Competing realities and divergent uptakes

If you need any more proof that human perception of reality is partial, in both senses of the word, look at the varying ways people of differing political and ideological inclinations subjectively perceive events.

People with different, especially opposing, points of view can look at the same event and come away with diametrically opposed opinions of what took place. And if the event is a disputatious interaction involving one actor they identify with and another actor they most assuredly do not identify with, then their — our — perceptions of what happened and who ‘won’ can be particularly divergent.

Take for instance two recent interactions getting attention in both left and right online communities: an exchange between Al Gore and Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and an exchange between Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz and MSNBC host Nora O’Donnell.

Posters and commenters on the right think Cheney and Blackburn were without doubt the clear victors while their counterparts on the left are equally certain that the exact opposite is true. I, not surprisingly, am in the latter camp but a Google search shows how contested the perceptions are.

Do I think people on the right are lying or somehow disingenuously spinning just to put a happy face on what they in fact know are defeats for their champions?

No, I do not. I think they are just as sure that the people advocating their worldview ‘won’ as I am that they were smacked down. Why is this?

It’s probably because, while we see the same interactions, we see them very, very differently. One commenter at NationalJournal.com was so angry, he wrote the following:

Listen to youself Nora, you should lined up against a wall and shot.
Thomas J Smith | April 24, 2009 8:45 PM

It seems clear to me that Blackburn and Cheney received smack downs and did not make their points. But someone on the right would almost certainly think the opposite. We watch and interpret the interactions with different sets of filters, already held beliefs, biases and presuppositions that affect the way we take up the exchanges.

A couple of questions emerge:

  • how do people on with different worldviews even talk to each other rationally, let alone engage in civic and civil debate, when such broad gulfs separate our perceptions?
  • how does each side best convince moderates that their interpretation of events is accurate and the alternative interpretation is flawed?

Regarding the second question, it seems clear that we on the left are winning over enough moderates that our interpretations prevail, just as the opposite had been the case in previous times. But, as that history of varying fortunes for both those on the left and the right indicates, we cannot presume that the current ascendancy of the left will morph into a permanent state of affairs.

That means that the first question is, ultimately, the most relevant. There will always be those, like the 20-30% who still believe dubya was the best president ever, who will never be open to persuasion from the left. But there are right leaning moderates who can be reached. Not catered to, but convinced.

It should be a long term project for us on the left to persuade people in this group that they should cleave themselves from the dead enders on the extreme right and come back to the idea that compromise is not capitulation.

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