"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Perception Trumps Reality, Just About Every Time

I always began the first meeting of one of my history classes with an explanation of how I approach the subject of history itself.  My goal was to make clear how little attention I was going to pay to the so-called “facts” of history, the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN.  I was going to emphasize HOW and WHY.  You can always look up the facts, but understanding what they mean is an entirely different thing.

I would always, at the right moment, tell my students that “The facts of history really aren’t all that important anyway,” and then observe the looks on their faces.  My point was that, throughout history, people who didn’t know the facts made decisions and acted regardless, thus creating history.  My point about then and my point about today are pretty much the same, unfortunately.  Facts are all well and good, but PERCEPTION is much more important.  For those who doubt this, I offer the current so-called “debate” over the Affordable Care Act as proof.  The decisions about the ACA to come are not going to be based on the facts if organized factions of our populace have anything to say about it (Please do not take the foregoing statement as evidence that I know the facts; I’m just as confused as everyone).

Recent evidence that perception trumps reality pretty much all the time was offered on Wednesday, April 30, at Norristown Municipal Hall.  Amid that imposing backdrop several Norristown municipal officials were joined by an impressive array of County Officials—among them all three Commissioners—for a press conference.  The presence of District Attorney Risa Ferman and high-ranking law enforcement personnel seemed to telegraph a theme of public safety in Norristown.  And it did, sort of.

They were all gathered to announce the activation of  “The Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force.”  Such a title is intriguing enough, but I found its stated goals to be downright fascinating: “to decrease fear of crime, increase the visibility of multifaceted community policing and establish a more effective collaboration around policing priorities in the municipality.” 

Notice the rhetorical sleight of hand here.  They were not announcing the formation of a top-level group that will be working together to improve the quality of life in Norristown, but a top-level group working together to convince the public that the quality of life in Norristown is already good.  The problem is not the reality, it’s the perception of that reality.  Council President Bill Caldwell’s opening statement revealed the underlying assumption about the real problem with which Norristown must contend: “Urban communities often get a bum rap for being places where random crime happens and we’re here to tell you today that that is not what happens in Norristown.”

Their answer to this problem (the problem of PERCEPTION, not reality, remember) continued in the same vein:  “The Chiefs will present a new approach that we’re going to take to make people feel comfortable…to live, work and play in Norristown.”  New Police Chief Mark Talbott followed with his own valiant effort to bridge the reality/perception gap, proclaiming “a public commitment to do more,” then staunchly defending the “reality" that “crime is down significantly…the objective data supports this."  In other words, they were proudly announcing an unprecedented joint effort to pool the resources of many agencies to get people to realize that what everybody thinks is a problem not only isn’t as much of a problem as everybody thinks but has already become a lot better recently.  We should all accept the data, not the perception, but they are all going to do a lot more anyway.  Got that?

The message may have been muddy, but the basic issue is not just fundamental but widespread: there exists, it is claimed, a gap between the public’s perception and the “objective data” about a situation.  But why is this a problem at all?  Shouldn’t we all just accept the “objective data” and change our perception if required?  Back in the good old days, getting any information at all about a situation before you had to make a decision was often chancy, let alone you seeing any “objective data.”  But please tell me how, in this information age, when we are past mere data into something called “big data,” when we have access to multiple 24-hour streams of information and even more relational databases, can there exist such a gap between perception and reality?

Okay, that’s a rhetorical question.  We all know of this “reality gap,” because it is all around us.  Doonesbury’s “My Facts” parody is entirely too close to the truth.  In one of the great contradictions of our time, the more information we have available to draw upon in reaching a balanced, rational conclusion, the more insistent we seem to become on believing only those “facts” that support our pre-conceived viewpoint on the subject.  Objective, critical thinking has an annoying tendency to upset those cherished viewpoints, and is thus to be avoided at all costs.  Why concern yourself that what the other side is saying might be true when you can instead just return serve with some truth of your own?  Somewhere during this serve-and-volley, the net truth disappears.  It’s always “net,” by the way, because no person, no idea, no cause, no law, no ideology, no nothing is either all right or all wrong, all good or all bad.  There will be both winners and losers, regardless.  On the ground (or in Congress) the fight isn’t about ideals (let alone truth), but about who emerges financially better off when the deal is done.

I digress, but not much.  I’m focusing on a quite specific perception vs. reality situation, but one that is, I would argue, not only consistent with, but also deeply rooted in, several national issues bedeviling us today.  Some people are going to continue to believe the bad perception of Norristown’s situation because it fits so neatly into their closely-arranged universe of race, ethnicity and welfare; others will have more legitimate reasons, as I’ll bet there exists a spectrum of motives for holding tightly to one’s perception, even to the point of consciously excluding any intruding reality.

But in this specific case, how much difference is there, really, between perception and reality?  That’s an unpleasant thought to air, but I know several quite rational, informed people who have judged Norristown to be a less safe place to live than they wish on the basis of their experience with that very reality.  This rather complicates the issue, even in the presence of “objective data.”  Changing these more informed perceptions is going to take a lot more than just making law enforcement more visible on the streets.

There was a noticeable lack of specifics to back up the claims that, in the words of County Commissioners Chairman Josh Shapiro, “Great days lie ahead for Norristown.”  This was pointed out in the reports of the press to whom this little event was delivered.  Margaret Gibbons, who must have long ago lost track of how many similar performances she has witnessed, termed it “grandstanding.”  As a critique of the first episode of this little show, she was correct.

It also took no time at all for the congenitally so disposed to decry the press conference and its message as a “scam,” and dismiss it.  I’m not going to join them, despite having had my admittedly low tolerance for grandstanding exceeded in this case.  Such a judgment may be correct in the long run, but not immediately.  I’ve made this point before, and I do not hesitate to make it again: to simply ASSUME that something is hype, disinformation or even mendacity not only does not help, it is counterproductive, and that makes it STUPID.

The joint press conference was totally a media event (scheduled as it was for 1 PM on a workday), and that provides a clue as to how we should receive it.  As with the pilot episode of any show that we find promising, we should exercise “temporary suspension of disbelief.”  The first-rate cast stuck tightly to the script and delivered their lines with the necessary panache, producing an uplifting message, as intended.  Even ye who are without sin should not stone this cast; first let them actually act, and judge the result by how it plays out before your eyes.  Will the show deliver on the promise of its pilot?  You really need to stay tuned for this one.

The most realistic and informed statements of the day came after the conference was over, and were made by members of Norristown Council, those who are really on the spot over this issue.  Their message was “don’t prejudge; give us a chance to make this work, then hold us accountable.”  They are the ones taking a rational, unadorned approach, and will ultimately be the ones responsible for bringing perception into alignment with reality, if such a thing is ever possible.  Even if you don’t think they actually mean it, try to remember the words of the man many of you hold to have been a great president:  “Trust, but verify.”  If Ronald Reagan could apply that approach to dealing with Communists, surely you can apply it to your own local municipal government.


The best thing to do at this point is to suspend judgment (as it often is at many points).  Give Norristown’s municipal officials, the County officials, and all those law enforcement personnel the benefit of the doubt.  Then give them some time.  The press conference was conspicuously short on specifics about what they are all going to do collectively, and thus close monitoring is called for in the future.  The most important thing to remember, however, after the warm and fuzzy feeling generated by this “new initiative” has worn off, is this:  Once you have given them a reasonable amount of time and learned more about just how complex the problem really is, HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE.  It’s not just your right, it’s your duty.  Don’t prejudge, but once you have determined the actual facts of the matter, don’t hesitate or let up.