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How to Make Sense of the Chaos and Uncertainty

How to Make Sense of the Chaos and Uncertainty

Camera phones and 24/7 news coverage have made us really bad at processing big, emotional events in helpful ways. Here's how I do it.

It might seem impossible to make sense of a nation-wide racial revolt being dropped into the middle of a pandemic in a country that’s already seething with bitter cultural divides, but let’s try anyway.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political here. Instead, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to walk you through how I go about processing extremely emotional and upsetting public events such as this. I think this is important because right now, due to social media and camera phones and 24/7 news coverage, as a society we’ve become bad at processing these events in a helpful way. I’ve had to kind of teach myself to go about reading about these things in a more objective manner and it’s not easy. So, I figured I’d break down my process here. 

First, when approaching any difficult subject, before even starting, I try to remind myself of a few things:

  • There is little evil in the world, but lots of stupidity and selfishness – With the exception of truly heinous shit, most people are not motivated by evil intentions. In fact, it’s usually the opposite — most people do awful things with the best of intentions. Therefore, we should not assume people’s intentions to be evil, but rather try to understand why they believe what they are doing is good. 
  • Everyone suffers. The question is, for what reason are they suffering? – It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that nobody should ever be insulted, attacked, hurt, threatened, etc. Not only is this unrealistic, but if we are going to stand up to dangerous groups, individuals or ideas, we have to be willing to sacrifice. Therefore, the question isn’t whether people should suffer or not, rather it’s a question of whether they are suffering for a good reason.
  • Prepare to sit with the contradictions – People and groups can be both good and bad simultaneously. In fact, they usually are. Two opposing viewpoints can each be partially correct and partially incorrect. Evidence can be complicated and suggest contradictory conclusions. Be prepared to sit with these. Your mind will try to push you to be comfortable on one side of the fence or the other, but do not let yourself fall into mental complacency. Life is complicated. Issues are complex. Sit with the uncertainty. 

With those assumptions in place, I then start asking myself a series of questions, and do research around the answers:

What is the historical precedent?

There is nothing that happens that has not happened countless other times throughout human history. Human societies, for the most part, are flawed in the same ways and make the same mistakes. But we forget about those mistakes every generation or two, so we end up repeating them.

Getting historical perspective is immediately useful because it snaps you out of irrationally feeling that what’s happening is of “end of the world” proportions. It humbles you to see that every generation before you has gone through a similar struggle. And in most cases, things eventually improved. 

In this case, the United States has a long, long, long history of both police brutality and racially-motivated riots stretching back hundreds of years. They happened not so long ago in 2014, in Ferguson and Baltimore. But also the Rodney King riots in 1992, the DNC in 1968, Detroit in 1943, Tulsa in 1921, the Red Summer in 1919, etc. Race riots are as American as baseball and apple pie. And sadly, that’s because racism is as American as baseball and apple pie. It’s an inextricable part of our country’s history, and despite great progress made over the past 100 years, the data is overwhelming and clear: this continues to be a huge problem today. 

What human biases are at play?

If there’s one psychology lesson everyone should be forced to learn in school it’s that human perceptions are fundamentally inaccurate. Your mind takes shortcuts and these shortcuts are, by and large, self-serving. Our perceptions consistently fall into common traps, and unless we’re aware of them, we’ll helplessly fall into them again and again.

There are many such traps, but I’ve found the following to be the most common and consequential: 

  • Actor/observer asymmetry – When other people do something wrong, we assume their intentions are bad. When we do the same thing, we assume our intentions are good.  
  • Confirmation bias – The tendency to only seek out views and attitudes that reflect our own. See: all of social media. 
  • The fallacies of composition/division – The tendency to judge a whole group based on the actions of one member of that group. Also the tendency to judge an individual based on their affiliation with a group. 
  • Salience bias – Our tendency to focus on what causes an emotional reaction regardless of whether or not it is important.
  • Negativity bias – We pay more attention to negative events and perceive them to be more important than positive events. (Note: This is why the news is always so negative.)
  • Impact bias – A tendency to overestimate the future impact of whatever is occurring in the present moment.

The most important bias in the current situation is that of composition/division. Our minds gravitate towards a false “black people vs police” dichotomy. Yet, reality is far more complicated than that. Police in some cities were marching alongside protesters. Many of the looters and rioters were white, masked, and not part of the protests at all. Most of the protesters were non-violent and most of the police were non-violent. But, due to our negativity biases, we saw and remembered the violent ones on each side. And due to our salience bias, we overemphasize the actions of the violent ones over the peaceful majority. And due to the fallacies of composition and division, we make assumptions about two groups based on the actions of a small number of individuals.

Generally, the more incendiary an event, the more “exhausted” our rational minds become and the more we fall back to our mind’s “shortcuts” like the one above. If you familiarize yourself with the above biases, you will soon begin to notice that at least 95% of all political “takes” are simply some form of bias or another. In fact, a lot of news media is designed to leverage these biases to capture and hold your attention. The right does it. The left does it. We all do it. And only by learning to spot these biases in yourself and others can you begin to undo it. Understanding cognitive bias is a type of mental freedom that must be earned through continuous effort.

What are the major socio-economic trends in play?

Okay, here’s where it might start to get triggering, so bear with me. Let’s look at some of the broader social trends going on so we can put some context on what’s happening. What are the social, economic, and political factors that influence this event?

Let’s start with perhaps the most obvious question and the most surprising result. The data is limited and fuzzy, but it seems that police killings of unarmed black suspects are actually down over the past seven years. In fact, it looks like African-American incarceration peaked in the 90s and has been coming down ever since. 

Now, let’s slow down for a sec. Chances are that reading that just gave you an intense emotional reaction. I want to state two things clearly: first, just because things have gotten better doesn’t mean they aren’t still a huge problem. And second, just because the public perception is wrong about this, doesn’t mean their anger isn’t legitimate. 

Remember, we’re holding contradictory notions in our minds here. Something can be getting better and be wrong. Some people can be wrong about the facts but right about the issue. Public perception is wrong all the time about stuff like this, but that doesn’t make their anger or frustration invalid. It just means that we have to dig a bit deeper to understand more of what’s going on. 

It’s hard to see the riots occurring during the COVID-19 lockdowns as purely coincidence. Black Lives Matters protests have happened regularly over the last five years, but they were almost always peaceful and orderly. 

Also, what was striking about the protests was that many of the looters and rioters weren’t black. In fact, from most of the footage I saw, it appeared that the violence was usually instigated by young white men. Many of the Black Lives Matters protesters were even yelling and pleading for the white rioters to stop. Many of the rioters seemed to not even give a shit about George Floyd or racial equality. They appeared to be in it purely for the mayhem. 

I remember taking a course on geopolitics in university with the professor harping over and over again: revolutionary movements and civil unrest almost always start with large numbers of unemployed young people (particularly young men). They have the most energy and anger towards the world as well as nothing to lose and nothing better to do. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 million Americans have recently been furloughed or laid off. These layoffs have disproportionately affected the working class, most notably minorities and young people. 

Therefore, a picture begins to emerge. Yet another infuriating death of a black man at the hands of a police officer. Mass protests emerge around the country, initially by civil rights groups for racial equality. But amid the chaos of the lockdown and the pent up anger and frustration of the young and unemployed, shit got out of hand. 

Which brings me to the last long-term trend, the real frustration that I think is underpinning this unrest: A complete and utter lack of effective leadership in the United States. Note: this is not a Trump thing or an Obama thing. Sadly, in the 21st century, it is an American thing. 

I am thirty-six years old. Despite crippling problems with health care, education, gun violence, immigration, climate change, stagnant wages, income inequality, and racial equality persisting for my entire adult life, I have never once seen my government help with or resolve any of these issues. For as long as I can remember, it has been: tax cuts, war, tax cuts, bailouts, tax cuts, bailouts. I have never seen things get better in this country. Only worse. I have never seen anything substantive from my leaders, Democrat or Republican, that makes me proud of voting for them. I wasn’t alive for the moon landing. I am too young to remember the Berlin Wall falling. I don’t give a flying fuck about Saddam Hussein. My introduction to my nation was 9/11, followed by hearing about friends and classmates being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by graduating into the worst economic collapse in 86 years, followed by thirteen more years of absolutely no fucking solutions. Forty-five years of no real wage growth for the middle and lower classes? Nothing. Kindergarteners being shot at school with assault rifles? Nothing. Eleven million bankruptcies due to a corrupt and dysfunctional health care system? Nothing. Black people being repeatedly murdered by police, live, on camera? Nothing. An entire generation of young people saddled with over a trillion dollars of debt just to go to school and then told to stay home and not work as soon as they get out? 

So, if you’re wondering why the kids are running through the streets destroying everything in sight, now you know. 

Stay safe. Show some love to someone this week, preferably a stranger. 

We’re all going to need it. 

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