Tuesday, June 16, 2015

We live partly in a real world and partly in a fabricated one that we construct from what others tell us.

From The Forward by Ronald Steel to Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion. Published in 1922, I had never heard of this book before I came across it in a used bookstore. It touches on some critical issues I have been wrestling with regarding the productive and rational role that prejudice and stereotype can play under conditions of high risk and low knowledge. Steel indicates:
We define, Lippmann, explained, according to 'stereotypes' imposed by our culture. Because we have successfully internalized them, we take them for granted. Although they may impose limitations, they are useful tools we cannot live without. They provide us with security in an unfamiliar world. They are, he wrote, the "guarantee of our self-respect . . . the projection upon the world of our own value." But of greater significance to decision-making is that if stereotypes determine what we see, our perceptions may be no more than partial truths. What we assume to be 'facts' may be only judgments. Facts, in other words, are subject to interpretation. 'But while men are willing to admit that there are two sides to a 'question,'' Lippmann wrote disturbingly, 'that do not believe that there are two sides to what they regard as 'fact.'' Part of the reason, he explained, is that we cannot experience most aspects or reality directly. We live partly in a real world and partly in a fabricated one that we construct from what others tell us: from stories, pictures, newspaper accounts, and the like. This constitutes not a real environment but, in his vivid term, a 'pseudo-environment.' To convey the idea of such a pseudo-environment, he evoked the analogy of Plato's cave, where people are chained with their backs to the light and come to believe that the shadows they see projected on the wall before them are real figures. They see the world as a shadow or reflection. This is true of average citizens as well. With no direct knowledge of the dramatic national and world events they read about, they experience them second-hand, through the prism of others' interpretations.

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