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Baseball, brains, and bad words: understanding what happened with Lewis Brinson, a mascot, and a fan.
The whole situation seems to be a massive misunderstanding.
Something interesting happened recently at a Colorado Rockies baseball game…
It was the top of the 9th inning and Miami Marlins outfielder Lewis Brinson was up to bat. The lowly Rockies led the even lowlier Marlins 13-8. Fans had started to file out of the stadium. Just as the second pitch of the at-bat came in to move the count to 2-0, one of the remaining fans shouted something that many initially heard as the n-word.
Following the game, the Rockies released a statement to say that the organization was “disgusted” and that they would be investigating the incident.
And then things got a bit awkward…
The next day, the Rockies announced that after reviewing tapes and interviewing people sitting around the fan (as well as the fan himself), that the man was actually yelling for “Dinger,” the team’s mascot. Had it been audio-only, it would be understandably difficult to tell what the fan was saying. Thankfully, his words were caught on video, and you can see that he was looking over in the direction of the mascot and waving.
Case closed, right? Well… it’s complicated.
I think that most people can, after watching the clip, conclude that the fan was in fact yelling “Dinger!” and trying to get the mascot’s attention for a photo.
However, there are some people who continue to hear the racial slur, even after being made aware of the explanation. Brinson, who says that he didn’t hear the fan during the game, discussed watching it afterwards (via ESPN):
"So I watched the video at least 50 times in the past 15-16 hours," Brinson said on a videoconference call before Monday night's game at San Diego. "I watched it a lot, especially when I heard that he said Dinger instead of the N-word.''
"I personally -- this is again my personal opinion -- I personally keep hearing the N-word. It's not that I want to hear it, I never want to hear it. Personally, I've never been called that in person to my face on the baseball field, outside the baseball field, ever, so I don't know what my reaction would be if I got called that," he said.
"But to now, saying that again, I haven't talked to the Rockies or that fan personally. If that's the case, then I'm sorry for any backlash or anything he's getting right now," he said.
But it actually makes complete sense that someone could hear something that someone else didn’t say, especially if others have already mentioned the word. For help understanding this, we have to travel back to 2018.
“Laurel,” “Yanny,” and linguistic priming.
“What do you hear!?! Yanny or Laurel?” read a social media post. For days, people across Twitter debated the issue (see also: “The Dress”). Some heard “Yanny,” some heard “Laurel,” and others heard both depending on whether they were wearing headphones or listening through speakers.
But by reading the question prior to listening to the sample, you’ve already narrowed the choices down to two very different words: Yanny or Laurel. This is called priming.
Writing at Psychology Today in 2018, Yellowlees Douglas, Ph.D., explained the concept of priming, which she described as “prior exposure to a word or contextual cues that nudge us toward an interpretation of what we hear or see.”
We actually encounter aural ambiguity far more frequently than most of us realize, as anyone who’s ever heard a friend badly bungling song lyrics while the friend sings blissfully along will recognize. In fact, we disambiguate speech on a daily basis, inserting pauses between a stream of words. Similarly, when we read, we disambiguate words that have multiple meanings, some unique to the role the word plays in the sentence as a part of speech.
There’s a really good video from AsapSCIENCE that explains this phenomenon in more detail:
Your brain has so much stimulus at all times that it uses existing information and precise neurological pathways to focus its attention. This is why at a loud party, you can listen to your friend beside you, but pop your attention into another convo if need be. Similarly, your brain is unconsciously choosing which frequencies in the recording to pay attention to.
There are other somewhat well-known examples of this phenomenon. For instance, in the T.I. song “Live Your Life,” Rihanna sings the lyrics, “‘Cause I’m a paper chaser.” But if you’re listening for the words “‘Cause I’m a big f*cking slut,” you might hear that. Or, as some have pointed out in the comments to the clip, you can also hear “‘Cause I’m a big bucket, sir” or “‘Cause I’m a big butt-kisser.”
It’s weird, right!? Now, if you watch the music video for the song, you may struggle a bit more to hear the “alternate” versions, as you can see her lips moving while she says the line.
Another example of this is the “Brainstorm” vs. “Green needle” experiment:
Just as the examples above do have “correct” answers (“Laurel,” “‘Cause I’m a paper chaser,” “Brainstorm”), you’re not necessarily wrong if you hear one of the variations. It’s just your brain filling in blanks that can be hard to overcome. I do not doubt for a second that Brinson honestly hears the n-word when he listens to the clip of his at-bat. Nor do I doubt that any number of people also hear that when they listen. But I also don’t doubt that the fan actually said “Dinger.”
People can use this to their advantage, and it’s something that happens a lot on social media and in the press.
At a press briefing last year, Al Jazeera White House reporter Kimberly Halkett tried to ask a follow-up question related to vaccine research when then-Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany cut her off, saying, “Yes, you’ve gotten two questions, which is more than some of your colleagues.” Halkett responded by saying, “Okay, you don’t want to engage.”
Within minutes, a very different interpretation of Halkett’s words started making the rounds on social media.
As far as I can tell, Washington Post video editor JM Rieger was the first major figure to suggest that Halkett called McEnany a “lying bitch.”
After being corrected by a number of people in the replies to his tweet, Rieger deleted it. In its place, Rieger tweeted that he deleted it “given it is unclear what was said.” Except it was clear.
By this point, it was too late. Rieger had already planted the seed with his audience that Halkett may have called McEnany a name. Some of the more explicitly partisan conservative outlets were quick to capitalize on his mistake. The Washington Examiner tweeted that “some are saying” that Halkett called McEnany a “bitch.”
Breitbart reporter Charlie Spiering also tweeted, “Question for [Kimberly Halkett] - Did you really say ‘Okay, you’re a lying bitch’ about [McEnany]?”
In all of these instances, her actual words were left out (“Okay, you don’t want to engage”), which left audiences primed to hear the insult. Halkett clarified what she said (which, once again, is the same thing that the person who transcribed the press conference for Trump’s White House heard), but it was too late. People who were primed to hear the name-calling heard that and couldn’t be convinced otherwise.
To this day, there are people who insist Halkett said something she very clearly did not. Like the other examples here, it’s not that people aren’t hearing it, but rather, what they are hearing simply isn’t something that was actually said.
The main takeaway here is that brains are weird and do their best to make sense of the world’s ambiguity. As this may very well be my only opportunity to post this clip in a way that is even somewhat relevant to something I write… here’s “Marlins Will Soar,” a song about the Miami Marlins, by Scott Stapp of the band Creed (it’s one of those “so bad that it’s actually good… okay, it’s just bad” kind of things):