From May 14, 2010, “The dominant hand“:
National Public Radio earlier this week committed what I regard as one of the cardinal sins of reporting on poll results. NPR’s Ted Robbins, reporting for All Things Considered, provided an otherwise helpful look at the supporters of Arizona’s new immigration law.
Introducing the piece, host Michelle Norris said this: “Polls show a majority of voters support the law. In Arizona itself, it’s a wide majority. Except that supporters have been far less vocal than opponents.”
At best, this sort of thing is merely annoying — a kind of reporting that tells listeners nothing. At worst, it weakens the idea of what it means to be a citizen — it promotes a way of thinking that makes democracy and the rule of law less likely to succeed.
The particulars and the dispute over Arizona’s law aren’t what I’m talking about here. The problem is that the law primarily affects a minority of Arizona residents — the one-third or so of Arizona citizens who are Hispanic. Arizona’s non-Hispanic majority, the other two-thirds of its residents, don’t perceive the new law as inconveniencing them in any way and may actually believe it benefits them.*
When any given matter — a new law, a new tax, a higher risk for diabetes — affects or afflicts only a minority of the overall population, it’s meaningless and irresponsible to conduct or report on a poll of that overall population as though the opinions of all such respondents merit equal consideration.
Yet this happens all the time. And NPR, just like every other news outlet, reports on these polls as though their findings — that the majority are unconcerned about whatever it is the minority finds so upsetting — were some sort of evidence that the matter is of no great importance. Or, worse, that the minority who seem upset about the matter are just whining for no good reason.
NPR’s Norris tiptoes up to the brink of reason, noting that the affected minority opposed to Arizona’s law seem more “vocal” than the measure’s supporters. But she doesn’t take the next step of wondering why those affected by something might be more vocal than those not directly affected by it. And she doesn’t seem to even imagine the next step of wondering why she or we or the pollsters should care what those unaffected by it think. Or why the pollsters or NPR would think that the opinions of the unaffected ought to be allowed to outweigh the opinions of those who are affected.
Imagine that Arizona had passed a Southpaw Surtax — a new flat fee of $100/year to be paid only by the 13 percent or so of Arizonans who are left-handed. Polls conducted thereafter might show very similar results to those Michelle Norris recited on NPR. A majority of Arizonans support the new surtax. A vocal minority of whiners oppose it. End of story.
Such polls and such news reports tell us absolutely nothing. And yet on the radio, on the TV and in the paper, day after day, we get report after report on poll after poll telling us this very same nothing.
A majority of Arizonans, most of whom are not Hispanic, think it’s OK to cast suspicion on all Hispanics. A majority of Americans, most of whom are not black males, don’t care if police pull over black males far more frequently than everyone else. A majority of the overwhelmingly heterosexual population thinks its fine to deny full civil rights to homosexuals. A majority of Americans, 99 percent of whom have never set foot in a coal mine, think mine safety standards are just fine the way they are. And on and on.
This is the template for all such news stories: “The situation is viewed as controversial, since it allows 80 percent of the population to feed off the blood of the other 20 percent, but polls show nearly 70 percent of the country thinks this is a good thing. So no worries then.”
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* They’re wrong about that. Not to get all Niemoller-y, but once a right is denied to any group, it ceases to be a right even for those groups for whom it has not yet been denied, becoming instead a mere privilege.
Privileges are much weaker, much more fragile things than rights.
“Rights for me but not for thee” is not a sustainable situation. Either rights will be extended to all, or else they’re not really rights. And if they’re not really rights, but merely privileges, they may be rescinded at any time, for any reason.
White Arizonans may think they’ve created a situation in which only the Hispanic minority will be regarded as guilty until proven innocent, but really their screw-the-Hispanics legislation means they’re all screwed.
I’ve been using the analogy of left-handedness for a long time to complain about this absurd, semi-Fascist convention of polling the majority to determine whether or not the minority should have equal rights.
Another way of putting it might be to say “Polls show that Tessie Hutchinson’s view is in the minority as an overwhelming majority of village residents support the traditional lottery.”