Recently I’ve had a number of experiences that reinforce the importance of perception. Perception is the currency of celebrity, but it also forms the rails within which all of us run.
In 1928, the sociologists, W.I. and Dorothy Swain Thomas, framed what has come to be known as the Thomas Theorem: “If men define situations as real, they become real in their consequences.”
In other words, if you believe something is real, that belief becomes a kind of truth — even if it isn’t objectively true. Somewhat more cynically, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “What is the difference between someone who is convinced and one who is deceived? None, if he is well deceived.”
If we start with the idea that none of us has a lock on absolute Truth and that we all operate in a world where we have incomplete information, then this make a lot of sense — especially considering the ways faith, science, propaganda and prejudice weave their way through our worldview.
Over the past week, I have been confronted with three glaring examples that really reinforce this point.
The first buttress came from a little book chapter I’m writing for a friend. The book is about famous crimes and scandals. My topic is the disgraced silent movie star, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Poor ol’ Arbuckle was wrongly accused of raping and killing a young starlet, Virginia Rappe. At the time, it was bigger than the O.J. Simpson affair. The scandal was fanned by yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst and a San Francisco prosecutor who had eyes on the California governor’s mansion. Arbuckle went from being a million dollar-a-year movie star to a penniless pariah. So egregiously flawed was the state’s case that the third jury empaneled to hear it actually wrote Arbuckle an apology letter along with their not-guilty verdict.
This mattered little. Arbuckle was ruined. He was banned from film and never escaped the taint of the whole ugly mess.
I’ve written a lot about Arbuckle, and I feel for the guy. His whole fall from grace was engineered by small people working an angle. “Tragic” is too weak a word to fully capture it.
A similar reminder came at the misery of a friend. He’s very good at his job, but he’s in an industry where people seem to get ahead not just on talent, but on self-promotion. He’s diligent and dependable. I trust him implicitly, but he works in an environment surrounded by showboating braggarts. Because he is quiet and modest, he’s been labeled as lazy. The narrative seems to have taken root, even though it has little basis in objective fact. It’s a shame and the collective definition of his work ethic has been fully subordinated to misguided gossip. He’ll likely take a fall he doesn’t deserve.
The last example of perceptual bias is more personal. Earlier this week I bought a used car, but it’s a bright red, convertible sports car — the kind tailor-made for derision and manhood speculation. It’s a ridiculous thing, but it gets pretty good gas mileage, it was priced right and I just wanted it.
Even so, I am hyper-conscious of the vibe it exudes. Accordingly, I drive it slowly and cautiously. I let people merge in front of me. I do whatever I can to refute the dominant narrative of old white guys in that kind of car. I also own the fact that there’s nothing I can do for a large portion of the population who will see it. They will think what they’re predisposed to think.
All of this gets to the broader point that we’re creatures of habitual mental shorthand. We need quick cues to help us through life, but sometimes the monster breaks free of the chains. We let volume trump reason. We let an oft-retold story subvert the facts. We let a quick glance tell us all we need to know.
Of course any other way takes time and effort. We have to think about things more deeply. We have to question how we know what we think we know. We have to refrain from giving the guy in the red car the finger.
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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.