Clear Comprehension

On the equivalent of two people arguing about a movie that neither of them watched.

I've mentioned before that I spend a lot of time looking for progress in the news. What I didn't mention is that I specifically look for nonpartisan stories. And I suspect you will have no trouble believing that one of the more frustrating things about looking for nonpartisan progress in the news is looking for nonpartisan progress in the news. And it's not because there's no progress.

Whatever the cause of the increasingly absurd hyper-partisanship, I think it's more complicated than just saying the media did it, or that social media did it. That said, anyone who's given careful attention to the interplay between the media and the most clicky, commenty, and unnuanced users of social media can see that their marriage is a recipe for gasoline.

I'm not going to waste my time blaming the media, though. Because I have a brain and the internet. I can read the New York Times and at the same time do this: (1) extract information and (2) give extra consideration to areas of bias. I can do the same with the long list of newsletters and news sites I read through each day: left, right, and center. There's even a website now that displays those outlets' political biases—alongside other outlets and their biases—as part of the story. And it is part of the story. This is true for the media as authors, and for us as readers. We all bring our own biases to the mix. It's inevitable. More than that, the media in some sense is just a mirror reflecting our biases back at us. I don't have a solid plan for making the media an author that better serves us. But I do have a few methods for making myself a better reader, not just of the news, but of the situation, all the little ones we enter both individually and collectively into, and this great big one that we're all in all the time, until we're not: the condition. Those methods, in a word, are all rooted in basic mindfulness. More on that in a minute.

A clearer, closer reading of the news is of course not limited to the news. It applies to just about everything in life. But I'm going to stick with its application to news and news-adjacent things for a minute. Even if I'm looking at data from Pew, or Gallup, or Morning Consult, or wherever, there will almost always be more to consider about that data and the stories it tells. I say "stories" plural because it does tell numerous stories, and when considered in different contexts usually tells numerous more. Many of those stories are already being told, which is good. But they're also being told in different combinations of broken-off pieces to different people in different groups with different positions, which is bad.

I heard Coleman Hughes once describe the discourse that results from this often algorithm-driven dissemination of information as a disagreement about a movie between two people who watched different movies but don't know it. For some of us, and maybe even the majority of us, watching other people have that disagreement has become the movie. You know the one. It's the movie where people who seem mostly just like us are locked in a contentious debate about, say, Mulholland Drive. But, critical to their contention, one side watched Thelma & Louise, and the other watched Braveheart.

Meanwhile, those of us who've grown tired of this Three's Company-esque misunderstanding are saying things like, "Hey, so, guys, can we say guys anymore? No? Okay, so... Really? Do I have to say that? Fine. So, y'all, while Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon deserve all the accolades they received for being feminist pioneers in cinema, even though, yes, they are white; and while Mel Gibson did wonderful things for mullets and racial diversity in buddy-cop film franchises, and possibly even Jesus depending on your thoughts on that one and before, well, you know, do you gu— y'all want to maybe pause the debate on Mulholland Drive for a couple hours and maybe watch this crazy David Lynch film with us over here, which is also, go figure, called Mulholland Drive? No, no, no. I'm not saying we shouldn't teach about race in schools. I never said that. No, I'm also not saying we should segregate children in schools by skin color and call one side victims and the other oppressors. No, I'm not saying we should ban it either. I'm just saying... Just, let's just watch Mulholland Drive. No, they're not Black or brown or trans, but... Actually, I think the one with the dark hair is part Mexican! No, I believe David Lynch is a cis straight white man. But... You know what? Never mind. I’ll just watch Mulholland Drive alone. Again."

Maybe I'm exaggerating again. But the more I observe the online discourse, the more emphasis I'm inclined to place on that “maybe.” So what do we do about this? How do we get to a place where we're at least all watching Mulholland Drive?

First, I would argue that we should do something roughly opposite to what those most clicky, commenty, and unnuanced users of social media are doing. Namely, we should exercise nuance. Slow down. Read things more carefully. Remember that they were written and collated by people with biases and deadlines and misleading feelings of certainty and stories of self-identities that they want to project on the world. (Sound like anyone you know? Sound like everyone you know? Sound like you? Because it definitely sounds like everyone I know and me.) Remember also that these people also happen to work for organized and strategic machines, big and small, with an insatiable hunger for clicks.

We should parse the information we receive. Find the best totally different takes on that information we can and read them as though we maybe don't already know everything yet, and we therefore maybe don't know for sure what we think yet. We should exercise the principle of charity and interpret the authors' and speakers' statements in their best possible light. We should exercise the reasonable belief that those authors and speakers are expressing the truest available versions of what they think are the right and most crucial things to express.

If we can do all of this, then we can start making sense of Mulholland Drive. No small feat. But one we're making significantly harder by fighting about things like the racist names of the birds that flew through that famous battle scene in Thelma & Louise.


  • I was listening to a meditation talk (subscriber only) by Joseph Goldstein the other day about the Buddhist notion of sampajañña, i.e., mindfulness plus clear comprehension. In the last two minutes of the talk, he drops the mic thusly:

    Certainty is not an indication of truth. Just because we're certain about something, [that] doesn't make it true. So just as a little life experiment, the next time you feel really certain about something, rather than assuming it's true, let the certainty itself be the feedback to [ask yourself this] question: I'm certain, but is it true?


  • Coleman Hughes

  • Ground News

  • Mulholland Drive

  • Thelma & Louise

  • Braveheart

  • Three’s Company

  • Seriously, y’all, can we just not, I mean…

28 people received this email.