- Perception is a largely passive thing in which the observer receives large amounts of raw data into her/his consciousness, and then channels them through various cognitive processes. In this view perception and cognition are distinct processes, where perception is passive and cognition is active.
- Perception is an extremely active process, and not truly separable from cognition. The mind is constantly organizing and filtering the perceptions according to preexisting categories and conceptions in real-time as they are experienced.
As is generally the case, neither of the extreme theories are very plausible, and the truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle. However, I think it's important not to underestimate the role that our understanding and expectations of the world play in the way we perceive things, so I would argue that a moderate version of the second view is the most accurate. In other words, perception is theory-laden.
Any number of studies have been done that demonstrate the somewhat counter-intuitive fact that there are all kinds of things going on around us that we just don't pick up on unless it's relevant to the projects we're engaged in. We really don't want to believe this, but there are whole swaths of things that we completely fail to observe because they either don't fit in with our conception of what's going on, or they would only serve to distract us from what we're doing.
And there's nothing to be upset or defensive about. No doubt this filtering and selective focusing of attention is useful in many many ways. After all, the world would be a terribly overstimulating place if you really took in every little thing in your environment and then had to process it. It's exhausting just to think about it.
But that means that there really is no completely neutral stance from which a human can observe the world. We are always everywhere making value judgments about what's important in our environment, what things mean, how they're relevant, etc. And this process of selective, and even normative, perception is inseparable from our deeper thoughts about what it all means. There's no clear line between perception and cognition.
So what does this mean? Lots of things. But when it comes to social justice and hierarchy and preexisting power structures, it means that the way we perceive the world will be profoundly influenced by our understanding of the world. And that understanding of the world will be profoundly influenced by the hierarchical structures in place.
This explains a lot. For instance, it explains why for so many years, male researchers were seemingly blind to whole swaths of female behavior in primates they were studying. After all, in the patriarchal worldview they had inherited from their culture, females were passive, and not agents in any real way. So when the females mated with males who were not only not the dominant male of the group, but often not even a part of their group, the human male researchers overlooked it altogether, and thus we have the myth of the dominant male primate who has sole access to all the females in "his" group. It also explains how so many notable actions of women and minorities in history simply never made it into the history books. To some extent this could be due to active, intentional censoring. But more likely it's simply due to the fact that we see what we expect to see (white males doing noble things while everyone else either sits around like a lump or engages in malevolent behavior, I guess), and so other really important and notable things escape us altogether. As my dad used to say, "I'll see it when I believe it."
So this makes me think sometimes that there's often less intentional hostility or callousness in the tendency for privileged people to be blind to the workings of privilege than we think. Sometimes when they say "I don't see it" it's really honestly because they don't see it. Perception is theory-laden, and in their view of the world everything's all sunshine and rainbows. This doesn't get them off the hook, of course. But it suggests that the way to deal with privilege-blindness is not to dismiss the person as hateful and willfully ignorant (not yet, anyway), but to point out the gorilla in the room. Gently point them in the right direction and alert them to the possibilities. Because once you see the gorilla in the room, you can't not see it anymore. Your worldview has changed, for better or for worse, and your perception of things will reflect this change.