On Perception

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“Perception is everything.”

How many times have you heard this phrase? Have you ever heard this phrase? Certainly, it is an idea that the modern world rebels against. “Be who you want to be”, we are told, from a very early age (or should be, at least). But right on the coattails of that is another phrase, “Don’t worry about what anyone thinks of you.” It’s good advice, I’ll admit. It’s advice I certainly followed. I’ve never cared much about what people think of me, and I’ve gotten pretty darned far because of it. I’ve gotten some pretty thick skin because of it. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve wondered… is it really such good advice, all of the time? Some of the time, definitely. Most of the time, maybe. But all of the time?

See, I’ve learned something very, very important as I’ve grown up, and it’s this: it does not matter what kind of person you are. What matters is what kind of person people think you are. While I realize that sounds really harsh, it’s also really true. I should elaborate, though. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t follow your dreams in the face of adversity. If someone tells you that you can’t do something, absolutely prove them wrong. What I’m saying is that it does matter, at least a little bit, what people think about you. In certain cases, anyway, perception is, in fact, everything.

I know, I know, it’s the American dream to want to fight the system. Screw the man, and all that. When one is a teenager, everyone thinks that adults are lame, the things adults do are lame, and that no one should ever have to curry favor with anyone else. However, when one grows up, the realization sort of sinks in that what adults do isn’t so much lying about themselves so they can suck up to people (…okay, sometimes, but not always). No, what it’s about is putting the best side of yourself forward. Because you know what? Your best side is also a part of you, and that’s the part that’s going to get you friends, a job, a date, and respect. That other part of you? The ‘fuck the system’ part? That part is just a dick, and will continually sabotage you.

But that’s not even what I’m talking about here. Not really. When I say ‘perception is everything,’ I’m talking about more than just you. I’m talking about situations, I’m talking about your interactions with other people and their interactions with you. Let me put it this way: on some level, everyone thinks that they are right. I mean, no one ever goes out and says “I am going to completely and totally fuck myself over today.” I’m not saying that everyone thinks that they are a good person, because that’s not really true. What I’m saying is that everyone thinks that they’re right, even if they’re not. For example, let’s say that I say “I am a good person.” I think that I’m completely and totally right. However, if no one else thinks I’m a good person, then am I really? Well, no. Not in the slightest. That is where perception comes into things. It doesn’t matter whether or not I think I am a good person, it only matters whether others think that I am.

“But Greg,” you might say, “That’s stupid! What if all your friends think you’re a pretty cool guy, but some guy that nobody even knows thinks that you’re a dick? That’s perception, too!” Yes, it is. If I’m hanging around with a bunch of people who think I’m nice, and some hobo comes up and says that I’m a jerk, why would that even matter? Why would anyone believe that? Well, in this hypothetical situation, maybe when no one was looking, I walked over and kicked the hobo in the face. To that hobo, I am a jerk. So then it comes down to the question of whose opinion I perceive as being more valid, more self-affirming. Of course, I care more about what my friends think of me. Possibly. Or maybe I feel really bad about kicking that hobo. That perception is on me.

Perception is everything. There have been so many situations that have come up recently in various communities that have to do with perception. Without going into specifics, most of these situations can be deconstructed down into the same basic formula. It pretty much always goes like this:

  1. A thing happens.
  2. Someone is offended by this thing. On some level, it is usually justified, if that thing is viewed in a certain light. They usually assign some term that ends with ‘-ist’ to the thing.
  3. The person who did the thing defends it, and says that those who were offended by it should simply not be.
  4. Escalation.

So, at which step in the formula does everything break down? Is it when the actual thing happened? Sure, things happen and they aren’t very well thought out, but that’s life. Things happen all the time. Is it when things start to escalate? Well, escalation is a part of any conflict, and while it should be avoidable, by the time things start to escalate it’s usually too late. That leaves somewhere between steps two and three. This is where perception comes into play, as well as the lack of people understanding how much perception matters. Here’s what it comes down to. If enough people are offended by something, and they are of the demographic that is being slighted/attacked/slandered by the thing, the defense that ‘people should just not be offended’ quickly loses its validity. That’s just like me saying that I’m a good person, while simultaneously being a serial hobo kicker. To the hobo demographic, I am most definitely not a good person, because they are the ones being kicked. However, maybe I only kicked like one hobo, and it was because I tripped or something, and I apologized afterward and gave him a 20. That perception that I am a jerk is probably a pretty big overreaction by the hobo community.

So, you might be thinking that the important part is still what a person does, since the external perception can be, and usually is on some level, wrong. And it’s certainly true that there is one absolute reality. But here’s the thing about absolute reality: no one knows what it is. No one can perceive absolute reality. Therefore, a person’s perceptions represent reality to that person. What a person sees and feels is what is absolutely real to them. Sure, there are things that are immutable. If I reach out and touch a tree, no amount of convincing can make me believe that the tree is not there. However, for things that are not concrete, reality is, to a certain extent, mutable simply because no one can perceive the same thing the exact same way. This is why things like anxiety and depression are such serious issues; what a person is feeling at any moment is their absolute and complete reality, even if that reality is not the same for someone looking from the outside.

So what is the conclusion here? What is the course of action we should take to use this knowledge to simplify the world through the lessening of conflict? Well, that is the question isn’t it. At the very least, we should all do more to respect the fact that one person’s viewpoint, one person’s reality, is absolute to them. If two people are arguing, it is because neither of them think they are wrong. If nobody is willing to accept that maybe, just maybe, their reality can shift to accept the possibility of another point of view, nobody wins. Unstoppable force, unmovable object, etc. Change cannot happen without a shift in perspective, and that only happens when people allow themselves to perceive reality as if through the eyes of another.

When people can do that, that is when they truly start to understand each other.

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5 Responses to On Perception

  1. Alicia Jernstrom says:

    This made me think a lot of things (hah!) but probably the most prominent was about my job. We’re taught as part of “therapeutic communication” to accept people’s hallucinations to some extent. Rather than saying “there is not a cat in that corner,” we’re taught to say for example, “I know that you see a cat in that corner, but I don’t see it.” I imagine it’s meant to acknowledge the patient’s reality without arguing over it and possibly heading into the realm of escalation, like you said. What’s really interesting to me about it is that it can sort of be read as a way of admitting that no one knows what’s real without explicitly stating it. I, as a nurse, am not saying “I’m right, you’re wrong” or “you’re right, I’m wrong.” I’m sort of saying “We see differently.”

    • Greg says:

      I think that’s a really good illustration of…a more literal version of what I’m trying to say. But really, it’s kind of in line with it. It’s a very extreme version of people experiencing reality different than others. Their reality is no less valid, because it is completely real to them.

  2. Rachel K. says:

    For as long as I can remember, one of my greatest strengths has also been my greatest weakness. My compassion knows only the limits imposed by ignorance of a person’s situation. A great number of people perceive this entirely as a weakness, thinking me a “sucker” or some sort of bleeding heart hippie living in a world of ideals instead of the real world in all its many grey shades. Me? I think it’s a great quality to possess, even if I run the risk of being grossly taken advantage of. I can think of less than a handful of times that I’ve been suckered in by someone so badly that I declared my compassion at best a handicap, and at worst a fatal flaw. But you know what? I still hope the best for those people. To empathize is to perceive to the best of your ability what another person is feeling. To empathize in and of itself generates compassion in me. It’s my hope that more people take the time to try to perceive life from another’s view point. Perhaps it will propagate compassion in all of us.

    • Greg says:

      I like this. So many people consider compassion a weakness, because..well, I don’t know why. Because it lets people take advantage of you? Maybe. I don’t know. I think there’s a difference between compassion and gullibility, personally. Having compassion does not make one a “sucker”, though it might make one appear as if they are an easy mark, I suppose.

  3. Pingback: On Perception and Logical Fallacy | Stone and Sage

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