Perception in the Age of Truth-iness

Truthiness [trooth-ee-ness] – believing something that feels true, even if it isn’t supported by fact [from the truth-hole of Stephen Colbert]

PART 1 –  THE SCREEN

I am going to start off by stating the obvious – surrender to technology is inevitable. For most of us, submission is already complete. At this very moment, I am sitting in front of a screen, moving words around as if they were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. If I had to start over every time I wanted to alter a sentence, I would have probably given up on the idea of writing altogether. The computer makes it easier to adjust the narrative each time a new epiphany is revealed. My 2nd generation Microsoft Surface may not possess feelings, but I feel a strange kinship with it. I have grown up alongside machines, reliable servants that perform their duties without judgment, and so they have earned my trust.  We enjoy the type of intimacy that typically exists between old friends, as my own coming of age story is intertwined with the rise of the Digital Age.

There have been many watershed moments in the last thirty years that have led to this new reality. I was a child of the eighties, when the personal computer was a fresh novelty and I remember weighing the benefits of my dad’s PC against my mom’s noisy red typewriter. The PC won, as it enabled me to edit the printed page.

A Very Bad Day and Night B

When I started prep school in 1995, I discovered the brave new world of e-mail and browsing the world-wide-web. Cell phones were still considered a luxury, but when I was away at college at the turn of the millennium, they became the affordable necessity we now take for granted. A few years later, when I had gone back to school to study fashion design, Facebook emerged as the premiere social network, surpassing Friendster and MySpace. And now, in my current incarnation as a creative professional, my iPhone anticipates my needs before I even know what they are. To summarize, technology is an incredible tool that has defied and then reimagined the limits of time and space.

While this rapid evolution has liberated us from a certain kind of busy work, it is how we are using our so-called “free time” that is one of the stealthier problems that no one is talking about. Most millennials get their news from social media, which can reduce even the most seasoned politicians to mere caricatures. The shareable soundbites are plentiful, fast acting and easy-to-digest. You can see what your high school frenemy ate for lunch, stalk an old boyfriend or vet a potential date, shop the Zara sale, or watch videos of adoptable puppies playfully nibbling each other. Descending into the rabbit hole, I once lost an entire evening to exploring the various fan theories as to how “Game of Thrones” might end. When a person of influence passes away, such as Prince, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, or Bill Cunningham, I find out via Instagram because their faces dominate my feed. And in addition to the sharing of actual news, the intimate details of celebrity relationships are put up for public display. Even some of our reputable news men and women have turned into drama chasers, leaving fresh blood and bruised egos in their wake. But the irony is that for all of the information that exists out there, self-reflection is scarce. There is a shortage of meaningful dialogue, like “how is all this scrutiny actually affecting those of us who are more sentient beings?”

Despite our constant participation, the digital data stream is often a one-way mirror. One could argue that the medium is democratic, that it gives everyone a chance to use their voices and that is true, but the format seems to foster snap judgments and twitter feuds, the digital equivalent of school yard brawls. So let me ask you this – have you ever changed your position on a contentious issue as the result of a verbal tussle with someone you wouldn’t even recognize IRL [in real life]? With technology acting as both the bridge and buffer, cyber bullies are only a click away. Words like #trending and #viral have usurped any previous notion we might have had regarding Influence. To be relevant now, one must have a stable of followers. You’ve probably heard this question before – “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well in today’s world, “If you post a photo to Instagram and no one sees it, do you even matter?” I can’t even imagine being a teenager today. Growing up is hard enough without being bombarded by images that have been curated and filtered to show your every acquaintance enjoying moments of contrived bliss. It used to be that you could only compare yourself to the people in your school, job, or local community, but social media provides us with endless opportunities to constantly re-evaluate our own worth. And most of the time, the basis we use for those comparisons is artificial.

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“The things you own, end up owning you.”

– Tyler Durden in “Fight Club,” novel by Chuck Palahniuk

While I never imagined that I would own a device that acts as a phone, ipod, camera, gps navigator, and pocket computer, the writer Ray Bradbury envisioned the consequences of our techno centricity back in the nineteen fifties. “Fahrenheit 451” is one of the original futuristic dystopias, where books have been outlawed. But free-thinking wasn’t the only casualty of an omniscient police state, as relationships also devolved into a facsimile of genuine emotional bonds. Living rooms were transformed into home theatres, closed boxes with flat screen tv’s for walls.

“I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month; it’s not bad at all. You heave them into the ‘parlor’ and turn the switch. It’s like washing clothes: stuff laundry in and slam the lid…”

It reminds me of “The Allegory of the Cave” by Plato, where prisoners spend their entire existence staring at shadows, except in Bradbury’s vision, those shared delusions are illuminated by artificial light. Now that it is 2016, the publishing industry has been forced to adapt to the ever-shrinking attention span. While we still have books, one could argue that our reality is actually worse than fiction, as we are actively choosing the abbreviated content.  And our screens are portable so that we are always connected to the deluge of imagery.

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” 

― Ray Bradbury

We have such a warped sense of reality, even the word itself is no longer absolute. Within the world of traditional publishing, there is a system of checks and balances, but on the internet, truth is often treated as malleable. Facts can even be a liability when it comes to evoking a desired response. When we go online, we are just like the cave-dwelling prisoners, trading symbols and money as if they were gold.

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Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” original drawing by Markus Maure

Even in the best case scenario, when there is no propaganda, sensationalism, or blind ego involved, the internet is still a man-made substitute and prone to distortion. Given how much of modern life is influenced by the internet, it is easy to forget that in the span of a life, it would be like a toddler at best. Like a child who is first learning how to walk, most of us are still in awe of the possibilities, of instant communication worldwide. But the downside is that we stumble frequently and are easily distracted by bright colors, shiny objects, or Pokemon. Yet there is the rare occasion when instant connection has a profound impact on the world at large. On July 6th, in the midst of vacation selfies, and 4th of July photos, Diamond Reynolds livestreamed such a video.

PART 2 – THE REFLECTION

The smartphone camera, which was probably intended to capture us in our best moments, also showed us images of a tragedy unfolding in real time, that reflect who we really are as a country. In the video, Reynolds’ presence of mind and calm demeanor were both impressive and heartbreaking, and for a few brief moments, completely shattered the walls of our digital cave. She was holding a cell phone while the officer pointed his gun at her, completely disregarding the fact that there was a small child in the back. While this was not the first time that we’ve seen videos of police using excessive force, the fact that it was live-streamed from the inside of the car makes it unique. Had she simply recorded the incident instead of streaming it to Facebook, then it probably would have been confiscated, like the surveillance video that captured the police shooting of Alton Sterling the day before. All of a sudden, racial profiling could no longer be dismissed as abstract or distant or exaggerated, but for a moment, you felt as though this could happen to a friend, relative, coworker, or maybe even to you. With a single video, anyone could experience firsthand the unprovoked terror that many people of color feel when they are stopped by the police. What might have been private tragedies for the family and friends of Philando Castile was felt in the hearts of Americans of all races. So as much as I feel that technology has turned many of us into passive observers, I also believe that recent events have also shown us how this technology can be used to manifest social change.

As one would expect, the response of the entire internet was swift and the process of dealing with our collective grief has exposed a deep schism and a wealth of mistrust on both sides of the yellow tape. As tensions continue to boil over, we have the potential to emerge as more unified and self-aware, or to completely descend into chaos and violence. At the center of the current social media storm is #BlackLivesMatter, an organization that has organized peaceful protests in honor of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. But on the same day that Castile died, a petition was created to have #BlackLivesMatter labeled as a terror group. The White House has since dismissed the claim, but because the online petition had collected 141,000 signatures, the president was obligated to respond. On July 9th, a video was uploaded to YouTube by Anonymous, calling for a “collective day of rage” and implying a partnership with the civil rights organization, to which BLM offered the following response.

BLM response to Day of Rage

These developments demonstrate how easy it can be to manipulate mass sentiment. Whether the video was actually shared by Anonymous, or someone else as a diversionary tactic, it shows how an individual has the potential to discredit an entire movement. On social media, people responded negatively to the slogan #DayOfRage without following up to see if BLM was involved, which it was not. Christiane Amanpour, the highly respected journalist, has a new mantra, and it is relevant in this confusing time, “Truthful, Not Neutral.” She is referring to the fact that as a journalist, when you’re committed to following the truth, you may appear biased when there is an abundance of misinformation.

“It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It is certainty.”

Stephen Colbert

A false narrative continues to plague the BLM movement, but as far as I can tell, they have never suggested that black lives should be prioritized above other lives. Their goal instead, is to refocus our attention on the inequality that continues to exist in this country. They also denounced the tragic deaths of Dallas police officers by calling for “an end to violence.”

BLM response to Dallas Shooting

The fact that the movement is under heavy scrutiny is just one more example of the difficult truth they are trying to reveal, that when you’re identified as “black” in America, you have to work harder to overcome the perception of being an “other.” The guiding principles of the movement even go one step further and acknowledge that there are minority groups within the African American community who often face additional discrimination as a result of their sexual orientation and gender identity. While the mainstream narrative would have us believe that we’ve evolved past racism, it is unacceptable when law abiding and tax paying citizens are judged as more and less valuable on the sheer accident of our skin. Minorities with darker skin have to be more articulate, more intelligent, and display more patience and respect for authority than their white and white-seeming counterparts. And so #BlackLivesMatter is a response to this injustice, and strives to close the gap that racial bias creates. Their ultimate goal, as I understand it, is simply to reclaim the narrative of what it means to be “black” in America, as the past has already been written by an external and openly hostile force. We accept that the actions of one white person are not indicative of the entire race, and yet minority groups are often treated as if they possess one mind.

And while we may have come a long way since the days of slavery and segregation, hierarchy and class structure are as old as civilization itself, and those divisions still exist.

“As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs. We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.”

– President Barack Obama

I also suggest reading an article from last year on the website “Mother Jones” discusses the “dangers of turning police officers into revenue generators.” In our Capitalist society, a person’s value is relative to how useful they are to the system, but race, wealth, and beauty can unfairly tip the scale in either direction. When we pretend that discrimination does not exist, then denial becomes part of the very cement that keeps our institutionalized flaws in place, and can have life threatening consequences. The women of #WhiteNonsenseRoundup recognize this, and are committed to bringing truth and positivity into a difficult dialogue.

“We believe it is our responsibility to call out white friends, relatives, contacts, speakers, and authors who are contributing to structural racism and harming our friends of color. We are a resource for anti-racist images, links, videos, artwork, essays, and voices.”

The entertainment industry and mainstream media may not explicitly promote racist rhetoric, outside of a leading presidential candidate’s campaign that is, but they perpetuate bias through the stories they tell and the images they omit. This fact was brought to the forefront of the national consciousness earlier this year by the #oscarssowhite controversy. In “Concussion,” one of the films overlooked by the Academy, Will Smith portrays a Nigerian doctor named Bennet Omalu who must reconcile the myth of America, with sobering reality.

“When I was a boy, growing up in Nigeria, Heaven was [up] here and America was [a close second]. To me it was the place where God sent all of his favorite people. You could be anything, you could do anything. Americans were the manifestation of what God wanted us all to be… But [pro football player] Mike Webster goes mad and nobody asks ‘why?’ They make fun of him, they insult him on tv, and now they want to pretend that his disease does not exist. And they want to bury me.”

In the last two weeks, we’ve all had to reconcile that same gap between who we think we are, and frightening truth. And since the film industry is responsible for one of our chief exports, our distorted perceptions and cultural biases are being projected all over the world. The fashion industry has also had a long history of maintaining a narrow standard of beauty that favors slender women with light skin and “good hair.” And the final ingredient in this molotov cocktail is the easy access to guns. Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings challenged the whole “good guy with a gun” rhetoric in the wake of the recent shooting that claimed the lives of five police officers.

“We don’t know who the good guy is versus the bad guy when everyone starts shooting.”

We usually consider these various elements in isolation, but we must begin connecting the dots and realize that they’ve all contributed to our current reality.

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Ieshia Evans was unarmed when she was confronted by police officers in riot gear during a protest in Baton Rouge, LA – photo by Jonathan Bachman (Reuters)

In the days since Philando Castile’s tragic death, there have been attempts to find unity amidst very tragic circumstances. The whole ceremony of grief, as well as the fact that we just celebrated our nation’s independence, reminds me of elementary school, when we had to recite the pledge of allegiance.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Flag.jpg

I knew the words by heart, and yet I never once considered their meaning. While it is a beautiful idea, it white washes all the different colors that make our culture unique. We are not, nor have we ever been “one,” but many. One promotes exclusivity, with one faith and one set of beliefs, and we watch as Democrats and Republicans fight it out every four years to determine which set of ideals will prevail. What we need now is a bi-partisan commitment to the preservation of human rights, but we also need a tectonic shift in how we think about ourselves, to see beyond the Instagram filters and selfie sticks and own up to that frightening #NoFilter image. We’re all susceptible to believing propaganda and stereotypes, whether they’re in reference to police officers, minority groups, or Millenials running through the street searching for Pokeman, we recall images and experiences and then unfairly project them onto unsuspecting passers-by. I’ve already learned my lesson about deriding pop culture phenomenons. When I was in my mid-twenties, I thought I was too good for “Twilight,” when my roommate dared me to read ten pages and put it down. I ended up reading all four books, and so I would like to suggest a new pledge…

“I will lead with compassion instead of judgment, I will honor and respect the individuality of others, and I will leave the world better than I found it.”

These next moments will provide the foundation for the society we leave to the next generation. Will it be a legacy of fear, division and bigotry, or unity, love, and acceptance?

Love Saves the Day B

#IChooseLove

One thought on “Perception in the Age of Truth-iness

  1. Well, what a wonderful and thoughtful e-mail—thank you—–and Dear Ashley—-I am proud to have known you when you were younger—and now even more proud—Please give my regards to your parents—–I have not heard from them in such a long time—-I hope they are well……..and best regards to your brothers as well…..sincerely, Joe Bousard…

    Like

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