“The Court Jester” and the Power of Bias
Okay, movie fans, heres a quiz.
What classic film is described thusly in a recent: Washington Post Magazine
Sword fights, songs, a petulant
princess, and a brave and resourceful heroine made this move pure delight
for all ages.
The Court Jester.
Im not kidding.
I dashed off an outraged e-mail
to the author, Post writer Christina Lanzito, who included this utter
distortion of the film ( for the uninitiated, a brilliant musical slap-stick
comedy that was first, last, and completely a showcase for Danny Kaye)
in her profile of family film reviewer Nell Minow. As I think more about
it, I should have thanked her. I dont know that I will ever have as graphic
and striking an example of the power of bias to render otherwise intelligent
people deaf, blind, and dumb, dumb, dumb.
If you havent seen The Court
Jester, suffice it to say that describing this movie as some kind of
a girl-power, feminist-friendly romp is a bit like calling Gone With
the Wind a black power movie because Big Sam saves Scarlet and Mammy
tells off Rhett. Perceiving this film as anything but the clever, silly,
Errol Flynn swash-buckler parody it was meant to be requires a very deep
bias, the kind we are seeing more and more of in the media, in letters
to the editors, in blogs, among our friends and relatives, and yes, in
ourselves. It is the kind of bias that makes people see only what they
want to see.
This is distortion that arises
from an agenda, but it is crucial to note a distinction: the distortion
is not done intentionally to advance the agenda. The agenda creates the
bias that leads to the distortion. This is why, in other similar situations,
the journalist involved has felt abused. Dan Rather did not set out to
frame George Bush by using a forged document. It was, rather, his prior
conviction that Bush was guilty of wrongdoing and deserved to be exposed
that caused him to see manufactured evidence as a legitimate means of
proof. Bias, a strongly held belief and preference that precludes objective
analysis, altered his judgement and perception. The result, his own disgrace,
actually undermined his agenda. David Letterman, because he dislikes Sarah
Palin, was actually unable to see what should have been immediately, screamingly
obvious to anyone with a fair and objective bone in his body: the second
his joke about Palins daughter being knocked-up by Alex Rodriguez at
a Yankee could be interpreted as referring to her 14-year-old (since she
was, in fact, the daughter at the game), his joke had hit an innocent
bystander, a child, and he needed to apologize. But his bias got in the
way. His resulting late recognition of his obligations hurt him and brought
sympathy to Palin.
Similarly, it would be hard to
conceive how the Posts feminist-centric summary of The Court Jester
could possibly accomplish anything positive for Lanzito, Minow, feminism,
or the film itself. The description will attract people who want to see
a different film that what The Court Jester really is; they will be
disappointed, and stop relying on Minows reviews. Individuals who would
like the movie—fans of Kaye, patter songs, and physical comedy —wont
see it, because theres nothing in the description to entice them. And
unless a woman is an escapee from the Catharine MacKinnon Home for the
Radically Addled or a close relative of Glynis Johns, she would be unlikely
to see the film as a stirring saga of a brave and resourceful heroine.
This kind of unhinged perception
comes from bias run amuck. It is really a form of insanity; the victim
no longer can perceive reality with anything approaching fairness or accuracy.
During the protracted 2000 Florida recount, I was stunned to listen to
the arguments of Democrats arguing how votes should be counted, regardless
of the rules and laws on the books, while Republicans insisted on strict
deadlines and procedures—in the Counties. In the overseas voting by
the military, however, the parties made exactly the opposite arguments,
with the GOP insisting that every vote should count, and the Democrats
claiming that postmarks trumped otherwise valid ballots by servicemen
(who were trending Republican.) And both parties seemed resolutely blind
to the obvious hypocrisy in their arguments. They saw the situations in
the way that supported their agendas, even if it made them look corrupt
and dishonest, which it did. I remember arguing with lawyers on both sides
of these disputes at the time. One was a good friend from college who
was working in the Gore camp. He really couldnt see any inconsistency
in his partys position. Thats the power of bias.
Close behind is always the bias
rebound, which compounds the harm. Those who do not have the same bias,
and indeed may have an opposite one, cannot imagine how the biased party
could legitimately arrive at the position it reached under the influence
of the bias. So it assumes malice. I confess that this was my reflex reaction
to the ridiculous summary of The Court Jester. These women must hate
Danny Kaye! These women want to distort mainstream entertainment to fit
a feminist agenda! No, these women couldnt filter out their biases and
ended up doing a disservice to their readers and making fools of themselves.
People who write for the public,
who are supposed to convey the truth, have an obligation to recognize
their biases and not let them get in the way of fairness and honesty.
I wont pretend its easy, but it is part of the job, just as it is part
of the duty of elected officials, and every one of us who have to make
rational decisions about things we care about—which is every one of
us. We underestimate the power of bias to distort our judgement at great
peril to ourselves and those around us.
If you need proof, watch The Court Jester. You know. That tale of a petulant princess.