Saturday, February 27, 2010

what are the facts?

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One of the things I discovered -- or thought I discovered -- as a newspaper reporter was that facts seldom, if ever, persuade people. It is opinion and bias that have more impact.

At the time of the discovery, I became disgusted and downhearted and cynical by turns. There I was, doing the best job I could to gather what might pass for facts and all that work amounted to piss in a snowbank. Naturally, I did not want to think that my work was all but worthless. But when the facts are staring you in the face...?

Today, I still think that bias and opinion are the king and queen of the mountain, but to my mind it is just a fact and not something to get your knickers in a twist about. What lessons does this fact teach? And what bias and opinion do I bring to bear instead of investigating the facts?

I thought of all this last night when I tuned in part-way through "Bill Moyers' Journal," a public television show hosted by former newspaperman, author, government flak and Christian-inclined good guy, Bill Moyers. Moyers was talking to a couple of men who seemed to be lawyers and who both had been involved in a court case surrounding California's Proposition 8, an anti-homosexual-marriage initiative.

The show made no apology for being lop-sided in its presentation. There were no advocates for the "immorality" that some ascribe to homosexual liaisons. But Moyers asked the devil's advocate questions and these two men were allowed to bring their evidence to bear. What struck me was the effort they had made in marshaling witnesses -- including those on the other side of the argument -- who addressed head-on the "immorality" or the social-fabric-disaster or the-children-will-be-hurt or the danger-to-the-sanctity-of-marriage and all the other heart-felt objections to homosexual marriages.

These guys had done their homework. They knew there were passions in play, but they brought up the facts ... fact after fact after fact after fact. They were not outraged that people did not believe them. They did not swoon when someone did not think they were right. They did not shout or bang their fists or white-whine ... they gathered what facts they could and stood firm. That firmness seemed to be rooted in the idea -- what else? they were lawyers -- that in a country ruled by laws, those laws needed to be equitably applied. They recognized the human capacity for passion and opinion and bias, but refused to concede that passion and opinion and bias should be allowed to rule the land...unless, of course, anarchy were to be the objective.

It was an interesting program for me. The issue of homosexuality, while socially inflaming, was not so much what interested me. What did interest me was the ways in which any human being might carry out the same investigation and care in their own lives. Clearly such an investigation is not popular. Clearly facts can put opinion and bias in a revised and often weakened position. But to investigate and find out the implications of anyone's own persuasions is the only way I can think of that will provide a peaceful and equitable life ... personally peaceful and equitable.

Passionate airheads are a dime a dozen and I am perfectly capable of standing at the front of that line. But a good, if daunting, habit to get into is the willingness to really investigate, the habit of not simply settling for the obvious or the delicious. If I say, "I am a Buddhist," well, what the hell does that mean? What does that mean really, when I am alone and have neither supporters nor detractors to rely on?

What are the facts? Are the facts ever the facts? If no one else investigates the facts, if people seem content with nickel-and-dime opinions, why should I bust my butt trying to get things straight?

Why? Because I prefer to be happy. Being "right" is a cheap date -- easy and smug. But being happy requires some effort and care.

I think the effort is worth the price of admission.

But that's just my bias.
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