“There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.”
By Maria Popova
“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know,” Thoreau wrote as he contemplated with uncommon lucidity what it takes to apprehend reality unblinded by our preconceptions. Every once in a rare and rapturous while, the curtain of our preconceptions lifts and we are able to see, as Virginia Woolf did, “behind the cotton wool of daily life” and experience “a revelation of some order” as we apprehend reality as it really is. But such is the paradox of consciousness: Without preconceptions — without having already half-templated and half-mapped the world we are trying to perceive and navigate — we would have to evaluate afresh every smallest object our attention falls upon. We would not see a table but several pieces of wood, a geometry of shapes and surfaces, an arrangement of atoms we would have to process anew each time in order to perceive the object we understand to be a table. Without our preconceptions, we would be so overwhelmed by raw reality as to become paralyzed by our insufficient processing powers.
And so we develop schemata — perceptual shorthands that pre-process what we encounter in order to spare us this impossible cognitive toil. The upside is survivalist; the downside, inescapably, moral: Each thing we preconceive blinds us to what actually is — a tendency that, when it rises to the level of social perception in the form of stereotypes, metastasizes into a status quo that makes the powerful all the more powerful and the power-poor all the poorer. “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin observed in contemplating freedom and how we imprison ourselves — an observation rooted in the knowledge that both the making and the unmaking of this world, both our traps and our freedom, lie in reconceiving these preconceptions that keep power structures in place.
That is what the great writer, media theorist, and political critic Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) examined a generation before Baldwin in Public Opinion (free ebook | public library) — the immensely insightful 1922 book that gave us Lippmann on the psychology of deception and self-delusion.
Drawing on the pioneering psychologist William James’s lovely landmark formulation of a baby’s first perception of the world as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” Lippmann writes:
Few facts in consciousness seem to be merely given. Most facts in consciousness seem to be partly made. A report is the joint product of the knower and known, in which the role of the observer is always selective and usually creative. The facts we see depend on where we are placed, and the habits of our eyes.
For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.
Lippmann considers how we automate the classification of what we encounter into pre-conceived categories of perception:
In untrained observation we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset; rather we notice that the thing is man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subjects.
Writing at the same time as the existentialist philosopher Martin Buber was considering a tree as a lesson in seeing the sovereign dignity of the generalized other, Lippmann weighs the cost of this economy of perception:
Those whom we love and admire most are the men and women whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types, who know us rather than the classification into which we might fit. For even without phrasing it to ourselves, we feel intuitively that all classification is in relation to some purpose not necessarily our own; that between two human beings no association has final dignity in which each does not take the other as an end in himself. There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.
The most tainting of our interpersonal relations, Lippmann notes, is that in which we take a single trait of the other and extrapolate from it an entire type, filling in the rest of the picture with the stereotype we already hold of that “person.” We are handed this coloring book of caricatures by our culture, so early in our moral development and so surreptitiously that we grow unwitting of its influence upon our way of being and our regard for others.
Two decades before Hannah Arendt asserted that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed” and a century before social scientists came to study how unconscious biases afflict even the most conscientious people, Lippmann offers an elegant analysis of how stereotypes work — how they help us, how they hurt us, and how to live with them in a way that maximizes their cognitive aid and minimizes their social damage:
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. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange as sharply alien… Were there no practical uniformities in the environment, there would be no economy and only error in the human habit of accepting foresight for sight. But there are uniformities sufficiently accurate, and the need of economizing attention is so inevitable, that the abandonment of all stereotypes for a wholly innocent approach to experience would impoverish human life.
What matters is the character of the stereotypes, and the gullibility with which we employ them. And these in the end depend upon those inclusive patterns which constitute our philosophy of life. If in that philosophy we assume that the world is codified according to a code which we possess, we are likely to make our reports of what is going on describe a world run by our code. But if our philosophy tells us that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas, then, when we use our stereotypes, we tend to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly. We tend, also, to realize more and more clearly when our ideas started, where they started, how they came to us, why we accepted them. All useful history is antiseptic in this fashion. It enables us to know what fairy tale, what school book, what tradition, what novel, play, picture, phrase, planted one preconception in this mind, another in that mind.
And yet the great tragedy of human society — a tragedy that has played out in devastating ways in the century since Lippmann, from the Holocaust to the twenty-first century’s various corruptions of democracy — is that those in power are reluctant to hold stereotypes lightly and modify them gladly, because stereotypes are how they stake out their place in the world and maintain the world-order that is the source of their power. Lippmann writes:
The systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society.
They are an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted. In that world people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. We fit in. We are members. We know the way around. There we find the charm of the familiar, the normal, the dependable; its grooves and shapes are where we are accustomed to find them. And though we have abandoned much that might have tempted us before we creased ourselves into that mould, once we are firmly in, it fits as snugly as an old shoe.
No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe. It is an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and, where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.
These warped maps of the universe — like all maps — limit the landscape of possibility by substituting a dominant worldview for a representative and equitable depiction of reality. They hold power in place and keep the disenfranchised in their place. Lippmann examines their blinding and fracturing effect:
A pattern of stereotypes is not neutral. It is not merely a way of substituting order for the great blooming, buzzing confusion of reality. It is not merely a short cut. It is all these things and something more. It is the guarantee of our self-respect; it is the projection upon the world of our own sense of our own value, our own position and our own rights. The stereotypes are, therefore, highly charged with the feelings that are attached to them. They are the fortress of our tradition, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy.
The stereotype not only saves time in a busy life and is a defense of our position in society, but tends to preserve us from all the bewildering effect of trying to see the world steadily and see it whole.
Even Aristotle, whose ideas endure as the scaffolding of modern democracy, was afflicted with this gruesome blind spot of social consciousness — he too was unwilling to relinquish his map of the universe, arguing that slaves were enslaved because it was their nature to be slaves and women were subordinate because it was their nature to be subordinated. Lippmann admonishes against this notorious stubbornness of stereotypes:
There is nothing so obdurate to education or to criticism as the stereotype. It stamps itself upon the evidence in the very act of securing the evidence.
This system of preconceptions informs our code of being and our entire interface with the world:
Morality, good taste and good form first standardize and then emphasize certain of these underlying prejudices. As we adjust ourselves to our code, we adjust the facts we see to that code. Rationally, the facts are neutral to all our views of right and wrong. Actually, our canons determine greatly what we shall perceive and how.
At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.
And yet there comes a point when the code and the facts diverge, and the facts cannot be ignored. No manufacturing of “alternative facts” is strong enough to blunt the stereotype-severing edge of reality. Pointing to these moments as the crucible of change, Lippmann writes:
There is always such a point, because our images of how things behave are simpler and more fixed than the ebb and flow of affairs. There comes a time, therefore, when the blind spots come from the edge of vision into the center. Then unless there are critics who have the courage to sound an alarm, and leaders capable of understanding the change, and a people tolerant by habit, the stereotype, instead of economizing effort, and focussing energy… may frustrate effort and waste men’s energy by blinding them.
The pattern of stereotypes at the center of our codes largely determines what group of facts we shall see, and in what light we shall see them.
Lippmann considers our responsibility as citizens and social beings who are prone to and, in some deep sense, dependent on these patterns of stereotypes — how we can hold them in a way that aids us and others without encumbering us with the moral downside of this cognitive technology:
Yet a people without prejudices, a people with altogether neutral vision, is so unthinkable in any civilization of which it is useful to think, that no scheme of education could be based upon that ideal. Prejudice can be detected, discounted, and refined, but so long as finite men must compress into a short schooling preparation for dealing with a vast civilization, they must carry pictures of it around with them, and have prejudices. The quality of their thinking and doing will depend on whether those prejudices are friendly, friendly to other people, to other ideas, whether they evoke love of what is felt to be positively good, rather than hatred of what is not contained in their version of the good.
Because these prejudices are part of our cultural mythology, Lippmann reminds us that we ought to treat them the way we treat all myths:
What a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truths from its errors. For that power comes only by realizing that no human opinion, whatever its supposed origin, is too exalted for the test of evidence, that every opinion is only somebody’s opinion. And if you ask why the test of evidence is preferable to any other, there is no answer unless you are willing to use the test in order to test it.
Complement this particular aspect of Lippmann’s timeless and richly insightful Public Opinion with Galileo on critical thinking and the folly of believing our preconceptions and Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, then savor Lucille Clifton’s lovely short poem about seeing past our patterned perception of other living things.