Deceived by Perception—Again

RobertFuddBewusstsein17Jh
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.

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).

A Small Case of Ignorance

ignoranceI live in a suburban residential area where the speed limit is 25 mph. In the neighborhood is a middle school, where the speed limit drops to 20 mph at the beginning and end of the school day, when children are arriving and departing. One morning, as I was leaving the neighborhood and approaching the school zone, I saw ahead of me two boys walking along the sidewalk. One of them wore a hoody that obscured his peripheral vision. The other was intent on some electronic device—a phone or game. Neither showed any sign of awareness that a car was coming toward them as they sauntered across the street right in my path.

No, I didn’t hit them. I noticed them in plenty of time and anticipated what they might do. 

On the surface, this is just one of thousands of examples of child-like behavior. It’s the kind of thing kids do, and it’s why the speed limit is decreased in school zones. There are kids everywhere.

On a deeper level, it’s just another example of ignorance. And here I don’t use the word to mean stupid. I mean ignorance of reality, ignorance of what is really happening. Those boys were ignorant of an approaching car and ignorant of any danger. With their lack of vision and occupied with their distractions, they simply weren’t aware of what was happening around them. 

But at what point in a child’s life does he or she cross the threshold from a state of ignorance to a state of awareness? Sixteen? Eighteen? Twenty-one? As I noted above, the speed limit is reduced in school zones because kids are everywhere. And those kids need to be protected from drivers who’s awareness is impaired by thousands of distractions, drivers who may be ignorant of what’s going on around them.

There is no built-in threshold a person automatically crosses from ignorance to awareness. Indeed, many people remain ignorant of reality their entire lives. They like their hoodies and their distractions, and they are unaware that the world is anything otherwise. It is their reality. 

But there is a reality outside the distractions, just as there was for the boys who walked in front of my car as it was heading toward them.

Questions:

• Can you think of one or two adult instances where you saw the foolishness or danger in someone else’s behavior, but they could not see it?

• If so, is it possible that others can see the foolishness or danger in something you are doing but can’t see?

• If there is a state of “the way things really are,” is it possible to be in it?

• If so, how do you get there?

• What do you think?

Why We Would Have Been Better off with President McCain

Sarah Palin and John McCain in Albuquerque
John McCain and Sarah Palin, Albuquerque, NM, Sept. 6, 2008. Photo by Matthew Reichbach, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As much as I appreciate Barack Obama for what he’s done and tried to do, I’m beginning to think we’d all have been better off had John McCain won the last election. 

Yes, it would be nice that gasoline would now be around $2 a gallon and my home double its 2007 value and not nearly half.

But I am certain about two things that would not be. 

First, there would be no Tea Party, which was an immediate reflex to Obama’s election, and the government would be humming along—and no doubt growing—nicely.

Second, we would not have Sarah Palin wandering as a free agent, continuing to pretend to know what she’s talking about. If she had been elected vice-president she would have been efficiently muzzled and hobbled to make sure she could not embarrass McCain with her disconnected blathering. Of course a Vice-president Palin would not be out there railing against Obama, who still would be a Senator from Illinois (would Rod Blagojevich still be governor?). No, her political career would have come to an effective end (if she hadn’t resigned first) at the hands of her own handlers. None of us would still be suffering the insufferable Sarah Palin.

But because she wasn’t elected vice-president, she’s still out there, within the safe confines of Fox News, where she’s encouraged to entertain and rouse Party loyalists.

I don’t see relief any time soon.

Make Chest X-Rays Mandatory for Cigarette and Cigar Purchases

Photo: Wikimedia

In 2011 the Food and Drug Administration ruled that cigarette makers put one of nine graphic images on each pack of cigarettes for sale in the United States. The purpose was to warn people of the deadly dangers of tobacco use. The ghastly images—meant to dissuade people from smoking—were to be in use by October of 2012.

In February, however, a federal judge ruled the images unconstitutional. This is a travesty, an abomination.

Smoking kills. We know that. People who smoke are slowly killing themselves. They also are slowly killing those around them who are unfortunately forced to inhale clouds of carcinogenic smoke. We have to stop this.

Click image to see all nine

But I think the government’s anti-smoking campaigns are. That’s because our perceptions have all along been misguided. For example, the tamest of the nine images says, “Warning: Tobacco smoke can harm your children.” That’s cloudy thinking.

The truth is, smoke and smoking don’t kill people. People who smoke kill people.

Is it too harsh to say smoking is not only a crime but is a sin? I don’t think so. It may not be among the biblical lists of things that evokes God’s wrath, but I think it’s safe to say God would agree that taking a life through the deliberate act of smoking is just as bad as any other way. More than anything else, this is a religious problem

We must stop these suicides and homicides. So here’s my proposal: Enact a law to make chest x-rays mandatory before purchasing of a pack of cigarettes or cigars. After the x-ray, you must then sit down with a radiologist, a cancer specialist, and a counselor. You will then be issued a certificate with a date and time stamp. After a reasonable waiting period of 24 hours (per pack or single cigar), you may present your certificate and buy your tobacco product.

I can see right off that there are some logistical and ethical problems with my plan. But I’m a big-idea person. I leave it up the lawmakers and attorneys to close the loopholes and sort through these relatively minor concerns. After all, the purpose here is to save lives. 

As I said, this is a religious and moral issue. I call on clergymen and clergywomen across the country to use their positions of influence to speak out against this dreadful scourge. Frankly, I have no idea why they haven’t been doing this all along. Perhaps they just haven’t thought about it. 

It’s terribly unfortunate that trafficking in tobacco is legal in this country. Yes, I know it goes back to colonial days, and smoking is part of the American psyche. But in this case our founders were very misguided. It’s time we got on the right track.

Disclaimer: I used to smoke. But I haven’t for more than 20 years. Make of that what you will.

The Truth and Nothing but the Truth, Maybe

why we lieIn a relative world, what is true and what is not true depends on what one believes. People tend to believe what they want to believe and nothing else. And everything a person believes is the truth. Who would say, “Everything I believe is a lie”? In a sense, people sometimes choose delusion.

Those who understand this have little trouble taking advantage of others.

In his book Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith makes some interesting points about the human propensity toward deception. Here are three.

First, Smith contends that the ability to deceive is a naturally selected trait. Those who can easily deceive others are more likely to survive than those who can’t.

Second, just as the ability to deceive is a naturally selected trait, so too is the ability to detect deception. Smith uses a poker game as an analogy. An excellent poker player is one who easily bluffs the other players at the table. In addition, an excellent poker player easily detects when others are bluffing. Players with neither of these skills should not play poker. I don’t play poker.

The ability to hide telling traits is the third and most interesting point Smith makes. It’s not enough merely to mask tell-tail signs of deception with a poker-face, because someone skilled in detecting deception will see through the mask. Smith contends that the greatest deceivers are those who can first deceive themselves. If I believe that what I say is true, I will have a much easier time convincing you that what I say is true. Then you become a believer. And truth becomes relative to belief.

A relative truth cannot be wholly reliable because it is based more on belief than reality.

As belief propagates in ever-widening circles it transforms into the kind of truth that must be true because “I saw it on TV (or the Internet).” That’s why negative campaign ads work so well. Negative ads need not be true. It’s necessary only that people believe they are true.

Self deception—whether by means of denial, repression, self-righteous bias, or any of the other defense mechanisms and biases psychologists have identified—is a door that always leads away from truth and toward delusion.

With this knowledge, it’s easy to see how people are so easily led astray and deluded by the used-car salesman who just wants that piece of junk off his lot or the politician who just wants your vote. Both will say anything with absolute sincerity to get what they want.

Is it possible to know the truth? Yes, but only with the understanding that belief and truth are not the same thing. You can discover truth once the layers of deception and delusion—both internal and external—are peeled away to expose things exactly as they are, not as you want them to be.

You will know you’re getting close when what you find is disagreeable and difficult to accept.

Occupy RushMouth

Rush Limbaugh by Ian Marsden
Drawing by Ian Marsden, courtesy WikiCommons

Twenty years ago or so, I listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I’d heard of him and wanted to know what was so special. Even though I didn’t agree with his politics, I thought it was appropriate to hear what he had to say and judge for myself.

I hung in there for a couple of months, listening to his newspaper-rattling and sighs of disgust while slurring and maligning any person or idea he didn’t like or agree with. 

He claimed he was just an “entertainer.” But his stated goal was to destroy liberalism. I listened as much as I could. And then one day I said to myself, “That’s enough.” I switched him off. 

Every once in a while I’d come across a story about him and wonder, “Do people still listen to him?” Yet I’ve read he has millions of listeners—5 million–20 million. Whatever the number, it’s a lot.  

In spite of his stated objectives—however misguided—no good can come from his hateful speech. Limbaugh’s inability to see it underscores his own delusion. And 20 million pats on the back each day is a lot of encouragement to stay in the dark. Yet because millions believe he’s right doesn’t mean he is. Twenty million people can be wrong.

We are fortunate in this country that physical assassination is a rare thing. But character assassination is acceptable, legal, and prevalent. Rush Limbaugh is not an entertainer. His recent attack on Sandra Fluke is character assassination. Not that she’s his first hit, but she is suddenly in the spotlight over an issue that’s important and personal to many people. 

The caricature above suggests Rush Limbaugh is the face of the Republican party. The face is where the mouth is. While the Republican candidates stumble all over each other trying to prove who is the more conservative, the mouth of the party is busy spewing hatred and contempt. If the mouthpiece is delusional and morally corrupt, what we say about the rest of the party?

Some of us believe it’s proper for a government of by and for the people to help those in need. It’s a point of view, not a disease. The real disease festers in the mouth of Rush Limbaugh.

The Occupy Movement has more territory to cover.