Seeing Is Not Believing

We don’t see the world as it is. . . we see it as we are.

Attributed to a variety of sources from novelist (Anaïs Nin) to Talmudic teacher, to business guru (Steven Covey). We could add philosopher (Kant) and psychoanalyst (Freud). From whomever’s pen the quote emerged, the meaning is essentially the same: presented with facts, truths (if you will), our efforts are directed not toward analysis, comprehension, understanding, acceptance. . . but toward fitting what we observe into our existing narrative. How we impose (superimpose?) what we want / need to be true onto what is.

To paraphrase Kant, ‘reality’ is not a passive reflection of the input our senses receive; but a reshaping, evaluating, classifying and very active process thrust upon it by the mind. All of those elements, in turn, have been long formed by a collaboration, a conspiracy in some cases, of events that are wholly psychological, social, familial, vocational, political . . . not physical or sensory.

Nothing particularly new in the above. Humans simply prefer a good story over data. When the two sources don’t mesh, the hands down winner is the story. Any number of factors come into play. A compelling fable is typically ‘cleaner’ — no challenging, hard to grasp nuances, shades of meaning. These ‘tall tales’ are typically framed in black and white, with a nice teaching point, a preloaded agenda that is easily understood, and even more easily repeated. Essentially the ‘headline’, without all the trouble of those words to wade through.

When facts oppose beliefs, the instinct is to avoid, not analyze; to rationalize, not reconcile; to demur, not dig. Cognitive dissonance is not a stable, sustainable, or even vaguely desirable state. The quick exit into a like-minded enclave, self-selecting a narrative free of those nasty, inconveniently contradictory elements restores one’s sense of personal ‘order’. The truly disturbing piece in this predisposition is the ease with which we slide into it. Good stories are quite simply found to be more credible and easily accepted. Critical thinking, the old maxim of ‘serious doubt’ as the core of true belief run distant seconds. Science and sense are ill-equipped to wind things back — once they gets rolling.

Not that the world has ever been insulated from this dynamic. What has changed — and only destructively so — is the ‘immediacy’ and pervasiveness of the propensity. A ‘cause’, at once, is reduced to its (often, wildly over-simplified) bits; masticated and spat back, at a pre-selected audience as polemic. Then swallowed whole and digested as ‘truth’ — to become the narrative that defines. . . and then divides. Dialogue, empathy, compassion, collaboration . . . all victims.

Examples are legion. Most appalling is Putin’s ‘special military operation’. The globe watches the hourly compounding horrors suffered by the Ukraine, dumbstruck by the narrative that has been spun around these atrocities. ‘What is’ is apparent to ‘any of us who have eyes’ (in the words of one MSNBC commentator) — but evidently not to all. A carefully crafted story continues to hold sway in Russia, fostered by media isolationism, seeded by months, even years of ‘historical’ fictions, and trading on decades old anxieties that harken back to WWII.

Less gut-wrenching, less inhumane perhaps, but no less catastrophic in their ends are the other narratives that easily fit (like an OJ glove!) the story-telling fictions that grow ever the more pervasive. The political invective, the ‘newsworthy’ diatribes that purport to inform, to ‘balance our perspectives’, the sources of pseudo-science that populate the digital world with little or no chance — or even inclination — of being questioned and fact-checked. Consumed then propagated like the next tasty bit of gossip. Worrisome in the ‘water cooler days’; disastrous in the internet age.

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