Every so often, the human race finds itself dealing with the Big Questions. “What is the greatest good?” “Paper or plastic?” “Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?”
Now, it looks like we get to add another one to the list: “Yanny or Laurel?”
Umm – can we get back to the chewing gum?
If you’ve missed the latest minor craze on social media, welcome back to Earth and I hope you’ll take me with you when you leave again. Yanny or Laurel is a brief sound clip that dares to ask “How long will you listen to a bad recording that didn’t hit No. 1 on Billboard?” You push Play to hear a garbled word, decide if the speaker is saying “Laurel” or “Yanny” and then share your findings online to begin a calm, reasoned discussion of the matter.
OK, just kidding. You pop online to join the cheering section for your word of choice, often with an enthusiasm for the “obvious” choice that could get you on nine out of 10 American game shows. (Come back to “Jeopardy!” when you’ve calmed down a bit.)
The thing is, it’s actually not that hard to find the answer. Besides the fact that “Yanny” isn’t even a word (unless you’re misspelling Greek New Age musicians), it only takes a little hunting on the Web to read an account from the teens who started all this. It began when they played an online vocabulary page for the word “laurel,” realized each of them were hearing different tones, and sent it out to the world.
But that would be too easy. Like the “blue dress/gold dress” Facebook photo before this, Yanny or Laurel isn’t about learning the right answer. It’s about knowing what you heard and insisting on its rightness to the world.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
A lot of politics – heck, a lot of what passes for online discussion these days – seems to be a longer game of Yanny or Laurel. It doesn’t matter if facts can be found and myths can be busted in less time than it takes to ruin the Colorado Rockies’ pennant chances. What matters is picking your team, shouting your slogan, and remaining impervious to any attempts at reason or compromise.
Sure, it’s annoying – but only when those guys do it. It’s easy to fall into the same trap. Studies suggest that the wiring of our brains makes us want to fit in rather than break with the crowd – it’s easier and more satisfying to simply join the crowd of people who believe the same things we want to believe, than it is to examine those beliefs and see if they hold up.
It’s not inevitable. But like running marathons instead of watching six hours of YouTube, changing the habit takes work that’s usually uncomfortable and sometimes acutely painful. It takes curiosity and a willingness to ask the next question. Even with something that seems obvious. Especially then.
More than once, I’ve quoted the distinguished philosophers Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” When we can beat that reflex, any question can become interesting. Even “Yanny or Laurel?” can start a long discussion on why some people hear certain tones, or whether we all experience the same reality.
It’s worthwhile. But it takes effort.
You can’t just rest on your Laurels.