In the 1925 book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippman raises questions about the “pictures in our heads” created through the interaction of media, in-person communication, and the synapses of the human mind. Lippmann argues that these pictures create “pseudo-environments” in our minds that often differ and vary from reality. This raises the same concerns for democracy as the contemporary echo chambers of social media that shields our view of those most different from us. Rather than engaging in dialogue over a common truth, we double down on our own truth shaping various collective and warped viewpoints.
The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event. (p. 13)
Lippman argued against a notion of shared truth. Rather, he attempted to portray truth as we understand it as a mere dynamic, collection of interpretations and projections. He understands the vast complexity which composes our world, and goes further to describe the limited comprehension which anyone of us can attain at a particular time. As we enter the post-mortem stage of this election cycle (with some of us literally showing signs of mourning a death), I’m coming to terms with how little I understood of how those who voted for Trump reasoned through this choice. The following quote captures the simple manner in which Lippmann acknowledged the embedded biases which limit our understanding of each other’s actions, purposes, and basic human nature.
If his atlas tells him that the world is flat, he will not sail near what he believes to be the edge of our planet for fear of falling off. (p. 25)
To me, this is the most dangerous aspect of this concept and why we must all be heavily concerned with “the pictures in our heads”. They frame our conceptions of the world we operate in and the invisible boundaries which consciously/sub-consciously govern our every move and every thought. The irony is that folks on all sides of the aisle spent the last two years treating this election cycle as the very edge of our democracy, the precipice of fascism in America or the normalization of corruption in another Clinton presidency. Whether it was fear of being called sexist white supremacists or fear of getting beaten and kicked out of a rally, the majority of us could not even dream of sailing to the other side and discussing policies near what we believed to be the edge of our world.
I’m trying to mentally commit myself to sailing what I believe to be the edges of this democratic experiment. For me, I define that as the worst of white folk. Many white people have fought for racial justice. As an educator, I’ve taught alongside a few such examples. But I’ve also taught alongside the worst of white folk. Not the evil ones who are out to downright kill me but the ones who are indifferent to the evils of white supremacy. The worst of white folk are the ones who watch and stand still on Beverly Tatum’s moving sidewalk of racism:
I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.
Likewise, when I picture a moving sidewalk of sexism and male supremacy, I picture what behaviors I must commit to if I want to, one day, actually utter the words, “Madam President.” I picture the weird ‘doll’ I saw last night.
I picture the time in my life when I would have passed this doll and just laughed, unable to picture its dehumanizing effect. Last night, though, it was clear I’ve changed. This time, I felt 10 percent laughter/arousal, 90 percent repulsion/confusion. I think that 10 percent will always be with me. I’ve internalized a lot of images and ideologies about women. I don’t feel guilty about it. I had no say in constructing that system. I’m actually excited to figure out how to walk that anti-sexist path and make a break from the worst of men.
What would it mean for us to constantly identify what we perceive to be the edges of white supremacy and male supremacy? What would it mean to actively restructure the pictures in our heads?
I suppose we’d need to first welcome the danger of potentially ‘falling off the planet’.