The gossip web rag TMZ released video this morning of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee Janay Palmer in the elevator of the Revel Casino in Atlantic City. I'm not going to embed the video in this post; if you are curious enough to actually see it you can Google it and see several versions of it that are variously enhanced. It appears to Palmer and Rice as they enter the elevator (where Palmer apparently swats at Rice while he is walking in front of her). Then the two enter the elevator and Palmer stands in front of the buttons apparently pushing the button for their floor. Rice approaches her to the side, and she raises her arm as if to push him away. At least potentially, this motion struck him in the face, and Rice appears to strike her once in response and move to the other side of the elevator. Then Palmer advances towards Rice and in the only truly clear action of the whole video, Rice unleashes a brutal left hook which knocks Palmer to the ground, unconscious.
The release of the video has touched off a firestorm of activity. The Ravens have unceremoniously released Rice and the NFL has announced that in light of this "new evidence," Rice has been suspended from the league indefinitely.
The problem with all of this posturing is that the video released by TMZ does not really constitute new - or at least probative - evidence at all. We already knew from the uncontested testimony of eyewitnesses that Palmer and Rice entered the elevator together under their own power. We already knew from the previously released video that when the elevator reached their floor, Rice was seen dragging the apparently unconscious Palmer down the hall to their hotel room. We know from the fact that Rice pled guilty to assaulting Palmer that Palmer did not just suffer from a fainting spell in that elevator. And we know from Rice's own admission that he struck Palmer in that elevator. So the video that was released today revealed literally no new information that was not previously known and in fact uncontested.
But we humans are weird creatures. It is one thing to know, intellectually, that Ray Rice knocked a woman unconscious in a hotel elevator. It is another thing to actually see it happen. Back when we all knew that Ray Rice had knocked Janay Palmer unconscious, Ray Rice faced a two game suspension from the NFL and still had his job with the Baltimore Ravens. Sure, the NFL and the Ravens both took criticism for that, but both entities felt that they could weather this criticism, with good reason. Now that all of America practically has actually seen the incident in question, the NFL and Ravens both know that standing behind Rice will simply not be tenable any longer, and so he finds himself out of a job and perhaps unemployable. The NFL deserves all the ridicule it is getting today for its laughable claim that it has never seen the video before today, but it is very clear that what forced the NFL's hand is that we, the public have now all seen it.
Humans place inordinate value at an emotional level upon what they can see, as opposed to what is visible with all their other senses. A good amount of scientific study shows in fact that in many situations we place too much emphasis on visual cues taken from pictures and tend to divorce those pictures from what we know about the rest of the context about a fact, or ignore what information we don't have about context, which makes our understanding imperfect. As noted in this excellent piece from the New Yorker, divining the truth from a picture can sometimes be a challenge even for people who are highly trained almost exclusively to divine truth from pictures, like radiologists.
None of this changes the fact, however, that as humans we react powerfully to what we can see and usually ignore what we don't, at least on an emotional level.
This is, in essence, the reason our abortion policy has remained essentially static over the last 40 years in this country in spite of astonishing scientific advances in terms of understanding fetal development and our ability to move the viability window for premature children continually backwards. Virtually the entire country turned on the Iraq war between 2003 and 2006 because of the constant visual stream of war casualties that we were not willing to accept; meanwhile roughly the same number of children are killed in utero each day as died in the entire Iraq conflict, and to even speak of this atrocity is considered tiresome and gauche by the ruling elite, even within the Republican party.
There is, in fact, a reason that proponents of abortion-on-demand resist so strongly any attempt to require women who plan to get abortions to view an ultrasound of the unborn child, especially as ultrasound imagery makes it increasingly clear that what is being killed is, in fact, a small human being. Rhetorically, abortion advocates are forced to claim that having an unborn child removed from a woman's uterus is no different from a philosophical or moral perspective than having a tumor removed; however, a law requiring doctors to show patients radiological imaging of tumors before removing them (as is common practice in any case) would not even register political opposition. The reason is very simple - no one would be moved by seeing a tumor to nurse a tumor to life in the hopes of seeing it one day graduate from college. And they know that if America's emotional reactions ever catch up to what we are increasingly aware of on an intellectual and scientific level, the terms of this debate can and will change quickly and not in their favor.
The lamentable and disgusting farce that has played out in the NFL concerning Ray Rice shows that we are willing to tolerate with relatively little fuss that which we intellectually know and understand, but not what we are actually forced to watch with our own eyes. And the purveyors of the campaign of death in this country know that America has much the same instinct regarding the 1+ million children who are aborted every year.
Or at least, I hope we would.