2007-11-01

Perception vs. Reality

Sneakers is probably my favorite movie. It's been 15 years since it came out, but the questions it asks are still relevant, and the characters are still funny. I mean, how can you go wrong with Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, and these lines of dialogue?

"I could have been in the NSA, but they found out my parents were married."

"You should have that guy checked for rabies."
"Rabies occurs only in warm blooded animals."

"Cattle mutilations are up..."

"I want peace of earth and goodwill toward men."
"We're the United States government, we don't do that sort of thing!"

"The girl with the, uh, Uzi... Is she, uh, single?"
"...Wait a minute... you can have anything you want, and you're asking for my phone number?"

And, of course:

"I learned that the world is not based on reality..."
"... but on the perception of reality."

This is a true and powerful principle. Everything we do and think is clouded by our perception of the world around us and the people in it. Too often, I think we become complacent in our perceptions. We forget to challenge what we think and to remember that our understanding is certainly incomplete. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone is so firmly convinced of their world view that they won't even consider that there are alternate and equally valid realities.

A case in point: earlier this week I was hanging out with some people that were discussing the upcoming election and a proposed law that would provide vouchers for students attending private schools. One guy presented a very well reasoned argument in support of vouchers. Despite his compelling argument, I couldn't find myself agreeing with him at all. The reason? His whole argument was based on the idea that the educational system is dominated by "liberals." My question to him, which he dismissed out of hand, was, "Are you sure the educational system is liberal or is our view conservative relative to the educational system?" As I see it, perspective is just as important as the argument itself. Unwillingness to even consider an alternate reality immediately makes me wary.

The problem is that eventually our perceptions serve only to support the realities we chose to embrace. Everything becomes evidence of what we "know" to be true. It's not that I blame us for being this way; sticking to a reality is comfortable. It fits just like our favorite pair of jeans. The challenge, as I see it, is to be brave enough to constantly question perception. I'm not advocating moral relativism; I do believe that there is a right and a wrong answer to many questions. In the end, the right answers are the ones that are reinforced regardless of the reality from which they are viewed.