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THE NATION : THE CULTURE WARS : How We Know What We Know: Logic Meets Illogic at Simpson Trial

August 06, 1995|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." His most recent book is "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity" (Knopf)

NEW YORK — Here is one possible scenario: Sometime this fall, a few weeks after O.J. Simpson is either acquitted or his jury hangs, Barbara Walters (or will it be Diane Sawyer?) will fix him with that patented look of pained concern. "You know, O.J., there are still many people who think you are guilty," Walters/Sawyer will say, measuring each word. "What do you say to them?" And Simpson will shake his head incredulously and flash that smile and say, "I can't help what people think. All I know is, no jury has convicted me and, in my heart, I know I didn't do it."

George Orwell told us there would be days like these--days when lies would pass for truth, and truth for lies; days when language would be denatured of all meaning; days when the foundations of knowledge would begin to crack. But Orwell was warning us against repressive, totalitarian behemoths with the power to scramble our logical coordinates and substitute new coordinates by fiat. It turns out Orwell was wrong. He should have been warning us against the shenanigans at the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building.

Whatever racial, legal and cultural repercussions follow from the trial of the former football star for double homicide, there is one Orwellian consequence that may be more serious than the rest and yet has been discussed not at all. That is the trial's effect on our epistemology.

Epistemology, from the Greek word for knowledge, is the branch of philosophy concerned with the methods by which we come to know things. Within its province are how the mind grapples with fact, how one tests the truthfulness of a proposition, how the senses relate to the mind--in short, everything that tells us how we know what we know.

Admittedly, this may seem arcane, the stuff of soporific graduate seminars. But, as Orwell realized, epistemology is fundamental to who we are and how we function as a society. Change the rules of epistemology, and you change the culture. Make people doubt what their reason tells them to be true, and you have altered reality. Just look at the old Soviet empire.

In fairness to Simpson, our epistemology has been undergoing change long before this trial. From this country's inception, Americans have been paranoid. And, now, for more than 20 years, we are immersed in a culture of distrust. We have not only become wary of everything we see and hear, but we have become increasingly susceptible to the most outrageous leaps of illogic, because in a world where the rational is under steady attack, the preposterous fills the vacuum. Some people actually believe the Oklahoma City bombing was a government frame-up. Then again, some believe Simpson was hitting golf balls at 10 o'clock the night of his wife's murder.

If we have come to distrust every scrap of information we receive, our suspicions have only been intensified by the chief delivery system of that information: television. Television, as the critic Neil Postman has eloquently argued, creates its own epistemology. It changes how we come to know things. Television is interested in images, not discourse, in sensations, not ideas. It fragments and decontextualizes. More, since television images are malleable, TV makes one question whatever one sees. It is a medium, in Postman's words, where "all assumptions of coherence have vanished."

Because we live in a world fashioned by television, television's epistemology has inevitably inflicted itself upon us, and the Simpson trial, as America's most popular TV show, is the very archetype of television epistemology. We watch the Simpson trial on TV the way we watch everything else on TV. The cast returns, but each episode is new and self-contained. Facts from previous episodes don't have to connect with facts from later episodes. Discontinuities abound. Technical information is lost because it isn't telegenic. Impressions alone count: defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s confidence, criminalist Dennis Fung's bumbling, Simpson's struggling with the gloves as if he were trying to shove his feet into baby booties.

Moreover, we know from other TV shows that, in the end, none of the facts matter, anyway. Perry Mason will induce the real culprit to confess. Or Matlock will discover some shard of evidence that will reverse the heretofore logical conclusion. That's what Cochran--clearly this trial's Perry Mason--understands. He is appealing to the new epistemology of dysfunction inculcated, in part, by years of TV watching, while poor Marcia Clark is forced to toil in the fields of the old epistemology--where facts must connect and parse. And he knows that epistemology is what is on trial--not Simpson.

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