Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quiz Of The Day: ‘Gotcha!’ Or ‘Benefit Of The Doubt’?”

The recent ethics quiz about the apparent swastika pattern in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle triggered many fascinating responses, none more so than curmie’s Comment of the Day. Here (again) is the provocative puzzle:

…and here is curmie’s COTD on the post, “Ethics Quiz Of The Day: ‘Gotcha!’ Or ‘Benefit Of The Doubt’?”:


This one is fascinating. Were I still in the classroom, I’d definitely be using it as an example of the way the postmodern idea of meaning being created by the receiver rather than the sender plays out in real life as well as in art per se.

There’s a little bit of Hanlon’s Razor, a little bit of Paul Simon’s line in “The Boxer” that “a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.” However we frame it, it seems to me that an individual’s response to this stimulus tells us more about the respondent than it does about the creator of the puzzle. I say this as neutrally as possible: there are those, like Steve Witherspoon, to whom “the white outlined swastika jumped off the page.” There are those, like P.M. Lawrence, who struggle to see the design even when knowing what to look for.

Two observations, both of them important. First, neither response is wrong, although they seem totally at odds. Second, I am not suggesting that an individual’s response is necessarily linked to an ideology or demographic. That is, having a positive or negative view of the NYT, leaning to the left or the right politically, being Jewish or not… any of all of these considerations might influence our reactions, but I’d be surprised if there aren’t a significant number of people from every combination of these factors on both sides of this issue.

I think we can take as given that few if any readers of this particular blog have any sympathy for Nazis, or for the intentional use of Nazi symbology except in a carefully circumscribed, clinical, manner. And outrage at such a perceived usage is certainly a reasonable response. But I must confess that had I been the editor charged with approving this puzzle, I would have done so, because I just don’t see a swastika. Steve would have me “demoted or fired for blind stupidity.” So be it.

I can also say that I would describe myself as being “visual,” although after a career as a stage director and sometime scenic, lighting, or costume designer, I’d hardly claim otherwise, even if, as the Gershwins caution us, “it ain’t necessarily so.”

There are enough “coincidences” (scare quotes quite intentional) to give Steve’s verdict of “malign motive” credence: the timing, the title, the first clue, the unconventional grouping of black spaces. Are these dog whistles? Perhaps. But I can’t say that with confidence. Alternatively, it would certainly be stupid to intentionally print something offensive to a significant number of your readers. And it’s certainly true that some people are in a continual quest for the ability to claim victimhood. Does that mean the NYT is off the hook? Not to those who see an obvious swastika, of course… or to those to whom “stupid” seems a reasonable description of NYT policy-makers.

Perhaps there’s a larger issue here for which this incident could serve as a useful metaphor. It is one more example of the way two people can look at precisely the same objective information and come to radically different conclusions (remember the “what color is the dress” meme that dominated social media a couple of years ago?). We all find it difficult to believe that someone could fail to see what to us is obvious, or that someone could make a serious accusation based on what we fail to see at all. Maybe we should consider that none of us is omniscient.

We seem to be left with the most ethical choice being a variation on Reagan’s “trust and verify.” I’m with the “benefit of the doubt” crowd on this one, barring future revelations, and I don’t think the previous day’s editorial is relevant at all: criticism of a particular politician’s policies hardly qualifies as anti-Semitic. Still, it’s worth keeping our eyes open to the possibility of emerging patterns, should they in fact come to light.

8 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quiz Of The Day: ‘Gotcha!’ Or ‘Benefit Of The Doubt’?”

  1. Yeah… I didn’t see it to begin with – When I saw people losing their shit over it, I assumed one of the clues was off color or something. And now that it’s been explained to me, I still don’t see it – I see what people are saying it is, but there are too many arms, too many connecting areas, I don’t know whether I suffer from a lack of visual acuity, too much, or I’m just not interested in seeing swastikas everywhere. It’s textbook rotational symmetry, I imagine that the exact same pattern has been used 100 times over over the years and probably would have gone unremarked the 101st time if it hadn’t coincided with Hanukah.

    Don’t get me wrong, it wouldn’t surprise me if the New York Times did something anti-Semitic, fish will swim and all. I just don’t think they’d bother coding it and hiding it behind a blurry image, they’re more than willing to wear their hatred on their sleeve.

    • I agree with you. I don’t see the swastika symbol, either. I thought is was just another crossword puzzle that had repeating designs. I am aware that crossword designs sometimes relate to the word clues/themes. Until I see more evidence, I am skeptical that the NYT’s crossword puzzler did something nefarious with this design.


  2. Congrat’s curmie on the Comment of the Day!

    I hadn’t got back over to that thread to read curmie’s comment which I completely agree is a reasonably fair and balance one.

    First let me say, yes I might have been a bit harsh when I wrote “the editor should be demoted or fired for blind stupidity” but I did so knowing full well that some people making crossword puzzles for the NYT’s, other papers and puzzle books have started with a predefined shape of some kind in the blank spaces outlined with the black boxes and then they would use unthemed or only somewhat themed words to fill in the blank spaces. From my perspective, the times editor(s) really should also have known this.

    Back when I did the Times puzzles regularly many years ago I remember seeing shapes in the puzzle layouts. It wasn’t too uncommon to see all the letters of the alphabet in a series of puzzles, squares, pentagons, a maze, and on one large puzzle I remember seeing the face of a badger (I think that might have been a local to Wisconsin puzzle). There’s an obvious predefined symmetry to puzzles that are preplanned with an image where the ones that don’t have a predefined images look very random. It was really clear to me when the puzzle creator was using the layout of the puzzle to drive the placement of the words instead of the word placements driving the layout of the puzzle. It was sometime back during that time period of my life that I noticed an ability to identifying patterns that might be obscured to others. This puzzle had the characteristics of using a predefined image, there was nothing random about it to me.

    Here’s a bit of my anti-NYT bias that is relevant to share. After what I’ve seen from the NYT over the last 6+ years, it’s become really obvious to me that the Times reaches out to readers and intentionally pushes their buttons and they don’t give a damn what backlash they get because of it. It’s kinda like they’re media trolling: which is media that distributes inflammatory propaganda with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response thus getting more attention for their media outlet. The media can easily create a controversary with media trolling and reap the financial benefits with the increased attention. Applying my knowledge, observation and bias to this imbedded swastika picture in the crossword puzzle, I think they were trolling as defined above. Above I wrote, “the times editor(s) really should also have known this”, my anti-NYT biased gut tells me that the editor did know there was an imbedded swastika in the puzzle.

    curmie wrote, “We seem to be left with the most ethical choice being a variation on Reagan’s ‘trust and verify.’ “

    That’s a reasonably fair point but what happens when you find out that trusting the 21st century media, including the New York Times, is for fools because their pattern is anything but honorable. An old adage comes to mind. fool be once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

    curmie wrote, “it’s worth keeping our eyes open to the possibility of emerging patterns, should they in fact come to light.”

    I completely agree but what should we do when we notice emerging patterns?

    As I have said until I’m blue in the face, “The political left has shown its pattern of propaganda lies within their narratives so many times since 2016 that it’s beyond me why anyone would blindly accept any narrative that the political left and their lapdog media actively push?”

    See something, say something?

  3. Do I think this design was done nefariously? No.

    But to be honest, I don’t know what what the likely scenario is here. I imagine the NYT prints hundreds of articles a year talking about hidden racist dog whistles. It was quite obvious to me what it looked like before I even saw what the article was about. How could someone at the NYT not see it?

    Harlon’s Razor and Occum’s razor would both suggest it is coincidence. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    However, given the perchance for seeing this kind of stuff in them, I have no problem to holding them to their own rules. Maybe some self-reflection would do them good. My guess is they will ignore it or pretend it doesn’t apply to them thus continuing the viscous cycle.

  4. It’s a very common large crossword format; and a fine example of ‘if you’re a hammer …..’.

    Let’s all take a teaspoon of cement powder and harden up!

  5. … There are those, like P.M. Lawrence, who struggle to see the design even when knowing what to look for.

    I didn’t struggle at all. I saw it with no effort whenever I masked out the periphery, and whenever I did not there simply wasn’t a swastika anywhere to be seen – also with no effort. To me, that suggests an optical illusion of the sort using blank space to show either a candle stick or two faces looking at each other; with that one, what I see is set up by the periphery that defines what is the ground or what is the figure (that effect is not in play with the image illustrating this post, so it does not in fact illustrate what was at work with the puzzle layout – for me). Others’ perception processes may differ.

    This is also related to how colours “bleed”. I once saw a Union Jack in Amsterdam in early spring through the branches of trees with early, sparse foliage. I was amazed at the ignorance of the arrangers, to have rendered it in red, white and green – and then it fluttered out into the open and was clearly red, white and blue. Somehow green had bled into the blue, presumably from the leaves as the only green there, and clearly it wasn’t a colour blindness thing. Oddly, I sometimes fail colour blindness tests unless I have time to trace out the image, even though I see the patterns in the monochrome versions meant to show the colour blind what others see. I simply don’t see the whole thing in one go as a coloured pattern, as an entirety or gestalt, but I clearly see everything I look straight at and I can trace out a pattern from that; it’s not a narrow zone of colour perception thing either, or it wouldn’t also be happening with this puzzle here.

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