Deceived by Perception—Again

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By Robert Fludd, via Wikimedia Commons

The other day Robin said something to me—can’t remember what—but I took offense and let her know it. She said, “That’s just a story your telling yourself. It has nothing to do with me or what I think.” I had perceived—again—a meaning that wasn’t there.

Perception is a mental process that occurs when external objects come in contact with one of the five senses. Part of the process involves feelings—which are positive, negative, or neutral—and making judgements based on those feelings. Judgments then decide what we do next.

Perceptions are what guide us through our lives, helping us to secure safety and comfort. The way we perceive things—and make judgements about our perceptions—is based on experience. Lots of input from the past influences how we interpret sense-data and act in the present.

Perception works on a primal level during every moment of consciousness but usually happens without our being conscious of it.

The classic example of how this works shows a person alone in the wilderness. He hears a rustle in the bushes and in an instant recognizes the threat and grabs his spear a split second before the tiger leaps. A chain of physiological events happen almost instantly and simultaneously to make survival possible, all because of perception.

But what if… Many things besides a tiger can cause a rustle in the bushes—a breeze, a mouse, a friend approaching. Our wilderness dweller could be deceived by perception and get worked up over nothing. Still, he’d be alive.

But what if… The wilderness dweller misperceives the threat as the rustle of a breeze and does not grab the spear. Deception in reverse can be deadly.

Most of us don’t have to worry about tigers, but there are other threats that we do have worry about. Perceiving threats correctly, and acting accordingly, ensures our survival. And, if we were alone in the world, even if we misperceive a threat, no harm done.

But we are not alone in the world. Interactions with other people give rise to thousands of perceptions every day. And that gives us thousands of chances to be deceived by our own perceptions and make judgements about their meaning and what to do about them. Misperceiving a threat from someone when there is none can in turn create unpleasant—if not dangerous—situations.

If someone bangs on your door in the middle of the night, chances are good your perception of danger is real and necessitates decisive action. But in casual interactions, it’s usually a good idea to check perceptions against reality before making hasty judgements and taking unwarranted action.

Two Post-election Scenarios—Neither One Bright

grover norquist quoteTwo weeks ago, a friend of mine shared this photo-quote on Facebook. I started to write a snarky comment but deleted it. I realized I had much more to say about the quote than I could cover in the two or three sentences that would quickly get lost within Facebook’s short attention span. Instead, I came here and spent the rest of the day researching and exploring some ideas around the topic. When finished, though, I couldn’t bring myself to push the Publish button. I hadn’t expected to come to such a gloomy conclusion. I tried to brighten things up a bit—put a more positive spin on things—but I just couldn’t write my way out of the Orwellian box canyon I’d created for myself. 

But after a few days it began to feel as though I’d left something undone. I have other topics I want to write about, but it seems a landslide has blocked my path. I got the idea that writing this preamble may help with some of the backhoe work. We’ll see. Meanwhile, what follows are the thoughts triggered by what Grover Norquist said about the coming presidential election.

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The history of the United States offers several examples of internal threats that had the potential to destroy or do massive harm to the country through the power of hatred and divisiveness. The Civil War is at the top of the list. More recent examples include the labor movement, Civil Rights movement, and Vietnam War.

So, I want to be careful about saying we’re in the darkest of times and on the brink of a mighty disaster. Yet maybe we are.

We’re approaching the election of a president. It’s something we’ve done every four years, more or less, since George Washington was reelected in 1792. Presidential elections are contentious events, with all candidates insisting they know what’s best for the country and that they have the right qualities and skills to lead the country into the future.

But it seems that strong leadership in the Executive branch is not all that important to those who would back one of today’s contenders. The Republican/Tea Party does not care who is elected, as long as it’s not Obama. This news is a few months old now, but it’s the first I’ve heard of it. For those of you who think Obama is a fascist, take a look at this story by David Frum. David Frum, if you don’t know, is a conservative Republican, so this can’t be construed as liberal propaganda. Grover Norquist, if you don’t know, is the political activist who got most Republicans in the 112th Congress to sign a pledge affirming they would not raise taxes. Read the pledge and see who signed it here

This is what Grover Norquist said in February at the 2012 CPAC convention, before Mitt Romney looked like the sure winner of the Republican nomination:

All we have to do is replace Obama. …  We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.

In other words, all the Republican/Tea Party needs is a paper-signing puppet who will do what he is told. It appears Mitt Romney may be that puppet. Meanwhile, Norquist—through his pledge—has a firm hand on the controls of the Legislative branch. A Romney presidency will lock it in, unless the Democrats make significant gains in Congress.

And what would a Romney presidency look like? I’m no political analyst, but the word “austerity” comes to mind. The rich will get richer, and the poor (from the middle class down), well, poverty is just another word for nothing left to lose. The same policies that supported Enron’s fleecing of thousands of pension funds and savings accounts, and that brought down the economy in 2008, will prevail. The economy—and the environment—will be pillaged for corporate gain. Then what? Will the masses rise up against the plutocracy with weapons more powerful than placards?

Yet many hold out for Barack Obama’s reelection. What are the consequences if Obama does win? I fear it will different from the usual acceptance of “four more years” of any recently reelected incumbent, notwithstanding the impeachment hearings of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.

The Tea Party came into power in 2010 as a direct response to Obama’s presidency. Never mind that it has done everything possible within the law (forget ethics) to thwart Obama. Since the rise of the Tea Party, there has been lots talk of armed revolution. Armed revolution! Examples are herehereherehere, and here. Isn’t that enough? These are not conspiracy theories from the fringe. These are real people advocating real events. They are angry and afraid, and they do love their guns. We very well could have an armed insurrection on our hands if Obama is reelected. All it takes is someone to fire the first shot in the right place and at the right time. See the first example above.

I don’t like being so cynical and pessimistic about the future of the United States, but this is the way it seems to me. This feels like it’s more than just another election where after it’s over, we’ll all go back to the mall for a nice day of retail therapy. It feels more like war brewing. And regardless of which side wins, the losers will be all of us within the middle and lower classes. But isn’t that the way it is in all wars?

Good Shepherd, Bad Shepherd*

Collage of notable shepherds
How can you tell the good shepherds from the bad?

The word sheeple has been around for at least 60 years as a derogatory reference to people who are docile, foolish, and easily led—like sheep to slaughter.

There is a paradox here, because sheeple applies to absolutely no one. Stop anybody on the street and ask, “Are you docile, foolish, and easily led?” and you will see what I mean. We’re all to smart for that.

But what about the Christian metaphor of the Good Shepherd? Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the one who will tell us (his flock of sheep) right from wrong, keep us safe from harm, give us good counsel when we are confused, and wrap us snugly in the warm folds of his robes on that last, darkest, and most frightening night of the soul. Is this a case where people choose to be sheep?

Well, not all people will be sheep. Like Jesus, there are some others who stumble into—or seek out—the role of shepherd. They are smarter and more intelligent than the flock they aspire to lead. Some of them take on the role of shepherd out of love and compassion for the poor sheep, who, by their nature, are truly helpless. Others aspire to the role of shepherd out of the delusion they know what’s best—for themselves, for sure—and will take the flock by whatever means they can. Some of them will even lead their flocks directly to the slaughter-house.

All shepherds and hopeful shepherds have a message for the flock. But the sheep may have difficulty discerning among those who would help them from those who would harm them. Many people, like sheep, don’t have—or don’t utilize—the capacity to discern the truth. They are unable to make skillful decisions about what’s in their own long-term best interests and the best interests of those who share the pasture. Because, like sheep, they can know only what their immediate instincts tell them. And the instincts of sheep aren’t very good. Can a sheep recognize the butcher as he walks into the pen with a loaded rifle?

But we’re really not sheep. And it is possible to separate the good shepherds from the bad shepherds—if we’d really care to take a close look at them and listen carefully to their messages. Listening carefully doesn’t mean hearing what we want to and not hearing what we don’t.

• Is the message filled with compassion, hope, love, tolerance, and concern for the welfare of everyone in the flock? Or is the message filled with hatred of “the other,” fear that “the other” will take what’s “yours,” and intolerance of anyone who doesn’t accept the message?

• What’s the overall demeanor of those who would aspire to lead you? How do they live their lives—not just when they are in the spotlight, but when no one is looking? Are they kind, gentle, and honest;  are they authoritarian, overbearing, and deceptive; are they generous and humble, or greedy for money, fame, and power?

• Are they wise or deluded?

Although it may take a long time and will require some effort, truth can be found.

Provided truth is what you really want.

The photo collage is of some notable shepherds, some of whom are speaking to their flocks. Can you tell the good ones from the bad ones? If so, how?

In the picture are, in no particular order: the Buddha, Jerry Fallwell, Benazir Bhutto, Idi Amin, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, Anwar Sadat, Jimmie Carter, Menachem Begin, Mother Teresa, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Rush Limbaugh, Nelson Mandela, Joseph Stalin, Pat Roberson, Dick Cheney, Aung San Suu Kyi, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King, Mao Zedong, Mahatma Ghandi, Barack Obama, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Dorothy Day, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jim Jones, Mitt Romney, and Jesus, who is shone once as the Good Shepherd and again preaching the Sermon on the Mount.

Please forgive me if your favorite—good or bad—is not in the picture. There are so many.

*This is a rewrite of an article first published here on February 27, 2010. I think it’s as timely today as it was then. The original post was inspired by a story sent to me by someone suggesting that Barack Obama is leading the United States down the same path as did Adolf Hitler lead Germany (that story has since been removed, but there are plenty of others out there).