Step 2 in Understanding the Pipe Bombs
Admit the facts.
Posted Oct 27, 2018
A few days ago, I published a piece about the importance of keeping an open mind when facts are not fully known. Before Cesar Sayoc, who is being held (with apparently good reason) on suspicion of creating and sending pipe bombs to such major national figures as Joe Biden and Barack Obama, was apprehended, I wrote a piece that was all about the importance of keeping an open mind when facts are not yet known. Prior to this apprehension, in fact, it was unclear who was behind this abhorrent plot.
At that point, people from different camps along the political spectrum developed different narratives as to the cause of the pipe-bomb scare. Those on “the right” were raising the role of the media and were talking about possible foreign sources such as possible Islamic militants or others who were trying to shake up our nation prior to the 2018 mid-term election. Those on “the left” were pointing squarely to Donald Trump, whose rhetoric toward political “enemies” might be perceived as fanning the flame of hate in this country. These are, as we see with so many issues in our current national ethos, completely different narratives.
The Importance of Withholding Judgment
My first piece was all about the importance of withholding judgment prior to knowing the facts. As a social scientist and teacher, I am regularly underscoring the importance of realizing when a question is an empirical question. That is, when we don’t know the answer to some question, arguing as to whether one narrative is more valid than another narrative is really not the best practice. Collecting data via investigating the actual facts matters - and it is often a best practice (even though it is often hard for people to actually follow this particular path; see Ross & Nisbett, 1991).
Dealing with the Facts
On the other hand, once facts become available, it’s important for all parties to deal with them as they are. Once facts are available, hiding behind narratives and spinning cold facts in a distorted way really benefits no one.
With the apprehension of Cesar Sayoc by the authorities in Florida yesterday, the facts became clear. He is not a foreign national. He is a registered Republican. He seems to have attended at least one rally for Donald Trump. His van, which was, reportedly, found to have materials related to pipe bombs inside when Sayoc was apprehended, was covered in right-leaning stickers, many of which named Trump directly.
OK. So now we have it. The one narrative, focusing on the idea that the perpetrator was probably influenced by the current ethos of the right-leaning part of the political spectrum, was actually correct. Of the different narratives that are out there, this particular narrative matches the facts. This guy is a Trump supporter, and this fact seems relevant to his actions.
As critical thinkers, we dismiss facts to our own detriment and to the detriment of civil discourse.
A Note on Fox News
I type on Saturday, October 27, 2018 - the day after Sayoc was apprehended. The New York Times, MSNBC, and CNN all have detailed coverage of this ongoing situation featured prominently on their homepages. This was one of the largest-scale efforts to assassinate multiple key national leaders in the modern history of the United States. So it makes good sense to me that this situation is being covered in detail by such prominent news sources.
But I will say, from the perspective that I demarcate here related to the importance of dealing with facts as they are, I think that there is reason to be concerned with Fox News on this point. I cannot find anything about this situation on their homepage. It seems very much like the facts that came out simply didn’t match the narratives that may have been dominant among those in the Fox News community. It appears that Fox News may be downplaying the story about Sayoc because the facts surrounding this individual seem to support “the other narrative.”
Like a lot of Americans, I’m tired of living in such a divided nation. And I am regularly taking steps to try to help build bridges. The downplaying of the details regarding Cesar Sayoc on the part of Fox News shows us just how difficult the situation is. Look, regardless of my own political inclinations, I was willing to put a piece out there the other day about the importance of holding off on judgment until facts are known. Well, Fox News, the facts are now known. Cesar Sayoc, a zealous Trump supporter, is in custody for the pipe bomb scare that had the potential to wreak havoc on our national landscape. No matter how you slice it, this is major news and it should be reported as such.
During this time of major political and social division in our country, facts have the capacity to bring us together. After all, a Democrat and a Republican can both agree that a duck is a duck. Media sources (on either side) that fail to sufficiently cover facts that pertain to major national issues are working against the common good. We can do better. So let’s do so. For our shared future.
Ross, L., & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.