I absolutely reject the phrase, “perception is reality”. I hear it so often and it evokes such strong emotion in me that I will invariably push back by stating, “No. Reality is reality. Perception is simply the way someone sees the world through their own lens. Your perception is your reality.
I understand why the phrase is used so frequently but I think it is a weak way of allowing first impressions or non-truths to be accepted. By arguing that perception is reality, we excuse the fact that we can sometimes become clouded by our own biases and beliefs; that the truth lies only in our frame of reference. This is simply not true.
I have learned many lessons over my lifetime where my perception about something or someone has been completely incorrect. I often find myself falling into the belief that first impressions are an accurate portrayal of another person.
Our first impression of someone is generally based upon their appearance. Some people have immediate biases or bigoted beliefs that reject someone based on their skin color while others might judge the style of dress before imposing an impression. Some of us go further and discard people based solely on religion or orientation. We size people up quickly based on our own values and we are quick to accept or reject people as a result.
Police officers are trained to quickly assess people and look for suspicious movements or behaviors that would indicate they are involved in criminal activity. It’s called criminal profiling and I can assure you that people act a certain way when they are up to no good and we are trained to pick on non-verbal actions that raise suspicion. However, it is not a foolproof method and police officers are expected to investigate an incident so that it reaches the level of probable cause even if it began on reasonable suspicion. It is not an absolute science because of the human factor of error involved so our criminal justice system rightly requires that solid evidence be built upon reasonable suspicion.
It is easy to explain how perceptions are built into police work because keeping the community free from harm depends largely on preventing a crime before it’s committed. If I believe a robbery is about to occur, I want to be in a position to stop the offender before he or she commits the act – namely if it saves someone from injury. So there is a place in life for first impressions.
The Trayvon Martin killing by George Zimmerman might be another illustration of biases and unfair perceptions. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, noticed Martin, a black teenager, walking around the neighborhood in a way Zimmerman thought was suspicious. Martin was wearing a “hoodie” which has been a trademark symbol of gang members because of its ability to conceal identity. Zimmerman, a Hispanic, called 9-1-1 and began following Martin even after police dispatch advised him not to do so.
What then transpired can only be explained by Zimmerman because he shot and killed the unarmed teen, claiming self-defense. Did young Trayvon physically lash out at Zimmerman because he was scared after realizing he was being followed? Did Zimmerman shoot him as a result of a physical altercation?
The trial has yet to occur but the court of public opinion has raised some interesting questions about perceptions. I’m confident the questions will be answered in a court of law.
Perhaps we size people up so quickly as a method of protecting ourselves from harm. But more often than not, it is just our biases at work that prevent us from looking past the first impressions to see the real person. Sometimes perceptions are correct and sometimes they are not.
Maybe all people should do what the police are expected to do: investigate further and base your judgments on things that are substantive rather than perceptions. You might find a new reality.
*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on July 15, 2012