Thursday, July 7, 2011

What Casey Anthony Says About Us

So a young woman named Casey Anthony, who was accused of murdering her baby, Caylee, was found "not guilty". And boy howdy, the rage on the Internet was nearly unprecedented. Everyone was shocked - SHOCKED - that she was acquitted. Even America's most important person, Kim Kardashian weighed in on this, and [insert obligatory joke about her father defending OJ Simpson in court here]. Many have called this a sign that the Justice System in the USA is flawed, broken or in need of some sort of overhaul, but I think that what this says about modern western society is more important than anything it could possibly say about the Justice System.

1: We are arrogant little sods

I believe the highest form of arrogance is believing that we know more about something than actual experts in that field do (the exceptions are experts whose ideas are soundly discredited by the vast majority of their peers, people like Timothy Rushton, Michael Behe and David Irvine are prime examples). We, sadly, see this regularly in western society, from Truthers to Birthers to creationists, climate change deniers, the anti-vaccine crowd, Holocaust deniers, and many, many more. Often, their ignorance of the subject is not only the reason they don't agree with the experts, it's the source of their arguments. A personal favourite of mine is "evolution is just a theory!" If you get why I think that's a ludicrous argument, pat yourself on the back, if you don't, read a goddamn book.

In this case, which is directly comparable to all those things I just mentioned, 12 jurors (plus 5 alternates who also sat in on the whole proceedings and agree with the verdict) unanimously agreed that the evidence against Casey Anthony wasn't sufficient enough to convict her. They all decided this after essentially making this case their lives for over a month. Meanwhile, the majority of Facebook and twitter users decided Casey was guilty after a few tabloid stories and a few Nancy Grace episodes. Not only did these people spend less time on this than the jury, they saw only biased, slanted stories. But they think they know more than the jury regardless, and often wear their ignorance of the legal system on their sleeves (one Facebook friend blocked me for challenging his assertion that circumstantial evidence alone could have convicted ms Anthony, and some Twitter folk seem to think not reporting the kid missing sooner is a smoking gun of sorts...) Why in the world do we think so highly of our own opinions? I’d say it has a lot to do with the whole “positive thinking” thing that’s become ubiquitous in our culture, but I think there’s more to it than that.

2: We’re not good at withstanding propaganda

For literally 3 years, we’ve heard a nearly nonstop barrage of tabloid news sources condemning ms Anthony. Not only from print tabloids, but also from the Nancy Grace, disgraced prosecutor-turned TV news host who actually drove one of her guests (Melinda Duckett) to suicide. Rather than use healthy skepticism, we are lulled into belief by constant repetition. Now, psychologically, this does make sense due to the Illusion-Of -Truth Effect, wherein a more familiar statement is more likely to be believed than a newer one, regardless of truth. So the statement “Casey Anthony murdered her daughter Caylee” is more likely to be assumed true than “the evidence shows that Casey Anthony didn’t murder her daughter” despite the latter statement being true. (If you dispute this statement still, refer to point 1, and remember that partying after your daughter’s death doesn’t mean you killed her) Regardless of this, one would expect a few more skeptics than what we seem to have. We seriously need to start promoting critical thought HARD. Teaching people at a young age to think critically, and to really analyze everything using logic and skepticism so that we don't fall for such bullshit so easily.

3: We’re caught in a vicious sensationalistic news cycle, and it’s ruining our society

Ask anyone what’s the most pressing political issue of today, and you’d probably get the same answers across the board: the economy, the environment, perhaps some local scandal or disaster. Does the news media reflect this? Well, no. It’s ratings and sales driven media, after all. Anthony Weiner’s penis was huge news, but not the issue that likely got Andrew Breitbart to target him, specifically, Weiner going after US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ conflict of interest that should, in a just world, get him dismissed from the SCOTUS? Well, yeah, an issue like that is less easy to condense into one line, and it's less interesting to a layperson than "married politician with an amusingly appropriate name shows his dick to women online". And of course a pretty white woman's daughter dying isn't as important as a less attractive Asian woman named Ka Yang possibly murdering her daughter, Mirabelle Thao-Lo, even though it's infinitely more likely Yang murdered her daughter than it was that Casey killed Caylee.

Of course, it isn't just that the people of North America care more for frivolous sensationalism than important stuff. Sometimes, like in the case of media mogul Rupert Murdoch hacking peoples' phones, it's both sensationalistic AND important, but not covered as much on this continent. Why? Murdoch owns the biggest news station in the USA, and us Canadians are too caught up in the furor over Prince William and Kate Middleton visiting. Hopefully, we come to our senses in a day or two, so at least the northern part of North American knows what a douche Murdoch is, but I highly doubt it.

The fact is, however, that by focusing on these smaller problems, public pressure isn't being used to change anything. This scandal with Murdoch could be used to fix the problem of media consolidation, instead, it's ignored. Things like the American debt ceiling (which Democrats and financial experts say should be raised to avoid a major financial catastrophe, and Republicans think should stay as is because otherwise the gays win the war on terror or something) will affect the whole damn world a lot more than a single dead girl, yet because it's complex and has lots of big numbers, no one knows about it. In fact, you (the reader) probably hadn't heard anything about this before right now. Be honest.

The big problem here is that, realistically, there is nothing we can do about this, aside from supporting public broadcasting and more credible, serious news outlets, and avoiding major news organizations as much as possible, and encouraging everyone else to do the same. Oh, wait,, homepage of our public broadcaster which I just checked to see if Canadian news sources were ignoring the phone-hacking thing, has Prince William as its top story.

Well, maybe someone will develop a virus that feeds on human stupidity? Now THAT is something I'd put money towards.

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