- the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories.
Jason Aldean responded to accusations of promoting gun violence and racial divide in his song
“Try that in a Small Town” by saying the song is about "the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief."
Confirmation bias is essentially the human urge to look for things that support the ideas and opinions that we already hold. Nobody ever wants to be wrong or lose an argument, so it would make sense that we would seek out things that are parallel with those efforts to continue to be correct and not have to admit defeat. It takes a lot of strength to be wrong and to change beliefs and opinions.
This past week, Jason Aldean has seen himself in the middle of a controversy revolving around his song and music video for his song “Try that in a Small Town.” The debate revolves around the accusation that the song promotes gun violence, lynching, vigilante justice and racial divide in a small town versus big city type mindset. Critics have cited lyrics in the song, the imagery of the music video and the primary shooting location to support their opinions. The question to ask is this however, are all those things able to be viewed in a different light? One that may not support the initial premise that many of these articles hold which seems to be that country music is inherently racist and that Jason Aldean wrote the song to play to that narrative.
Let’s break down some of the arguments accusing Jason Aldean of things he is vehemently denying and evaluate if there are alternative explanations.
This morning on CNN there was a think piece written Nicole Hemmer who is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. The title is “Jason Aldean can’t rewrite the history his song depends on.” Can you spot the confirmation bias there? For this opinion to stand, she must find examples of Jason Aldean wanting to “rewrite history,” or that he even had historical viewpoints in mind while writing the song itself.
One of the primary arguments that people are making currently is that the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, TN was the site of a lynching of a black man in 1927 as well as race riots in the 40s during the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. She argues that there is no indication that Aldean and production knew of the history. To the contrary, production executives and Jason Aldean himself stated to People.com that they had no idea the history of the courthouse and it was selected based solely on availability, visual aesthetic for the shoot and proximity to where the entire band resides, which is Nashville, TN. The assumption that every shooting location in the South must be researched for atrocities seems to be unreasonable given that the South was the home of slavery and much of the Civil War. I would venture to guess that every major landmark has the stains and scars of human suffering.
The confirmation bias in this argument is setting up a straw man argument assuming that Jason either chose that location on purpose to drive home the agenda that you believe he has with the song and then confirming it to yourself with “there is no evidence that Aldean and team knew what happened there in 1927.” The lack of research on this statement plays into the leading theory of the article which is that Jason himself is trying to rewrite history.
This article and many others are using the lyrics of the song to state that there is an encouragement for vigilante justice. Before you read these, start with an opinion about Jason from each side and see how the lyrics could play to that opinion when reading them through that lens.
“Got a gun that my granddad gave me, they say one day they're gonna round up, Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck.”
This line has been commonly cited as promoting gun violence. If you hold that belief, you may be thinking that Jason is saying come get mine and I will shoot. However, you may also read it and see that gun reform has been a hot button topic in this country and many people want to keep various types of weapons for both recreation, safety, because they can, etc. The premise of the song as stated by Jason himself is to celebrate the toughness and the solidarity of small towns where people know each other and take care of each other. There is an argument to be made that regardless of your opinions on guns, it may just artistically represent the meaning of the spirit of the song. To read any further into this line and attach opinions that Aldean himself has not stated would only be to confirm an opinion one way or there other.
“Full of good ol' boys, raised up right, if you're looking for a fight”
“See how far ya make it down the road, Around here, we take care of our own, You cross that line, it won't take long, For you to find out, I recommend you don't, Try that in a small town”
Here are two more section of the song that have been cited as problematic. These two lines do a great job of illustrating how a narrative can be crafted based on the theory that you start with about the song. The reference of “good ol' boys, raised up right” can be viewed in an almost infinite number of ways based on the image that it conjures in one’s mind. For some that may be a truck full of vigilante racists and for some it may be church going blue collar workers who spend their free time helping their neighbors and who knows what racial demographics the person is thinking of? The main point of the question is that it is impossible to know what people think when they hear that and what Jason was specifically intending other than what he is on the record stating about the theme of the song itself.
The lyrics talking about let’s see how far you make it down the road has been cited as an endorsement for mob and vigilante justice, some even going as far as to attach lynching. Jason is on the record saying that line is to drive home the sense of community that small towns have and that defending their neighbors from violence is something that would happen there if violence were to break out there. One could see with the imagery of protests and destruction in the video that if one wanted to, they could attach racial connotations to it, but that would be to support their initial opinion.
One bias with all these arguments is the assumption that there is race involved at all in the song other than it being sung by a white man and a white band. Small towns aren’t always white. There are small towns all over this country that vary in racial demographics and there is an argument to be made that the sense of security and protecting “one’s own” exists there as well. I would argue that walking into any small town, or a small neighborhood within a city that operates as a secular community (religion, race, socioeconomic) and committing acts of violence as an outsider would yield the same results of community members coming to the aid of each other.
Confirmation bias exists in every debate we have daily. Nobody wants to be wrong. The question to ask however when stories like this go viral is “How much of what I am saying is actually provable and how much is me making assumptions and looking to view aspects of it through a prism that can allow me to be correct?” I don’t know Jason Aldean personally and have no idea his intentions other than what he has stated, and I have no reason to distrust his word. Nobody is required to like “Try that in a Small Town” but it is unfair to attach opinions to him that only exist to confirm the initial opinion that one before doing any analytical investigating.
Fighting confirmation bias is tough… I fail at it in every argument I ever have with my wife and I am on Google trying to win it.