In yet another example of how Existentialism has pervaded our modern social interactions, a small-town newspaper in Columbia, MO unexpectedly went viral this past week.
In his regular opinion column, Bill Clark recalled for his readers a personal experience with law enforcement so terrifying he thought he was going to be shot. The experience, he affirmed, gave him an empathy with the minority community he had previously unknown.
“I’ve just come to appreciate even more the words of those minorities when they speak of harassment and police arrogance. I had a good dose of arrogance on this evening and, in my rear view mirror, the image of the second officer out of the car, his hands ready in case I made the wrong move. My life seemed to be in danger.”
There’s only one problem with this. None of it is true. Mr. Clark was not harassed by the sheriff’s office; his life was never in danger; the second officer was not gripping his sidearm; and the deputies were about the farthest thing from arrogant. How do we know? The entire encounter was captured on the deputies’ dashcam, complete with audio.
The Boone County Sheriff’s Office released the video as a rebuttal to Mr. Clark’s op-ed, thereby demonstrating the falsehood of nearly every single one of his judgments about the deputies in particular, and the law enforcement community in general.
Said Mr. Clark in his fiction, “I fully understand how a person can lose their respect for law officers. When you are in the shoes of the minority, you learn a lot more about their journey.”
Once released, the video went viral, and Clark’s narrative of an over-zealous law enforcement system that targets liberals and minorities was dashed into a million pieces.
But that’s not where the story ends – at least not philosophically.
Yes, the Boone County sheriff’s deputies were vindicated, and Bill Clark was publicly humiliated for his accusations; in short, justice was done, prima facie, without the need for a court.
But hidden beneath this spectator-satisfying comeuppance for prevaricating media personalities is a larger problem – one that allows Mr. Clark to get away with his article, allows the newspaper to sympathize with him, and allows the narrative to march on unharmed.
The problem is the philosophy of existential perception – or what Friedrich Nietzsche called “Perspectivism.” According to Nietzsche, there are no facts, “only interpretations.”
And here’s where Clark is absolved from sin in world of existentialism, and why his lie will do nothing to harm the narrative of rampant police brutality.
Let me explain. After the viral outcry against Mr. Clark’s column for blatantly distorting recorded reality, the editor of the Columbia Tribune, Mr. Charles Westmoreland, issued his own response to the situation.
And while Westmoreland emphatically rebuked the publication of falsehoods, and sincerely apologized to the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, at the same time, he left the door open to validating Clark’s column. His statement is full of existential perspectivism.
Said Westmoreland, “I cannot defend Clark’s column or the facts as he presented them.”
No, Mr. Westmoreland, they are not facts, no matter how he presented them. They are clearly falsehoods – not interpretations of facts, not just a different perspective on facts. If one asserts as fact a wrong interpretation of reality, it is by definition no longer a fact. Denying that allows interpretations and allegations like Mr. Clark’s to receive validation.
Continued Westmoreland, “I apologize to the Boone County Sheriff’s Department and readers who feel they were misled by Clark’s column.”
To be clear, readers did not just feel misled, they were misled. The paper published a false account of reality that actually and really misled its readers. To project the apology onto the feelings of the reader makes them involved in the interpretation of reality, and culpable to some extent for the offending perspective. (In other words, the implication is if no one felt misled, then there would be no reason for apology.) A better apology – one that rejects perspectivism – would have been, perhaps, “I apologize to the Boone County Sheriff’s Department and our readers for this paper’s misleading you of the facts.” Big Difference.
Furthermore, Westmoreland goes on: “I personally don’t believe Clark was threatened by the deputies in any way, but I wasn’t inside his head and can’t say he didn’t feel threatened…Perspectives differ from one person to the next.”
The statement is true, that “perspectives differ from one person to the next.” But that is not the point. Do you as a newspaper editor really wish to invest in a perspective that is prone to falsity? Do you wish for your readers to consume a perspective that you can’t trust?
Westmoreland did note that Mr. Clark “acknowledged he’d made a mistake.” But not for lying, mind you; but for “taking out his frustrations in his column, and blowing certain aspects out of proportion. He’s not apologetic for how he felt at the time or the way he perceived certain things.”
That’s a significant distinction, and here’s why. Clark’s self-admittedly wrong actions and response is based entirely on how he felt and the way he perceived certain things. If he would have had a clearer perspective, a truer understanding of context, or more control over his emotions, his response would been different. Why not apologize for a false perception, for incorrect feelings? Probably because it would necessarily admit an objective morality that is abhorrent to modern liberals (unless Russia is involved).
To acknowledge there are differing perspectives is harmless, but to assert intractable stubbornness in your own perspectives is the height of ignorance. To insist that all perspectives are valid – as Nietzsche did – is absolutely dangerous.
Some philosophies would say that if a perspective results in immoral or incorrect actions, that perspective itself is wrong. Existentialism denies this, and insists that all perspectives are valid, no matter how “wrong” the consequence – and “wrong” is a meaningless statement, except in the sense when one abandons his subjective commitment to be true to himself. (Yes, this is all real language from existentialists…)
Why this matters: the perspectivist response of Mr. Westmoreland, even though he suspended Mr. Clark indefinitely, leaves a crack in the window for the validation of blatantly false representations of reality. Westmoreland has explicitly validated the perceptions of Clark, even while rebuking his reactions. Activists supporting Mr. Clark’s worldview of a rampantly brutal law enforcement community can even use this to justify their convictions, blame the police, and defend Clark: “if police did not have a history of brutality, Clark would not have had a false perception of the particular facts in this case.”
Here’s my bold claim to Clark’s motive behind the whole scenario: He is a liberal that sympathizes with activist causes, but has no personal existential experience with being oppressed in relation to those causes. This was his opportunity to gain some activist-cred, and perhaps exculpate himself from the anguish of his self-assumed white male guilt. He knew in his heart that the police were respectful, professional, and correct in their duties; but he saw an opportunity to advance a narrative using a personal vignette. The collateral damage of his lies were meaningless because of the priority of his cause.
Nietzsche makes the end of his perspectivism quite clear: “It is our needs which interpret the world: our impulses with their sympathies and antipathies. Every impulse is an ambition of sorts, each has its own perspective which it would like to impose upon all of the other impulses as their standard.”