The Yanny/Laurel “debate” is a sign of the times

Another inanity sweeps the world. Another vacuous Tweet makes international headlines.

The Yanny/Laurel “debate” is surely a sign of the times we live in.

It is a “debate” devoid of nuance, encouraging more us vs. them mentality than independent and critical thought. Everyone is ready to jump into the fray, picking sides and stubbornly defending it prior to taking a step back first and calmly taking the time to figure out what makes sense.

If you haven’t seen the Tweet or video, here it is:

Sometimes when you listen to a song for the first time with the instrumentals partially shrouding the vocals, you mishear the lyrics. For example, instead of “Sharia don’t like it, Rock the Casbah,” you may initially hear it as: “Surely he don’t like it, Rock the Cat Box”. The Clash’s single “Rock the Casbah” is notorious for its misinterpreted lyrics.

In fact, if you never saw the intended lyrics, or someone didn’t give you a choice of possibilities, you could possibly come up with several different interpretations of those same lyrics, and never learn what the Clash intended to say.  Time and time again listening to “Rock the Casbah”, you may have primed your brain to always hear “Rock the Cat box”, thereby following your first inclination, and will vehemently disagree with someone suggesting they are actually saying “Rock the Casbah”.

And this simple fact that humans mishear lyrics or otherwise muddled audio almost all the time makes the Yanny/Laurel sound clip going viral all the more inane.  It is no more interesting than debating vague lyrics, particularly lyrics containing words we would otherwise never hear in normal conversation.

“Casbah” is not exactly a frequently used word. “Yanny” is not even an English word, and even though “laurel” is an actual word, how often do you use or hear it day to day?

Upon smoothing out the irregular frequencies by speeding up the audio clip, it will sound like “laurel” to most ears. The more muddy the frequencies, the more it starts to transform into something nuanced, subjective and nonsensical like “Larry”, “Leary”, “Year-y”, or perhaps “Yanny”. The nuance creeps in when the sound is obtuse enough that your brain starts to unconsciously decide what it wants to hear to approximate the unrecognized phonemes.

But because the clip primes everyone to picking sides prior to the experiment, a recurring theme in today’s culture and something mainstream media loves to do to sway your opinions, you have a segment of the population that can’t hear a distinct “L” phoneme, and have been coerced to choose the “Yanny” side. Because hardly anyone has heard “Yanny” or “laurel” in their lifetime, anyone that would have wavered in the middle has preemptively filled the gaps in their brain to convince themselves the broken “L” sounds more like a “Y” so that they can firmly be on a side. The side was cleverly predefined so that there is an illusion of being on the “right” side, therby making the other the “wrong” side. No one is given the option to be in the middle, stuck with an independent thought. This is despite anyone could possibly be hearing anything between “Larry” and “Year-y”.

If there’s one benefit to the Yanny/Laurel clip, it is its microcosmic representation of the group-think phenomenon.  The presentation of only two choices, encouraging everyone to split off into groups, has turned off everyone’s individual critical thinking and removed all nuance: you’re either on the “good side” or the “bad side”, and both sides think they are the good guys. Once you pick a side, you simply get the mob to defend you rather than address it scientifically, preparing to admit a possible personal shortcoming.  Since each side has a significant mob size, the numbers psychologically dictate that the other side must be wrong and there is no in-between.

Does this scenario sound familiar, particularly in the realms of social media discourse, postmodern academia and politics?

To be clear about my own position on the survey, the original intent of the speaker is most likely “laurel” given that it is an actual word although this may never be known unless we can find out from the speaker himself.  When smoothing out the frequencies the “L” and “R” phonemes become more noticeable. As the audio becomes muddier, it is entirely subjective what the word may sound like, depending on factors such as the hearing capabilities and predispositions of the listener.  Notice that this is a nuanced answer, and not the strict A or B type answer encouraged by the survey.

Nevertheless, the Yanny/Laurel saga in a nutshell illustrates the current state of affairs: nuance is dead, humility is dead, but group-think and mob mentality are alive and kicking.

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