The video apparently showing the much-discussed incident between Somerset Mayor Girdler and a teenage bicyclist brings to mind Wittgenstein's Duck-Rabbit.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher from the early part of the 20th century, is famous for utilizing an illusory image in his seminal work "Philosophical Investigations," one which appears to show a duck ... or a rabbit. Depending on how you look at it.
One person could look at the image and see a duck with a slightly open bill, its head pointed to the left. Another person could look at it and see a rabbit looking up and to the right, its ears hanging to the left.
Wittgenstein used this image as an example of how the same thing can be experienced in different ways by different people - the concept of "seeing as," or focusing on certain aspects of an object or event, as opposed to "seeing that," reporting on an observation in a more definitive way. A person can look at the image and be absolutely certain that they are seeing a duck - or sure that they are seeing a rabbit - but once introduced to the concept of duality inherent to the duck-rabbit, one can never do more than merely interpret it as one or the other based on this or that.
When the viral footage of the mayor braking hard as a bicyclist crossed the street - that much is undeniable; we are "seeing that" happen - went viral, the reaction on social media was interesting.
Here's the story: Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler approached the intersection of East Mt. Vernon and Maple Streets as a 15-year-old girl on a bike was crossing. Girdler said he saw the girl going into the crosswalk and hit his brakes hard as the light turned red, but that the girl kept going and that he did not realize at first that any contact had been made; Kentucky State Police later cited him for leaving the scene of an accident failing to offer assistance, and told the Commonwealth Journal that they had video showing contact was made. The girl was flown to the University of Kentucky Medical Center for treatment of injuries allegedly suffered in the incident.
When the story first broke, with only the details expressed in words, the court of public opinion was decidedly anti-Girdler. It just looked bad. Anyone hitting anyone with their car and leaving is bad enough. When the alleged perpetrator is an elected public official - a brand of person never immune to detractors - it looks even worse. When the victim is a young girl ... well, that's when things get nasty.
And they did. Each time the story was shared online, comment after comment accused the mayor of lying. Criticized him for not caring about the girl. Berated his job performance. There were a few people here and there who took up for him, but the overall tone of the reaction wasn't pretty. Picture torches and pitchforks.
Which is not to say that he is above criticism, in general or in this incident -- I think he'd tell you he'd have handled it differently if he knew then what he knows now. But people seemed to want to assume the worst, and showed it in vicious ways from the comfort of their keyboards.
Now that we've seen the video? The reactions seem more balanced - and more all over the place.
On the Commonwealth Journal site, one reaction to the footage of the incident says, "Don't look like she was hit." Another reads, "I don't how anyone with 2 eyes can't see the driver side making contact with the back of the bike throwing her off balance likely causing the handle bars to turn into her stomach area." One says, "There is no contact in this video." Another, "The bicyclist is clearly hit." And for many more, the video seems to raise more questions about the incident, meaning things aren't cut-and-dry as they might have once appeared to be.
There are seemingly a million different ways one could analyze this footage - it's not quite the famous "Zapruder film" of President Kennedy's assassination, and there is no grassy knoll, but opinions are just as conflicted on a much smaller scale.
To me, it's like a replay in football - there's not enough evidence one way or the other to overturn the original ruling, so it has to stand. If Kentucky State Police made the call that contact was made, then there's reason to believe that. But it's just as easy to see why the mayor might not have realized that - and how people can have differing opinions on what they observe.
About the only thing we can say with certainty is that the video isn't a fake. That was one conspiracy theory put forth in some of the online comments. But I'm not willing to apply the whole "Stanley Kubrick filmed the hoax moon landing on a soundstage" angle to this situation. That's more trouble than it's worth for the mayor - even in an election season.
If anything, what this proves is that the court of public opinion is an unreliable judge, jury, and punisher. It's fun to have opinions and to share those opinions online, but when the viewership of the video can't make up its collective mind on what it's even seeing, perhaps we aren't qualified to determine whether or not the mayor is a terrible person based on one solitary moment in time.
Things will work themselves out. The legal system will do its thing. The lawyers, the police, any judges or mediators. And then at the polls in November, where the body of work of both candidates and what they bring to the table will be up for debate, and the public will decide. We would do well to trust the process in this case.
But why verbally go for the jugular, as so many people wanted to do, when you don't have all the facts? And when you do get to see video of what happened, it's clear there is a reasonable difference of interpretation?
I'll be very interested to see how all this shakes out. But as long as some of us are looking at a rabbit and some of us at a duck, that's all we can do - wait and see.