Archive for February 3rd, 2010

Pictures in our Heads

I have just read Public Opinion, a 1922 book by Walter Lippmann, the philosopher-journalist extraordinaire of the 20th century.  It strikes me how so much of what he wrote then still applies today, and how he was consciously exploring what it meant to be in a new, modern era, when mass media would break down the barriers of distance and tradition.  Yet Lippmann may also be on to one of the dangers of democracy, reminiscent of Montesquieu’s idea of the “troglodytes.”

Lippmann notes that we make judgments about reality by creating “pictures in our heads,” simplifications of the complexity of the real world, often shaped by external forces who give us narratives and visions already pre-packaged and interpreted.   We then lose sight of the fact that these are just interpretations, and start believing that we are understanding reality “as it is,” certain we have the facts correct, and that our judgments are crystal clear.   This is never the case, and we delude ourselves into false certainty by putting such faith in our biased and stereotyped images.   Perhaps with education and the capacity to engage in understanding multiple perspectives we can at the very least recognize the problem and work against bias, but we are always limited.

A few quotes from Lippmann’s classic (the MacMillian 1957 printing):

“For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.  We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations.  And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage it.” (page 16)

“The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes.   We are told about the world before we see it.  We imagine most things before we experience them.  And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.” (page 90)

“We do not see what our eyes are not accustomed to take into account.  Sometimes consciously, more often without knowing it, we are impressed by those facts which fit our philosophy.” (page 119)

“So where two factions see vividly each its own aspect, and contrive their own explanations of what they see, it is almost impossible for them to credit each other with honesty.  If the pattern fits their experience at a crucial point, they no longer look upon it as an interpretation.  They look upon it as ‘reality.’  It may not resemble the reality, except that it culminates in a conclusion which fits real experience.”  (page 126-27)

“Generally, it all culminates in the fabrication of a system of all evil, and of another which is the system of all good.  Then our love of absolutes shows itself.   For we do not like qualifying adverbs.  They clutter up sentences, and interfere with irresistible feeling…Real space, real time, real numbers, real connections, real weights are lost.  The perspective and the background and the dimensions of action are clipped and frozen in the stereotype.” (page 156)

“Most of this naïve view of self-interest leaves out of account.  It forgets that self and interest are both conceived somehow, and that for the most part they are conventionally conceived.  The ordinary doctrine of self-interest usually omits altogether the cognitive function.  So insistent is it on the fact that human beings finally refer all things to themselves that it does not stop to notice that men’s ideas of all things and of themselves are not instinctive.  They are acquired.” (Page 180)

“But for the political thinkers who have counted, from Plato and Aristotle through Machiavelli and Hobbes to the democratic theorists, speculation has revolved around the self-centered man who had to see the whole world by means of a few pictures in his head.” (Page 262)

“We misunderstand the limited nature of news, the illimitable complexity of society; we overestimate our own endurance, public spirit and all around competence.  We suppose an appetite for uninteresting truths which is not discovered by any honest analysis of our own tastes.” (Page 362)

“The press is no substitute for institutions.  It is like the beam of a search light that moves restlessly about it, bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision.  Men cannot do the work of the world by this light alone.  They cannot govern society by episodes, incidents and eruptions.  It is only when they work by a steady light of their own, that the press, when it is turned upon them, reveals a situation intelligible enough for a popular decision.   The trouble lies deeper than the press, and so does the remedy.  It lies in social organization based on a system of analysis and record, and in all the corollaries of that principle; in the abandonment of the theory of the omnicompetent citizen, in the decentralization of decision, in the coordination of decision by comparable record and analysis.” (page 364)

“It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves.  This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its tradition, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.” (Page 365)

These snippets, which represent part of the theory behind my current research, challenge democracy.    The public cannot be wise, because the public is so easily misled, and through emotion responds to “pictures in our heads” that give a warped and overly simplified vision of reality.   Especially with globalization, it’s hard for the “self-contained society” (as Lippmann puts it) to understand the diverse perspectives out there.  It’s easier to see ones’ own culture as common sensically best and superior.  People believe that their self-interest comes from inside them, rather than recognizing how it is often given to them by the culture and discourse in which they find themselves.

Perhaps the militarism of the past decades, the “something for nothing” mentality of both the rich and poor in our society, the wild consumerism, and the demand that the government spend more and tax less simply reflects public demands shaped by marketers and the media.   The politicians react to this and are caught up in it, believing their own “pictures in their heads.”   Few question their own narratives or, as Lippmann also noted, truly listen to the “indispensable opposition.”   Perhaps our current crisis is as much a crisis of modern democracy as it is a creation of either governments or markets (the left blames the latter, the right blames the former).

As this research project develops, I’ll reflect more on this.  For today, I thought I’d list a few quotes from Lippmann’s classic which people may or may not find insightful.

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