We have been discussing, writing and rewriting our thoughts on the coming election and read with interest the article by Bill and Jan Clark that appeared in The Journal Gazette on Sept. 23. They wrote: “It is through an informed electorate that reason and mutual respect can triumph over passion and blind partisanship.” We agree!
However, in our view, one of the many inherent weaknesses in the human race (including the American electorate) is its unlimited capacity to deny reality and live life through superficial perceptions of reality.
That weakness comes naturally as we are heavily influenced by the worldview of the family, neighborhood and peer group to which we are born. Then we spend much of our lives looking for those “realities” that match our perceptions. With the advent of social media and so many for-profit news channels, it makes a search easy.
Researchers call it “confirmation bias.”
Throughout our lives, we three have constantly heard the mantra: “Perception is reality.” The “is” unequivocally makes perception and reality equal. But, according to Dr. Jim Taylor in Psychology Today, that is absolutely not true. Perception and reality have very different meanings.
Perception occurs entirely inside the mind and can turn any belief into reality, whereas true reality exists outside the mind and can't be manipulated. Taylor says if we equate perception with reality, we reject the Enlightenment (the search for absolute truth) and embrace the Middle Ages (the acceptance of blind ignorance). The question is: Are we willing to challenge our perceptions and look at current political issues from all sides?
If no, we suggest the current American climate will not change, and most likely will move toward elevated levels of conflict. If yes, we would like to share two things helpful to us in our quest for truth and in our evaluation of our perceptions.
We believe truth is absolute, and in our complex world truth is hard to find; therefore, it is much easier to accept perceptions than do the hard work necessary. But in that work the following has been helpful.
First, we trust the experts.
We keep hearing that school and learning are important to maintain the health of the democracy, yet we see daily attacks from our political leaders, particularly during this pandemic, directed at the most educated among us.
We suggest that political leaders reflect the beliefs of the populace, and if they are not reading and depending upon scholarly research to make policy decisions, it's because we don't. So part of being a responsible citizen is to become a reader and a researcher, rather than merely a consumer of material goods and services.
Most of us attended school. The goals of American education are designed to give us both a set of academic skills and an overview of a wide range of subject matter. It is our responsibility to take those skills and explore the world in depth.
Anyone leaving school who believes they are “educated” has missed the point of school; school educates, but more importantly, gives us the tools to self-educate. The primary way to do that is by spending a lot of time in the printed word.
For example, it has been our collective in-depth reading of American history that has opened our eyes to the institutional racism that has surrounded us all of our lives, but to which we have been blinded. A “real” reading of American history is a sobering experience for white people and one that, if done universally, would promote national healing.
Historian/professor Tyree Boyd-Pates said in Time magazine (Sept. 7): “If we want America to fully live up to its ideas, we have to tell an unapologetic interpretation of American history, told from those who were on the ground to experience it. We shouldn't run away and hide from the darker parts of it.”
We are convinced, from our readings, that America's future is dependent upon knowing its full history. Future success will happen only if we meet that future with knowledge of the reality of our past, not with our comfortable perceptions.
Second, we challenge our historically proven institutions. Currently, people tend to generalize about our major institutions in two diametrically opposed ways: One either demonizes the institution or blindly supports it. We suggest both are not only wrong but come close to being just plain evil.
Institutions such as education, the military, public safety and the media, as well as our political parties, are made up of people who provide socially needed functions of a successful culture.
We three have worked in, and with, a variety of institutions that have included all of the above. We have found a wide variety of motivations and skill sets – yet in all our combined years have never found anyone who participated in an institution for the sole purpose of evil.
The core intent of all these institutions is positive, and we found most people doing their best to accomplish the stated mission of the institution. To demonize and call for the destruction of any of these necessary social institutions is like shooting ourselves in the foot. It is counterproductive at best and evil at worst.
However, institutions have a history and were developed by people in that history – some of whom were in a racist, sexist or even fascist state of mind because of the prevailing social climate. It is obvious to us that many of those anti-Americansentiments have become embedded in most of our institutions and need to be confronted.
Blindly supporting these necessary, but damaged, institutions also shoots us in the foot and is as evil as demonizing them.
Both groups, through their misperceptions of the history of our institutions, cause the divisions in our society to deepen. Rational people, though, will not throw out the baby with the bathwater but will hold individuals responsible for their unlawful actions and seek policy initiatives to strengthen those institutions that serve all of our interests.
We all need education, public safety, the military, the media and even political parties to keep American democracy functioning.
Here is one specific example of a perception being reality. In the 2020 presidential election, the Republican candidate contends we face impending economic doom if a Democrat is in the White House. We asked ourselves whether this has any historical validity, so we did a simple search.
Google provided a paper entitled “Presidents and the US Economy: An Econometric Exploration” by Alan S. Blinder and Mark W. Watson in the American Economic Review (April 2016). This study looked closely at gross domestic product from 1945 through 2016. With 48 sources and having been cited in 36 articles/journals, it would seem to be authoritative.
Their conclusion (emphasis ours): “The US economy has performed better when the president of the United States is a Democrat rather than a Republican, almost regardless of how one measures performance. For many measures, including real GDP growth (our focus), the performance gap is large and significant.”
Perception is not reality, no matter how many times it comes at us from our political candidates. If our democracy, as the Clarks stated, is dependent upon an “informed” electorate, on important issues and decisions, such as the coming election, we all must seek out truth if we expect American exceptionalism to even continue, let alone flourish.
Mary Larsen, Larry Gerardot and Ron Flickinger each retired from Fort Wayne Community Schools' Career Academy at Anthis in 2018. They meet regularly to discuss current issues and as part of a book club.