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Lost in translation

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Want to know why we can't find common ground societally? Because people believe what they want to believe. When they hear or read something that conforms to their worldview, they feel vindicated and are certain they're right. When they hear or read something that contradicts their beliefs, they reject it, undermine it, and refuse to believe it. The phenomenon is called the confirmation bias, and it's why you're sure you're right and your opponents are wrong. Hey, can't you both be wrong?

Last week's cover story, "Tough conversations" (Sept. 17), was about the so far unsubstantiated rumors that local downtown SLO businesses had been extorted by Black Lives Matter activists who specifically targeted shops that had boarded up their windows in fear of looting.

In our story, we tried to get to the truth and reported why some businesses had boarded up (a Downtown Association memo suggesting precautionary measures as well as wholly unfounded rumors of protesters being "bussed" in from elsewhere), why BLM activists were offended by the boarded windows ("It just really felt like they had turned their backs on a community that was asking and pleading for help"), and finally the assertions that BLM activists had demanded money from the boarded-up businesses. We heard about a letter sent to businesses, but no one could produce said letter and no local business owners we spoke to could corroborate the alleged extortion.

Then we posted the story on our Facebook page, which predictably led to a long stream of vitriol, unsubstantiated assertions, and textbook examples of confirmation bias.

You know what else was predictable? That people don't actually click on links to read articles before they pass judgment!

"I know first hand. These are not rumors. It was ugly and they threatened the business owners and tried to slander them on social media. It's all factual," commenter Ane Motes May claimed without providing a shred of evidence.

"There were actual letters demanding payment or they would slander the business name and basically these business owners feared that and that their businesses would be vandalized. I saw the letters and personally know business owners that have recieved (sic) them. It's called extortion," Dana Webster claimed, to which we say, please forward said letter! We've been looking everywhere for it!

Some commenters seemed to have looked at the accompanying photo of two men boarding up a window and decided they didn't need to the read the story to comment.

"How dare a business owner think they have a right to protect their business," Jim Hansen wrote. "It is time to march until they leave their doors open all night, remove their burglar alarms, and leave cash in the register for those that need it more than the business owner." Sarcasm, I see.

But not everyone saw it that way, because Coleen Tooley replied, "Jim Hansen what, BUSINESS OWNERS HAVE A RIGHT TO PROTECT THEIR BUSINESS FROM PROTESTERS IT SEEMS LIJE YOU ARE NOT A BUSINESS OWNER. PEOPLE WHO OWN BUSINESS WORK 40 LKUS TO ESTABLUSH TGEIR BUSINESS IN A COMMUNITY TGEY LOVE. THEY HAVE RIGHTS TOO (sic, sic, sic, etc.)."

That very loud interaction proved that 1) sarcasm often doesn't translate, and 2) even people who agree with each other can't understand each other.

Susan Smith commented, "Shakedowns, extortions ... that isnt (sic) rumors. New times, you used to help businesses now you destroy them supporting these ppl."

Um, we went to businesses to let them have their say. In fact, we went to all the various sides we could find who were willing to go on the record, and we still couldn't find any evidence of extortion.

Webster then trotted out the CalCoastNews story ("Protesters demand money from San Luis Obispo business owners," Aug. 18) that stated all of the very rumors we were dispelling in our story, which, of course, brought out the anti-CCN faction.

"Dana Webster, no offense but many people don't consider CCN as credible," Susan Schenk Testa replied. " ... CCN is a tabloid rag that has lost lawsuits due to lying."

Holly Holliday claimed, "I have been told by multiple owners of businesses downtown that the threats of calling out the businesses that border up as 'racist' would happen UNLESS reparations were paid. Those aren't rumors. It happened," and yet no downtown SLO business owners would confirm this assertion. I guess they're scared?

Holliday added, "They aren't anecdotal stories when they were the businesses targeted. There are many of them downtown—and it's one of the reasons a downtown business owner is running for mayor."

Umm, someone telling you about something that happened to them is actually the definition of an anecdote, Holliday.

She's speaking, of course, about Cherisse Sweeney, owner of Basalt Interiors, who in another New Times story last week ("SLO mayor's race pits downtown store owner against incumbent Harmon," Sept. 17) admitted that since boarding up her windows she's had contentious conversations with activists but didn't assert she'd been extorted. Seems like something she might have mentioned if it were true, right? Regarding local racism, Sweeney did say, "Right now, a lot of people are making assumptions without getting all the facts first."

Hey! That's an idea. Anyone have that extortion letter? I'd love to see it! Δ

The Shredder likes evidence not anecdotes. Send some to shredder@newtimesslo.com.
Editor's note: This article was edited to correct the spelling of  Ms. Holliday's name. New Times regrets the error.

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