Thursday, May 04, 2006

We See What We Expect To See

Back in February, shortly after Dick Cheney's hunting accident, Jeff Greenfield wrote an article for CNN titled A political Rorschach test. It's a short piece, centered around this thesis:

What's so striking, I think, is how a story like this becomes an instant Rorschach test, with political predispositions substituting for inkblots. We know the meaning of this incident because we know how we feel about the vice president, or the administration, or the war in Iraq, or the press -- and therefore, we know how to judge the event.

I felt that his statement was true about the majority of responses I read to the Cheney incident, so I saved it. I feel it is also true about a great deal of the political dialog that goes on in our country today. Should Rumsfeld be run out of office, or are the retired generals trying to usurp the authority of the civilian leader of our military? Is Halliburton a run-of-the-mill government contractor, or a way for Bush and Cheney to pay back their big-oil-money backers with under-the-table kickbacks? Are high gas prices the result of standard market processes, or mismanagement on the part of the administration? What kind of pull did Abramoff have... was he able to get broad legislation in his favor using large amount of money to buy politicians? If so, is the problem primarily on one side of the political aisle? Did the federal/state/local government do a relatively good job handling the Katrina situation, or a terrible job? For that matter, did the federal/state/local government cause the Katrina situation?

More and more, it seems to me that we tend to judge these issues based on our preconceptions, what we already think.

Why? I'm not sure, but I think a lot of it has to do with our level of understanding. I don't understand the science behind hurricanes, for instance. Is it plausible that over-development along the Gulf coast or a rise in temperature of the ocean or both is what caused this huge catastrophic scenario? For that matter, was Katrina out of the ordinary pattern of hurricanes along the Gulf coast? I don't know. Depending on which commentator or analyst I read, I get different statistics and opinions that point me in different directions. I could either spend a great deal of time researching it, until I was able to parse the wheat from the chaff... or I could go with my gut feeling, and let my preconceptions rule my determination.

Much of it also has to do with information that we can't have, but that we'd like to have. This opens us up to unconfirmed (unconfirmable) gossip. Was Cheney drunk when he was hunting? Even a little bit? No charges have been brought against him, or will be. All official reports have said that alcohol played no part. But rumor still circulates, speculation and hearsay still echo. I can never go back in time to run a blood test on Cheney as he's out on his hunt, so I can never know definitively, scientifically, whether he had had alcohol or not. I also can't reasonably take his denials at face value, because any sane politician would deny that alcohol was present in that situation if they possibly could. So, I'm left with filtering the inconclusive data through my preconceptions of Cheney, and coming up with a result that fits my preconceptions.

Do you see this trend as well? Are there other reasons for it than the ones I've suggested? Is there anything that can be done to change these tendencies?



Kevin said...

I think your observation is insightful. I agree that our preconceptions are compounded by our ignorance and inability to delve into the depths of every issue. Furthermore, most of the issues in the news do not impact us personally, so there may be no clear feedback from having an incorrect perspective.

Even for news reporters, subtle prejudices seem liable to snowball. In general, it seems reasonable to trust them or any group who studies a topic in great detail, such as Academia, but I sometimes get the sense that this principle breaks down when it comes to politics.

Overall, I think we have preconceptions because they are useful. They may be useful relative to the group we belong to, to achieving some goals, or ideally, useful because they are simply correct more often than not.

While they often serve us well, our preconceptions can also make it difficult to break away in those cases where it is obvious they are wrong, much less in those many, many cases in the news where it is not so obvious.

And so the story fades away with our preconceptions left unchallenged, or perhaps even slowly inching in some direction. This is the power of the media; to slowly inch the public toward some tipping point. In fact, this is perhaps the essence of politics.

We hear simplifications as tag lines repeated again and again. I've recently heard a resurgence of those regarding Iraq or WMD. I wonder if this also serves the purpose of drilling simple concepts into our minds, drawing focus away from the depth of the issue.

I think it can require a strong conscious effort to maintain an opinion relative only to the facts you have, being mindful of the nebulous complexities and ever dubious of the reporting. With respect to the news, this often means not having an opinion, which can be very difficult.

Ultimately, though, as a democracy, we are asked to make decisions that we are not necessarily equipped to make. I think this, and even life itself, is easier if we have strong opinions upon which to base our decisions, rather than maintaining the foggy haze of uncertainty, which leads to indecision and perhaps even a greater likelihood of failure.

steviepinhead said...

I agree with Kevin about the insightfulness of Mark's post. Subtracting the particulars of the Cheney "incident," it could almost serve as an alternate "theme song" for this whole blog, as I think one of "our" purposes is to assist/challenge each others' preconceptions--in as thoughtful and respectful a way as possible, of course!

Although there were amusing and ironic aspects to some of it--observed from a suitable distance, heh heh!--I didn't get too worked up over the Cheney episode. Anyone who knows anything about hunting knows these kinds of things can happen, however assiduously responsible hunters practice and train to avoid them. And I never heard any remotely solid evidence that there was anything involved beyond accident and less-than-impeccable communication between the hunters.

Nor did I think there was anything improper or inappropriate in how the matter was announced or handled by the White House, Cheney's staff, etc.

Cheney is very far from my ideal of the individual I would want one step from the Presidency. But I wish him no personal misfortune. And, frankly, I think I have been most empathetic to his personal situation during this episode and in the way he handled questions about his daughter during the 2000 electoral debates.

Which may just mean that I don't do very well on Rorschach tests...

Which is a far thing from saying I'm immune to the tendency to "see what we expect to see"!

As y'all probably know all too well by now...!