The one-sided politics of anecdotes
One ugly side effect of the internet's impact on our society is the outsized
importance we put on anecdotal incidents which go "viral."
As though the importance of a situation were measured by how many shares or views it gets.
We could use the recent video taken by three Somali women in the parking lot of a Fargo
Walmart. Sarah and Laleyla Hassan and Rowda Soyan recorded an angry Amber Hensley of
Mapleton, N.D., telling them to "back to their own country."
"We're going to kill all of you," Hensley adds in the recording. "We're going to kill every one of
Hensley's words are indefensible. Yes, the women recording her may have been rude
themselves, but nothing they did justifies Hensley's actions.
Yet road rage incidents happen every single day in this country. We've all seen our fellow
motorists incensed by other drivers, or moved to fury over failing to get the parking spot they
People are jerks to one another all the time. I've received a half dozen or so death threats in the
last year. I've seen people respond to my columns on Facebook by wishing me fired. One
person wished that my children would get cancer.
Why is this incident in a parking lot in Fargo worthy of the attention it got?
Because it fit a political narrative.
Hensley didn't just chew the three Somali women out. She made their ethnicity a part of her
rant. Not only did this make her behavior all the more reprehensible, but it served as a sort of
bat signal for political opportunists eager to swoop in and use this anecdote as leverage.
Some see justification for new legislation outlawing hate crimes in North Dakota (as though
things like harassment and assault weren't already illegal).
Is it fair to use video of one incident as fodder for a political movement? Shouldn't questions of
race relations and public policy be born of something more than incomplete video of one ugly
To be fair to our friends on the left, the right does this too.
Think about the debate over political bias on the nation's college campuses. There have been
some truly embarrassing moments for the higher education industry in this arena. The status of
free speech at Berkeley, for instance, is not good. Right-of-center points of view are clearly
unwelcome on that campus.
The problem comes when conservatives use the problems at Berkeley as a brush with which to
paint all college campuses. While some college campuses have problems with ideological bias,
not all of them do.
Just as one ugly incident in a Walmart parking lot is not by itself indicative of race relations in
The video of Hensley made headlines, and those headlines create a blinkered sort of
perception. What doesn't make headlines, unfortunately, are much more numerous interactions
between people of various races in our region which are courteous. Polite. Loving.
If we weren't so busy looking for anecdotes to support the political conclusions we've already
arrived at, we might be more willing to focus on the latter as opposed to the former.