Probably the most astute evaluation of the thousands of books and articles published in response to 9/11 came from the New Yorker‘s Louis Menand, who distilled the essential message of them all – written by everyone from Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky to William J. Bennett and Samuel Huntington – into merely this: “It just proves what I’ve always said.” For most commentators, it seemed, the sudden, shocking destruction of two giant office buildings and the death of thousands of people only served to reaffirm whatever opinions on politics, religion, and globalization they already had.
Analysts call this phenomenon “confirmation bias” – the unconscious impulse to highlight evidence which supports an existing premise and to discount that which doesn’t. Indeed, the one reaction you almost never hear in the wake of unexpected breaking news is, “Wow, I really have to reexamine my beliefs; this changes everything.” There pretty much needs to be a complete collapse of social order for people to decisively abandon their prejudices about their laws, their leaders, or their lives in general (as in the devastated Germany and Japan at the end of World War II); any lesser calamity can usually be accommodated into people’s established convictions.
The most recent example of confirmation bias has been witnessed following the killing of a Canadian solider on ceremonial duty in Ottawa and the killer’s subsequent attack on the nearby Canadian Parliament. Patriotic, pro-military types used the occasion to make noise about Canadian values, our heroic warriors, our cherished freedoms, and so on. Meanwhile, as details of the episode continue to emerge, progressives adapted their positions to reflect their own orthodoxies. Radical jihadist assaults government institutions: “This is an inevitable response to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s authorizing of imperialist aggression in the Middle East.” Troubled man goes on murderous rampage: “This is an inevitable response to Harper’s cutting funds for mental health.” Self-radicalized Canadian turns to violence: “Harper will inevitably use this as an excuse to curtail our civil liberties.” On a rather lighter note, the current brouhaha around the firing of a popular Canadian radio host has prompted similar dodges. CBC on-air personality sues for wrongful dismissal: “Harper is obviously trying to silence liberal voices on the national broadcaster.” Dismissed CBC on-air personality admits to enjoying rough sex: “Harper is obviously trying to suppress alternative lifestyles.” Alleged victims of CBC on-air personality say the sex was not consensual: “Um, down with Harper.”
There has been much talk of how the West is now caught in a civil war between modernizing and regressive strains of Islam, but it also seems that the West is embroiled in its own conflict, although of a non-lethal variety. The public views which have been aired after 9/11, after the Boston, London, Madrid, and Bali bombings, and now after the attacks on Canadian servicemen (a previous soldier was killed in a deliberate hit and run), reveal an almost intractably polarized society. On opposite sides are – depending on how you see it – either neo-con capitalist warmongers against social justice, or hard-headed realists against pious, knee-jerk leftism. No matter how much they might stun us at first, major news stories soon generate a self-satisfied round of editorials and social media posts which demonstrate the principle of confirmation bias in action. With each unpredictable event, a predictably divided chorus of predictably smug statements emanates from a predictable lineup of predictably unswayed pundits, politicians, and ordinary citizens. Which just proves what I’ve always said.