Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Privileged perspectives and the gorilla in the room

Here's something I've been workin on in the back of my head for some time. In philosophy there's a lot of talk about perception, and how it's theory-laden. What does that mean, exactly? Well... to simplify it almost too much, there are these competing views of perception that look like this.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
An extreme version of #2 claims that you cannot even observe something that your mind has no means of processing. If you don't already have some kind of basis by which to conceptualize a thing, you'll simply be incapable of perceiving it. For instance, there are a number of (seemingly unfounded) stories of natives being incapable of perceiving the large ships of European explorers in their first encounters with them, because they had never had any experience with such a large and complex object like the ships.

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.


  1. Along these might also be interested in reading Bill Bishop's book "The Big Sort". It's an absolutely fascinating premise and worth a read.

    There's actually a section where he references a study in there where they hooked people up to MRI machines while watching presidential debates. When it came to segments where inaccuracies or incongruent things were said by the candidate the person most agreed with were viewed, the MRI literally showed where the reason were shut down and those associated with emotion, etc were activated. I'm sure I'm missing something in my retelling given that I'm doing so from memory, but certainly similar to the "we see what we want to see" idea.

  2. Lizzay7/15/2010

    This is really interesting. I think we all want to think that we're the exception to the rule, and that we're just super perceptive. But it's important to stay humble and realize that everyone's blind to something.

  3. Anonymous7/15/2010

    I think you're being overly optimistic about a lot of peoples intentions. In some cases it really is an inability to see, but in most cases its an atempt to preserve their power.

  4. I think this is a great analogy, and explains some of the communication problems that ocur. Once you become sensitive to the workings of patriarchy and privilege you see it everywhere and it's so obvious to you that it seems like the gorilla in the room. How could anyone not see it? And yet you didn't see it either until someone clued you in to it. And that's exactly the way it is with privilege and sociakl injustices.

  5. Anonymous7/15/2010

    Ms t: unless you're the one getting beat over the head by the gorilla. THen you see it!

  6. Shanigan7/15/2010

    There's clearly an incentive to not see the gorilla if you benefit from the presence of the gorilla. I don't think that can be separated out from the process of perceiving either. I think I'm trying to say that we not only see what's relevant to our current project, but we see what benefits us.

  7. I wish I had something more constructive to say than "THIS IS GREAT ZOMGZ"

    Although I definitely agree with Shanigan about incentives not to see gorillas, as it were. The problem with power structures is that the people benefiting from them, well, benefit from them... and then get pissy when you point out how they're benefiting.

    I almost punched my computer once when someone told me that "race has nothing to do with [xyz]," which I'm preeeeety sure is something only white people can say.

  8. Anonymous7/16/2010

    I'm afraid that I don't have the ability to NOT see the gorilla.

  9. Shanigan7/16/2010

    But I think the point is there's lots of gorillas, and it's possible to see the ones that relate to you while missing the ones that don't affect you. This is why constant vigilance and being a good listener are so important.

  10. I think it's fascinating how many of the replies to this post, and even small parts of the post itself, are strongly focused on how it's white males that are making this mistake.

    This area is a horrible minefield for everyone, but claiming that it's someone else's minefield just guarantees that you'll stroll into an explosive and never realize it.

  11. Zorba,

    I think that's what previous commenters mean when they talk about the multiple gorillas in the room. The point is, we're all blind to some injustices that don't effect us or our loved ones, so being open-minded and willing to listen is absolutely essential. But it's still the case that groups that are historically dominant tend to be more oblivious to the obstacles faced by historically oppressed groups.