore up weaknesses or learn from failure is destined to become weaker and fail more.

Claim: “According to Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald, ‘A solid body of evidence finds no structural bias in the criminal justice system with regard to arrests, prosecution or sentencing.”

Problem: Failing to acknowledge the likely political bias of scholars of the Manhattan Institute. It is a non-profit that has reportedly received significant funding from The Claude R. Lambe Foundation, one of the Koch Family Foundations. It “reported giving $2,075,000 to the Manhattan Institute between 2001 and 2012, the last year for which data is available.” In addition, “The Charles G. Koch Foundation gave $100,000 to the Institute in 2012.”

Claim: “In 2019, only 0.1 percent of black homicides were of unarmed black men killed by police. The data shows that ‘…a police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.’”

Problem 1: Failing to provide a link to the data source.

Problem 2: Cherry-picking data. Let’s assume those two statistics are accurate. The implication appears to be that they support MacDonald’s assertion of “no structural bias in the criminal justice system with regard to arrests, prosecution or sentencing.” There is actually a lot of evidence of these, for instance in regards to drug law enforcement.

Claim: “Protesters, egged on by the liberal media, dismiss the facts; they celebrate emotion.”

Problem 1: Failing to define “liberal media.”

Problem 2: Generalizing protesters into a single homogeneous group.

Problem 3: Generalizing and oversimplifying about fact dismissal. For example, the above statistics could be accurate. Used alone they also appear to badly misrepresent a complex set of circumstances. A more comprehensive review of available data indicates racial bias in policing and the justice system as a whole.

Problem 4: Not providing evidence to support claims of protesters dismissing facts or celebrating emotion. Agreed that protests can be emotional. Assault and murder are innately emotional subjects. That said, there are no doubt groups of protesters who use reason and emotion in different ways. The author could at least call for research into that if unable to cite any.

Claim: “As usual, however, the Left is going too far.”

Problem 1: Generalizing about the “Left” being monolithic and going to extremes as a group.

Problem 2: Not providing evidence to support use of “as usual.”

Claim: [In the U.S.] “there has never before been such a concerted effort to shut down dissent. There have never been such all-out attacks on people, and not just their opinions.”

Problem 1: Lack of specificity. It’s crucial to clarify what “shutting down dissent” and “all-out attacks on people” actually entail. In this case it appears to be criticism on social media and choosing to not do business with people holding certain views.

Problem 2: Exaggerating. An actual “all-out attack” would presumably involve trying to kill someone. The author fails to provide evidence that Americans are being killed for holding conservative viewpoints.

Problem 3: Lack of historical awareness. American history includes multiple examples of quelling dissent. A particularly relevant one involves abolitionists in the American South in the mid-1800s. Those dissenting from the dominant slave-holders’ opinions were often whipped or hung. These would constitute more serious attacks than protesting or canceling people on social media.

Claim: “Today, if you fail to stand up for Black Lives Matter, an organization now committed to defunding the police, according to their website, you are not only pummeled for being wrong, you are tagged as a bad person.”

Problem 1: Exaggeration. Being “pummeled” implies physical violence. The author could clarify what social media criticism actually involves.

Problem 2: Failing to cite evidence. Who is doing the tagging? If a “silent majority” actually agrees with the author, why would the views of a loud minority be that significant?

Conclusions

This opinion piece is more likely to confuse readers or reinforce certain biases than inform or educate. That’s sad. Those who care about meaningfully addressing social issues like the ones being protested would be better served to look elsewhere for quality analysis. I don’t claim to know Liz Peek’s motivations in arguing as she does. But Fox News has a long history of presenting an oversimplified and generalized world view of crazy leftists vs. reasonable conservatives. It has turned a financial profit while reinforcing decades-old racially unjust policies like The War on Drugs.

Also alarming is how little Peek asks of her readers. Members of the “silent majority” don’t consider themselves racist. That’s nice, I guess? In reality we all have blind spots. Maintaining a half-decent society requires members to get other perspectives to identify and address them. Personal development is essential for effective civic engagement in general. Otherwise we fail to distinguish bullshit from useful information. That leads to perpetuating policy failures and corruption by not holding officials accountable for them.

We have work to do. It includes learning about complex issues and holding ourselves and each other accountable for how our actions impact others. Liz Peek and her readers are welcome to contribute more to the effort.

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Non-profit founder, musician, coach, X-C skier/CrossFitter, artist, concerned citizen, mammal (not necessarily in that order). See https://weems.works for more.

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Tyson Victor Weems

Tyson Victor Weems

Non-profit founder, musician, coach, X-C skier/CrossFitter, artist, concerned citizen, mammal (not necessarily in that order). See https://weems.works for more.

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