For the past week, the nation has been on a self-inflicted, nausea-inducing, herky-jerky judgment ride on the roller coaster of instant certainty. When a video emerged showing a standoff confrontation between Covington Catholic High School students and a Native American elder in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the short video swept the internet. News coverage from numerous national outlets instantly came with swift and certain condemnations of kids behaving badly. Yet, as is often the case, there was much more to the story.
Within a few days enough video had poured in to show that another protest group was spewing hateful speech while creating confusion and chaos. Descriptions originally provided where not accurate. It would take weeks worth of editorial pages to unpack all that happened and went wrong — prejudice, predisposition, the need to be first, confirmation bias, bad journalism, bad judgment, race relations, contempt and so much more. All could have been altered with a little restraint and a willingness to suspend the anger-inducing, judgment-blinding and confusion-creating instant certainty.
On Jan. 10, more than a week before the incident in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the Deseret News ran a column titled "Instant certainty is the enemy of truth and trust," which posited “Truth and trust do appear to be on trial in 2019. Business leaders and politicians continue to play fast and loose with the facts. Instant certainty by talking heads, across the political spectrum, unravel trust and launch thousands of angry tweets and vitriolic social media posts.”
Instant certainty isn’t limited to viral videos on the internet. On Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used similar instant certainty to dismiss out of hand President Trump’s proposal to end the shutdown while addressing border security and immigration. She completely rejected it before the proposal had been made public. Terms like “non-starter” and “dead-on-arrival” show a lack of openness and an unwillingness from all sides to engage in meaningful dialogue.
There are examples across the political spectrum and media organizations of similar instant certainty on a wide array of topics and events. Such certainty not only obfuscates truth and undermines trust, but it can quickly become a cancer to neighborhoods and communities.
New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed the role of technology in the instant certainty conundrum. “The crucial thing is that the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control.
“In this technology, stereotype is more salient than persons. In this technology, a single moment is more important than a life story. In this technology, a main activity is proving to the world that your type is morally superior to the other type.
“The Covington case was such a blatant rush to judgment — it was powered by such crude prejudice and social stereotyping — I’m hoping it will be an important pivot point. I’m hoping that at least a few people start thinking about norms of how decent people should behave on these platforms.”53 comments on this story
Platforms are clearly part of the problem, as is the willingness of individuals to deploy them. It is time for a different discussion on how we use social media platforms. It is also time for some serious reflection about suspending judgment, listening, dialogue and positive engagement — especially on contentious topics.
As the legislative session begins in the state of Utah, and as the national conversations on immigration, border security and ending the government shutdown continue, political leaders, citizens and the media should suspend instant certainty in favor of a more thoughtful and elevated approach to important issues.