Topic: Society

“The Court Jester” and the Power of Bias

Okay, movie fans, here’s a quiz. What classic film is described thusly in a recent: Washington Post Magazine article?

“Sword fights, songs, a petulant princess, and a brave and resourceful heroine made this move pure delight for all ages.”

The answer?

“The Court Jester.”

I’m 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 don’t 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 haven’t 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 Palin’s 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 Post’s 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 Minow’s reviews. Individuals who would like the movie—fans of Kaye, patter songs, and physical comedy —won’t see it, because there’s 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 couldn’t see any inconsistency in his party’s position. That’s 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 couldn’t 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 won’t pretend it’s 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.

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