Saturday, November 10, 2012

What happens when you assume

Meme making its way around Facebook.  Rather than just show the picture, I'd like to tell the story in my own best Reader's Digest fashion:

The British Airways flight had just landed at Orly and pulled up to the terminal.  Amidst the usual arrival bustle, an aged British gentleman was searching his carry-on bag for his passport.
A fellow passenger, a stern French woman, noticed his search, and asked, "Have you been to France before?"
The man, still searching, quietly replied, "I have."
"Well, then," the woman sniffed with stereotypical Gallic hauteur, "you should know to have your passport out and waiting, sir."
"The last time I was here," the Brit shrugged, "I didn't have to show my passport."
"Impossible!" the woman snapped.  "You British have always had to show your passports to go through here!"
Whereupon the Englishman stopped his search, stepped close to the lady, and whispered to her, "Well, when I landed on the beach in Normandy in June of 1944, I couldn't find any f***ing Frenchman to show it to!"

This story, like many good urban legends, must have been circulating some time, because if the Englishman were 83 today (which was the age quoted in my source), he would have been awful young to make the landing at Sword Beach ... fifteen, more or less.  Not impossible, and not unheard-of — I know of one lad in the American Navy who 'fessed up to being underage just before the landing — but unlikely nonetheless.

Our French lady illustrates for us the sin of rash judgment, which is an offense against truth and therefore a violation of the commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Ex 20:16, 23:1, Dt 5:20; cf. CCC 2477-2478).  Just one more question — "And when were you last here?" — would have given the information needed to prevent her from making a donkey of herself.  Too often, we're in so much of a rush to "one up" total strangers, to demonstrate our moral and intellectual superiority through mockery and condemnation, that we don't trouble to discover more facts before we compose our sneers.  The result:  We become bigger asses than we had first intended.

Modern technology magnifies the problem.  With the amazing, magical power of the Internet, the first blundering assortment of misunderstood information becomes the concretized set of "facts" which drive the narrative from there on out.  Corrections and further information have little power to dispel the new-born myth; like the old gum commercial said, you don't get a second chance to make a good first impression.  And so for several days the Web reverbrates with the sound of hee-haws as badly-informed social judges declaim, denounce and denigrate the wrong person or policy, even going so far as to solve the wrong problem

Politics intensifies the nastiness. The Susan G. Komen debacle earlier this year furnishes us with a prime example:

  • Planned Parenthood was losing no direct funding through the planned changes in SGK's policy.  The funds being redirected were transfer payments used to pay third-party clinics for mammograms for indigent women — SGK intended to make these payments directly.  Moreover, the funds weren't being shut off immediately; two grants were still in the pipeline, and there were still funds to be distributed on past grants.
  • Planned Parenthood does no mammograms.  They have never done mammograms.  They do screenings, the kind any woman can self-administer and which really cost PP nothing that they aren't already paying as far as skilled labor goes; if they discover something suspicious, they refer their patients to clinics with mammography facilities.
  • The women who frequent Planned Parenthood are at greater risk of breast cancer from the pills PP wants to hand out like Halloween candy.  In fact, in 2007 the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the estrogen/progestogen compound as a Class I carcinogen (causes cancer in humans), saying, "There is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of combined oral estrogen–progestogen contraceptives.  This evaluation was made on the basis of increased risks for cancer of the breast among current and recent users only, for cancer of the cervix and for cancer of the liver in populations that are at low risk for hepatitis B viral infection." Other evidence has arisen since that women who are on the pill for a year or more suffer increased risk of an extremely nasty form of breast cancer with a high mortality rate.
Pro-life news outlets and bloggers got the story wrong, though, and proclaimed a triumph where no battle had been fought.  This directly led to the pro-abort narrative: Women's health is under attack.  As a result, SGK got a public beatdown from Planned Barrenhood supporters the likes of which we haven't seen since Watergate; Planned Barrenhood was practically buried under donations from all the pro-abort Chicken Littles who were convinced the sky was falling; and the pro-life SGK executive who had shepherded the move was more or less forced to resign to save SGK's street cred.  Not to mention that all the bloggers — and I was one of them — who were so quick to claim points against the Evil Empire were left braying in frustration and embarrassment.

To avoid rash judgment, the first thing a person needs to do is to shut up and think about what's going to come out of his mouth (or onto his blog — the other day's post is very much on my mind.  You may not believe it, but a lot of what I publish has been edited for excessive snark).  Do you really have all the facts you need to make an intelligent comment?  Do you really understand the discussion?  Is it really your life's ambition to make people shake their heads and mutter, "Jeez, what a p***k that guy is"?

Because not only is the line between smartass and dumbass very thin and easy to cross, whichever side you end up on, you're still an ass.