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On a Somewhat Different Topic

For over 15 years now, I've posted a new article on Earthbound Light covering some aspect of photography. This past week though, my thoughts have mostly been on other matters. Hopefully you will find some value in my brief digression.

To state the obvious, this past Tuesday revealed an unexpected result in the US Presidential election. No, this article won't be about how Hillary was robbed any more than it might have been about the miracle of Trump winning. Arguing never solves much. Yes, I won't be able to avoid my opinions from coloring what I write, nor would I really want to. I respect that everyone is entitled to their own opinions on what transpired, but I also have my own opinions. Hopefully we can all agree on that. Instead, I've been thinking this week about the implications of the election process itself.

As a photographer, I've long been interested in the act and process of perception. As we go through life, we naturally develop opinions about what we experience. In addition to that though, it's become increasingly apparent to me over the years that those opinions, in turn, directly influence what we experience, and importantly, what we think about those experiences and how we judge their value.

Some years ago, I was waiting at a bus stop in downtown Seattle so I could begin my commute home from work. People from all walks of life ride the bus. You never know what you're going to encounter, but it's all basically harmless. On this day, in addition to the usual commuter crowd, there was a guy standing off to the side, seemingly talking into thin air. His voice was loud and animated, his arms wildly gesticulating. Clearly, he felt strongly about whatever it was he was saying, even if his interlocutor appeared somewhat elusive from my vantage point. I concluded he probably had had some difficulties in life and might be in need a mental health professional, even if not aware if it himself. Such was not entirely uncommon though. As I say, people from all walks of life find need of riding mass transit. But after some while, he turned his head and I noticed that he was in fact using an early model Bluetooth headset, one of the first tiny models that don't extend very far outside of the ear. Rather than talking to an imaginary companion on the side of the street next to him, he was talking to someone at another location over his mobile phone. Clearly, that changed my opinion of him dramatically.

My bus stop mistaken impression can be looked at as akin to the ancient Indian metaphor of seeing a piece of rope by the side of the road at night and mistaking it for a snake. First I judged a situation to be one way, and then later realized it to be something else entirely. With incomplete information, I had been mistaken.

I did warn you that I've long been interested in perception. This sort of thing can easily seem somewhat self-evident for most people, but before I get on with discussing this week's election, I need to establish some basic premises. What if I had never seen that he had the Bluetooth headset on? I might just as easily have left him behind as I got on the bus, headed for home without ever discovering that piece of the puzzle. I would feel confident in my assessment and never realize my error.

Our world view is a product of what we perceive, and what we perceive is a product of our world view. The information we have forms our perceptions right up until we receive new information. If the new information seems consistent with our prior beliefs, we will accept it as being fact. If it doesn't, we may simply discount it because we feel it can't possibly be true. This is nothing new. People were confident that the sun rotated around the earth until careful observation led to perceptions that couldn't be reconciled with that hypothesis.

Most of what we know about the wider world is necessarily based on incomplete information. Few of us have ever met Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Fewer still know them well enough to say with any certainty what they have done or will do. It's easy to spin past events in any number of ways. It's also easy to discount information that doesn't fit our preconceptions and uncritically accept what does. No matter how many friends you may have on Facebook, they represent an infinitesimally small slice of the electorate. And you most likely chose your friends in part because they agree with, and thus reinforce, your preconceptions. If everyone you know believes the same thing you do, it's easy to assume that consensus holds true for the population at large, totally ignoring how small the sample set may be that led to that conclusion. If a source you trust tells you something is true, you are apt to believe it, even though you trust that source precisely because it tells you what you want to believe. If everyone around you tells us that we're right about which candidate is better and which one will bring disaster, most of us will conclude that our opinions are correct, or at least close enough to being correct for us to act upon and to vote for. Candidates for office exploit this behavior all the time.

All world views are inherently self-reinforcing. Yet information is never complete. That's why we have the scientific method. Since it's difficult to see beyond our current world view, mankind has discovered that educated trial and error coupled with careful observation can allow us to move forward. A tested hypothesis is either confirmed or it yields information we didn't previously know. If we pay attention and allow it to, it can change how we look at things.

Politics is the way we establish public policy for the common good. The viewpoints of candidates represent alternate theories on how best to accomplish this. Since nobody can truly know what the future will bring, party platforms represent hypothesis to be tested. So, if we can agree on anything, why are those platforms seemingly so opposed to each other? "Republican" and "Democrat" should be the best two ideas we've come up with to date. Both are offspring of the same root. We've been at this civilization thing for a long time, so we should agree on the basic framework of how to govern. Why does each election cycle seem to end up such a knock-down, drag-out fight? As if the fate of civilization hangs in the balance? In the heat of the competition, we've lost track of the goal.

Part of the problem lies with the news media. It's in their economic best interest to manipulate the flow of information so as not to let any candidate get too far ahead. Closely fought elections are good for ratings and for revenue. Without a contested race, many would choose not to tune in for the nightly news. Fewer blog advertising units would be tallied. The election comes out close because the news media wants it to be close.

But another source of the problem is inherent in the two-party system ingrained in American politics. We have voluntarily divided ourselves in half. Both parties do their best to convince people to vote for them. One of the ways they do this is by painting the past in ways that reflect favorably on their aims, even as those aims are in turn formed by how they view that same past. Elections often come out close to a tie because we've battled ourselves to a stalemate. We spend much our time and effort on trying to prevent the other side from getting done what it wants to. Only a fraction of either party's efforts yields lasting results as the problems of the nation gradually get worse. After each election, the two sides redouble their efforts to defeat the other. Each believes the other to be dangerously wrong. But the problem isn't which party is right. The problem is the two-party system itself. We have a political framework that promotes opposites. It promotes antagonism. And it promotes gridlock.

Third-party candidates certainly haven't been very successful either. Like it or not, we have a two-party democracy. That too has become a self-reinforcing part of our world view. Few want to vote for a third party because they are sure to lose, and they lose because few of us vote for them.

This battle has gotten out of hand. Obstruction has become an end in itself. Politics has become a competition. There's "us" and there's "not us." Since we have a two-party system, we actually define the other side as being the opposite. If we're "good" they must be "bad." Over time, each side makes what they feel to be progress in some areas but experience setbacks in other areas. A win for one side in some area is perceived by the other as a loss. And the two sides grow ever further apart, even as we should be working on the same common good. Some problems never get solved. Some get worse. We've had the same two-party dynamic for longer than any of us have been alive. That means there have been a lot of election cycles for our perceptions to get reinforced.

On any path careening down hill there are bound to be switchbacks, and to me, Trump inhabit such an extreme position that I feel we have no choice other than to oppose. The results otherwise could be disastrous for our society and our planet. Giving him a free hand or even attempting a compromise in most cases just won't be an option. My friends on the other side will naturally disagree, but remember, we're all entitled to our own opinions. Even as we must admit those opinions are self-reinforcing patterns based on incomplete information.

I'm not able to say what we should do, but one thing is certain. For the long haul, it's critical for us to understand why we have this problem. In the short term, I don't see any option other than to oppose the Trump agenda, just as I'm certain conservatives would the Clinton agenda should the results of the election have come out the other way. I say this knowing that it is both necessary but ultimately unhelpful.

None of us will ever have complete information. It's not possible know fully what the future may hold. And past events can easily be spun in more than one way. At the same time, we actively buy into media narratives that manipulate us, not so much for idealistic reasons as for the baser motivation of better ratings. And we then manipulate ourselves by coming to conclusions based on our own self-reinforced world views.

We all do it. Yet somehow, we need to collectively find a way to move beyond the partisan battlefield.


Date posted: November 13, 2016

 

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