One of the truly important lessons of our times is hidden amongst the reports of a rash of shark attacks on the eastern seaboard of the US this summer. I have to explain this via metaphor or I risk losing half my audience before they get to the point. We heard about these attacks and we even saw live footage of a surfing champ getting attacked. Then another swimmer was killed. You probably heard about all of these. Everybody reports shark attacks and covers them. They bleed big, so they lead big. Dum dum dum dum...
But how many deaths by cow do you recall being reported? According to the numbers, a cow is FAR more dangerous to Americans. And no, I don't mean arteries clogged by hamburgers, which might be seen as revenge killings. I mean actual physical bovine assaults. During my lifetime sharks have killed, on average, 0.5 Americans per year. Whereas cows accounted for 22 fatalities last year. (Dogs have killed even more. But, as Jules said in Pulp Fiction, dogs have personality. You can get away with a lot if you have personality. A tip that has not been wasted on certain luminaries of the current political process.)
We can guess the sharks' motives: eat this! As to cows, in case you're wondering, these are not just accidental kicks in reaction to cold hands from maids a-milkin'. These are largely actual attacks from bulls and cows startled by dog-walkers or cyclists or just pissed off from waking up on the wrong side of the pasture where some jerk in red flannel tipped them over while they dreamt of oats. Mayhem on the farm.
So, are cows 44 times as dangerous as sharks? No. It's actually much worse than that. Crunching some numbers based on the population of the US surfing community, the number of beach visits on all our shores, and the number and distribution of dairy farms and ranches I estimate about 290 million man-hours with people and cows in close proximity compared to 780 million man-hours of bathers splashing or surfers doing their best juicy seal impersonation. Sharks have more chances, but cows get more dances. Using these as a proxy for 'opportunity' to normalize the data you could say that cows are actually 120 times more dangerous than sharks.
VERDICT: COWS NOT GUILTY, YOUR HONOR
So why do cows get a pass? Does the bovine lobby have much better PR fixers; keeping all the editors and newsmen in its pocket like so many nickels and dimes? The media's the reason; they deliver the summary: sharks are scary bad; cows are placid, merely smelly. There have been no terrifying summer blockbusters featuring the Great White Holstein; no equivalent to "Jaws" (Loins?). I couldn't find any killer cow movies on IMDB and stopped counting at 150 when searching horror with 'shark' in the title. BTW, isn't Hollywood missing out on an untapped genre here; how about "Seven Bites for Seven Stomachs"? But I digress.
Bottom line, sharks are scary because we're repeatedly told they are scary. A shark attack has drama, the unseen attacker, the helpless struggle, the blood. It has a back story; how did you get in this desperate spot? While a kick from a cow is relatively prosaic. Embarrassing, really. Nothing to see here. No, the real meat of the cow story is in this zeitgeist meta data. Does the amount of coverage have a direct impact on your perception of an issue? Said another way, how could it not? Your take on the world comes from your perceptions. These are made from your information sources, friends' word of mouth, and the entertainment industry. Collectively, they mold cognition. Note, and this is important, your ability to process information is just one component. Logical people are still more afraid of flying than driving. They climb rickety ladders to avoid a harmless mouse. My thesis is that you have less, perhaps far less, critical thinking than you think you do. It is your network, your info-tribe, the one to which you subscribe and contribute that does the molding. The constant drumbeat of like-minded, self-reinforcing positions. Social media connections are constantly exposing, endorsing, convincing. If Descartes were alive today he'd say "We tweet, therefore we think." (Sorry.)
PREPARE TO CAST OFF METAPHOR
So, you might ask, and should, who cares about the relative lethality of cows v sharks? The point is how your tribe's exposure focuses and molds your perceptions. Take a for-instance. In an election year, there's certain to be blustering and ranting on both sides about 'assault weapons' which are more-or-less defined as semi-auto rifles that look like fully auto military rifles. Clearly very scary things and they are placed beside the massive gun victim numbers to imply the correlation. But, in reality, two-thirds of that number are suicides and 99% of the remaining homicides are done by pistols, not rifles of any kind. In fact, (warning: mind-blow fact coming), more homicides are committed with hammers and clubs than rifles. Twenty years ago the gun control movement was focused, quite properly, on Saturday Night Specials. These are cheap, concealable, and deadly pistols favored by the coke dealer on the corner and the convenience store stick-up guy. But they are the cow of the gun world. Those scary black rifles with pistol grips and attachments just ooze drama and danger. Bingo, a star is born. A gun shark.
Let's take another example yanked from the headlines (or back pages, as your tribe might determine). I'm referring to the secretly taped interviews of Planned Parenthood doctors describing abortion techniques that facilitate fetal tissue harvesting. (Look, I tried. I really tried. There's simply no pleasant, non-inflammatory way to illustrate this point simply because the different tribes treat it so vastly differently. You have to break the eggs of tact to make the omelette of truth. Sorta.)
Fox News lavished hour after hour on this story, practically every program mentioned it and most included the gotcha video recordings complete with subtitled transcript. Pundits were brought on to agree with the headliner and evince shock at the callous nature of Planned Parenthood doctors who casually ate salad or negotiated prices in support of their desire for a Lamborghini.
By contrast, ABC News dedicated a total of only 46 seconds to the story. Several other major media outlets also devoted just a few minutes. Later, more robust counter-arguments were raised.
Now, before you leap to justify either of these approaches as sanctioned by your tribe let me say that the truth here is not the point. I, like most everyone, especially those most vocal, don't know what the truth is. What I do know is that each sides' perception of the truth is clearly delineated, dictated, and defended with the vehemence of angry badgers. It is first presented to your tribe with either the shock and awe of discovered truth or the wry, weary we-told-you-so of supporting evidence re the malfeasance, ignorance, gullibility, and/or intransigence of 'the other tribe'. To you, the voice of your tribe is unanimous, world-filling. You develop the position of your tribe for the same reason Finnish kids end up speaking Finnish or Cubs fans learn to say "next year".
THE PACHINKO GAME OF LIFE IS RIGGED
You would think, assuming you weren't busy following a Kardasian through the ether, (whether I refer to the self-promoting bimbo variety or the belligerent aliens from the Start Trek Universe I'll let you decide) that there would be a more or less random distribution of tastes or interests across a population with equal access. Bridge players, art lovers, philatelists, hot rod enthusiasts, film noir devotees, baseball card collectors...they should all be distributed more or less haphazardly across the countryside because these are matters of taste and personal choice and we're all individuals with free will. Right? Naturally geography and demographics play a part. Many Hockey players and ice fishers come from places with, you know, a lot of ice. Opera and ballet lovers can be traced to big cities with the facilities, troupes, and history to support these arts. People in Green Bay will cheer for the Packers (this one's easy) because there is really nothing else to do.
And yet, people fall into predictable clusters of opinion. The unseen hand of your network of friends and news outlets has guided you to an almost inevitable spot on the tribal plank. If you give me a strong opinion on the referred-to Planned Parenthood story I can predict your position on the Second Amendment. On Immigration. On charter schools. On Climate Change. On the legality of private email servers. On pickups v hybrids. On whether the evil guys pulling strings are named Koch or Soros. On School Prayer. On whether jumbled electronic experiments resemble a clock or a bomb. I'll put even money on each and every one of these seemingly disconnected associations; in the end I'll make a mint. While these things might appear to be independent variables, they have all been adopted by one of the tribes. The right thinking people take such a side; those with the other opinion are wrong and should be ignored or lampooned or pitied. We are sure in our tribe, strong, and self-satisfied. "He cannot be a man 'cause he does not smoke...the same cigarettes as me."
THE FACEBOOK MINDBLOW EXPERIMENT
We have a perfect experimental apparatus to test this tribal theory. It's called Facebook. In FB its easy to have friends that pre-date FB itself. I have many friends from college and High School; people I knew way before the 2004 launch of FB. (And, in a separate phenomena, people I couldn't begin to pick out of a lineup but who claim my friendship. Hey, so long as there isn't a way to borrow money on FB, I'm ok.) Here's the experiment. Find your oldest FBs, the ones you haven't been close to or associated with in years. Look at their politics as expressed by posts or re-posts or likes. Hmm. Notice a significant strain of 'crazy'? And by 'crazy' I mean, of course, the voice of another tribe. Do you find yourself saying: "how did poor so-and-so lose his mind and come to believe this? He was so normal when I knew him."
What you're noticing is the drift into another sphere of influence. How does it happen? Let's say you started listening to Don Imus 20 years ago because your girlfriend enjoyed the humor. In the afternoon you turn the car radio on and you get Rush Limbaugh because he's on the same network. They share guests and references and, before too long, you find yourself agreeing, not with the speakers, but with the tribal opinion. That opinion will be repeated from other sources, and when you hear it, you'll feel comfortable. Mark Levin and Sean Hannity in the evening will make sense. Initially you will have only a slight preference for the opinion, but your preference will grow and, before long, you will scoff and change the station when a different opinion emerges. The assimilation is underway; your resistance was futile.
WALTER CRONKITE IS DEAD AND I DON'T FEEL SO HOT MYSELF
We, as a nation, coalesced intro tribes the moment we had a chance. 'Course, that moment took most of a generation and required a vast, globally-interconnected and potentially anonymous, always-on, overwhelming, networked super-intelligence attached to our faces for 90% of every waking moment and which provided an on-ramp for unfunded, non-famous folks of every ilk. But, hey, given that, it was easy.
Once upon a time, there were three networks, and one fairly centrist opinion. The chief spokesmen of those networks were welcomed into your home at suppertime and trusted like family. Eager to keep that trust they were careful to minimize extreme opinions and report on solid, proven evidence. Over time we got cable news. We got more cable news. We got internet sites, blogs, podcasts, youtube videos, facebook rants, twitter streams, printer-grammy-thing, you know, the whole mess. By the time I finish this essay there'll be something new. Each of these thousands upon thousands of platforms were like sugared petri dishes to voices, both the noble and bizarre, seeking an audience. Centrist behavior meant doom, like a sapling smothered by the shade of mature trees. They needed sun, clear space, room to grow. There was a race to the edge, to the extreme, where no established network bothered to put down roots. Preppers, and birthers, and truthers, oh my. Un-like The Long Tail in the marketing sense, our political spectra has two extremes. Voices rushed to either edge. We made a beast with two tails. (Hat tip to the Bard).
Don't mistake levity for lack of gravity. We're in a mess, leading to a total sclerosis of the nation. One side, for example, takes reasoned, cautious climate science and portrays it as rivers of hot lava leaving us seven minutes to live. The other side can't stop to discuss the science, they have to counter, and deny, the lava thing. There's a kernel of truth somewhere in there that never even gets looked at. Do you think this system of entrenched opposition lends itself to assimilating complex scientific predictions and engineering an effective response? Look at Ferguson. We can't agree on what just happened! Recent historical events, on video, with several exhaustive investigations. Yet the tribes disagree.
The trouble is these two opposing voices are not like the little cartoon imp and angel on your shoulder whispering pros and cons in your ear. Why? Because, whatever path you took to reach your tribe, you almost certainly landed in a tribe with only one voice. There is no balance. You are not afforded a chance to weigh the imp with the angel. The avuncular Cronkites are no longer around to do the sifting and balancing. You. Are. On. Your. Own. How can you mitigate the tribal pressure? It's hard. You might try finding a small child from the opposing camp and raise him as one. Or you just might start listening. As Camile Paglia puts it: "it is everyone’s obligation, whatever your political views, to look at both liberal and conservative news sources every single day. You need a full range of viewpoints to understand what is going on in the world." You can't be your own Cronkite, the news-source job is already taken by the 240 million bloggers shouting on just the top 5 services. But you can be your own Hegel. Remember his dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. In other words, you take the lime of FoxNews, stir it in the coconut of CNN, and drink them both together. Then you'll feel better.
You have to jump the shark stories and read about cows. Then you have to actually think a little. You have to do it every day. Read, think, repeat. Start now.