How Perception Works

How Perception Works:

For Us and Against Us

Perception, without which we couldn’t get along in life, has this hidden nature build into it: it is interpretation based in assumptions. Here is one of many available demonstrations that what we see as we go about our lives is given by the interpretations we bring with us, and the assumptions, derived from our past experiences, that govern those interpretations.

Perception, then, is not a physical process. Here’s another take on that:

(For more investigations of the nature of perception, look up “Ames Demonstrations.”)

Until coronavirus, we had been living in an “optical” illusion, a perceptual construct which governed the reality of our lives together. Political polarization signals the increasing virulence of this illusion. The illusion is called Us-Against-Them.

With the advent of the pandemic, another reality has appeared, alongside the seeming solidity of perception. New Yorkers, leaning out their windows to cheer healthcare workers even amid the continued partisan shouting, bring present a different world: We-For-Each-Other. What happens when we find ourselves in a lifeboat together?

What if it didn’t take a disaster to bring us together?

What will it take to keep our mutuality present?

— and there are now hundreds more specialized efforts to bridge divides and transform division:

Meetings of Opposites in Charlottesville

Political polarization is only one symptom of the national disease which afflicts us.  From obesity to heart disease to chronic stress, we live with the consequences of the failure to relate to each other authentically, even to perceive and understand what authentic encounter might be.  In desperation we may choose Republican or Democrat to position ourselves in the political order – which is really nothing but an organized and taunting mess, in which even Independents find themselves swamped.  Such a choice, attended with organizational meetings, voter registration drives, door-to-door canvassing, all the machinery of political action, may provide temporary respite from the responsibility of meeting each other as each other, and not as tenants of some abstract position, some generalization about experience or morality or truth.  Can we get underneath the generalizations, outside our pasts, beyond the experiences which drive our suspicions and our grievances?

As a country, we’ve been working as opposites – warring – for so long that our social compact has suffered grievous harm.  I’m hoping to renew the substance of our polity, our stake in each other.  We are not interested in just another meeting,  nor are we out to “find the middle,” to arrive at a “meeting of minds.”    Both of those outcomes leave in place the entrenched polarity – Dems versus Repubs;  liberal versus conservative; Black Lives Matter versus the police.   Us-Against-Them.  We want to create between us a qualitatively different experience than compromise or even consensus.

The common ground of Meeting is not in the middle;  it is a different space altogether.  On the same  streets, either we can continue Us-Against-Them – Opposites – or we can try this other way of being together:  Meeting.  Common ground is a matter of living together, not of agreement in opinions. 

Here in Charlottesville, once supposedly the happiest place on earth, some of us, at least, have lived together in hope and without rancor.  But even in Charlottesville, we never achieved a real dialogue on the Western Bypass, for example.  Now, after the Unite the Right rally in 2017, the issue of the Confederate statues among us carries the added voltage of violence, dividing us further from ourselves.

The health of a body is a different matter than agreeing or disagreeing.  Even a body politic requires a bloodstream that flows, nourishing bones and muscles that work together without judgments of good or evil.  What we’ve had instead is not bodily health but a clot:  angry debate, rigid positions, people trying to skewer each others’ arguments, or to outshout them.

“There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent – where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them.” [This is the kind of dialogue we’re calling Meeting.]

“And there is monologue disguised as dialogue… a debate in which the thoughts … in the speaking are so pointed that they may strike home in the sharpest way, and moreover without the men that are spoken to being regarded in any way present as persons … ” [This is the way of Opposition.]

Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, trans. Ronald Gregor-Smith

Here in our community we have a legacy of racial separation and misunder-standing, but also real people who can recognize each other as such.  What is it to establish “a living mutual relation” among participants?  Using some programming adapted from Outward Bound, along with philosophy, research into perception, and inquiry into the substance of our experience of others, we might be able to shift the culture of the country we live in.  We might actually generate common ground to walk on.

            The remedy for the past is not more of the past.  It is Meeting.  If we can get the hang of that in Charlottesville, might it catch on? 

Henry D. McHenry Jr. October 2018


Next: A Living Room Conversation

Since our OLLI course has been suspended, I’ve been searching for a way to resume our attempts to reinvent civic space. Conveniently, but also perhaps treacherously, the online space offers enticements to colloquy “until we get back to normal.” Those are scare quotes: either the normal we were used to may not be available post-virus, or the normal we were used to isn’t worth revisiting. Will the conversations in our living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms contain and produce that species of communication that Buber says is the “cradle of actual life”? Or will they reproduce, like a viral load, the exclusive reliance on It that renders our lives on Earth a disease?

Here’s my first-ever “retweet,” a real-time addition to the virality of informationopinion (that word is my own coinage):

So we will, this week or next, engage in one of the online platforms that are proliferating: Living Room Conversations promises to provide connective tissue to heal our divisions. Let me know, if you have experienced one of these conversations, how it works.

Hello from Charlottesville

As the coronavirus rearranges all our means of interacting, we have just been forced to end our OLLI course devoted to the project halfway through. After three sessions, the eighteen of us were just getting accustomed to the odd philosophical vocabulary that Martin Buber uses to distinguish the world of “I-You speaking” from the world of “I-It speaking,” and had begun using it to describe the different qualities of interaction which appear in our lives together. The two “basic words,” we began to understand, create different substances of togetherness for us to live into.

We are at present looking for a way to meet with each other, either virtually or (preferably) in person, to experience more fully what it is to live into each of the “basic words,” so as to gain some facility in noticing the difference. For we had just begun to establish the almost insurmountable dominance of the I-It mode in our ways of being-together.

In the meantime, please engage with me here by asking questions or providing examples from your lives. Let’s see if we can develop a Meetings community which could contribute to the healing of rifts between us.

Where Do Stereotypes Come From?

A proposal for Charlottesville Unity Days 2019

To the extent that civic relationships among us are built on our perceptions of each other, we should investigate the nature of perception.  To what extent do perceptions depend on “myth”?  What can we do to wrest control of our community relationships away from myth, and bring them back toward relationships of kin, family?  Where do stereotypes come from?

The workshop reveals the human perceptual mechanism which prevents us from breaking free of Us-Against-Them;  and it distinguishes another way of seeing the world than perception, providing an actual experience of common ground.  We start by watching an old video about visual perception, optical illusions, and the role of interpretation.  In discussions among us, we use insights from the video to examine our current cultural interactions, from online chat and newspaper letters to political arguments.

Then we distinguish another way of being together from the way of being based on perception, using philosophical excerpts from Martin Buber and others.  Finally, we engage in activities adapted from Outward Bound, to experience that other way of being together – the way that creates common ground among us.

Continuation sessions to deepen the distinction between power and love will be available recurrently after Unity Days, in venues and times to be determined.