Connection in a Multistable World
Four years ago, the mother of a Scottish bride was preparing for the big day. While shopping for wedding clothes, she sent a picture of three options to her daughter. One of the outfits sparked a debate between the two, spilling over into their small community of Colonsay after the daughter re-posted the photo to Facebook.
A singer in the wedding band—having confirmed her own stance upon seeing the mother in person—published the picture on Tumblr so her followers could sound off. Buzzfeed then added their platform to the mix, enticing 39 million visits to their website to see the photo. In less than 24 hours, a global argument exploded, prompting The Washington Post to declare it the “drama that divided the planet.”
At the height of the frenzy—which overtook two llamas on the run and the death of Leonard Nimoy for Internet attention—neuroscientist Bevil Conway gave this take:
Many in the two camps simply want to know which side is right. Others want to know why different groups of people, all with apparently “normal” colour vision, could disagree so vehemently.
The photo of #TheDress, captured in a moment unaware of its cultural destiny, is multistable. Someone looking at it could see more than one mutually exclusive perception of the image. In this case, the black-and-blue that was its reality could be seen as gold-and-white due to the presence of blue light in the background of the photo. For a large number of people (myself included), the brain compensated for the environment and saw the dress as something it wasn’t.
And then we argued about it.
We see what we care to see
Last week, a kind of multistable perception surfaced on another photo. The underlying mechanics were social, though, not biological. We could all see a boy in a hat standing in front of an elderly man with a drum, surrounded by other boys taking joy in the scene. We could not agree about the meaning of what we saw.
For some, it was an aggressive act of intimidation, with Nadsat-speaking droogs brazenly interfering with the ceremony of a marginalized culture. This interpretation was much more prevalent in the first 24 hours than in those that followed.
The next day, information surfaced that prompted others to denounce false accusations about the circumstance of the initial one-minute video. Some of them instead cast blame on the marginalized groups themselves for provoking innocent kids, as well as lambasting the media for another example of biased and insufficient reporting. The additional view also brought new charges of racism and bullying, often serving to bolster the original perception of the scene. In the complex soup of national politics, the same information served to reinforce opposing perceptions of the event.
One of the reasons our heated discussions about how the Covington Catholic schoolboys occupied space on the National Mall are complicated is found in its flexible frame: We adjust the scope of the scene to support our conclusions.
Examine the short video clip, especially when primed with the accompanying text of the original @2020fight tweet, to see the schoolboys as villains. In the absence of a clear indication of how this encounter came to be, we fill in the gaps by noting the red MAGA hat and recalling the worst behaviors of those with similar politics.
Include a raw two-hour video from the perspective of nearby Hebrew Israelites, and you can hear their provocative taunts and slurs drowned out by school spirit and see Omaha elder Nathan Phillips choose to move into the group of teens.
While negating the earlier narrative, we might discount the symbolism of the teens’ tomahawk chops as playful and an ill-conceived sign of solidarity, without acknowledging how we would have less forgiving if they were instead Black students from Holmes High School. We overlook the apparent absence of attentive chaperones as we hold dear the kids’ right to stand on those steps, too. We note the absence of physical violence in any of the videos as we acknowledge verbal harm.
Expand the scene further to include the weekend’s events, such as the politically-charged March for Life rally and the statements from Phillips on Sunday. Our narratives now include boys caught on video harassing young women as they walk past. They include a reported attempt by Phillips’ protestors to disrupt Saturday night mass. Because it is both convenient to do so and available on the Internet, we find suspect behavior of different students at another school function—blackface at a basketball game—and question the validity of Phillips’ background as a veteran.
Whatever we find becomes relevant. We wonder why Covington Catholic sent their students to a pro-life rally in the first place and whether activism manufactures its own controversy. We see the MAGA hats as racist and equate them to white hoods and lynching, or lament them as targets for unjustified abuse. The entirety of all transgressions become fodder for debate over a boy in a hat standing in front of an elderly man with a drum.
We look at the same images and understand the same facts only to draw competing conclusions about their significance.
What do you do with your truth?
Informed by neuroscience, past experiences, and their current identity, every observer carried their own meaning-making to the National Mall and witnessed something different. As much as we would like it to be so, there is no place to see the smiling Covington Catholic student, Nathan Phillips, or any of the proximal players as definitively black-and-blue.
Connecting through difference is not easy, particularly in a multistable world where significant populations look at the same moment and draw opposing conclusions. In such moments, two statements govern the challenge of connection:
- Multiple truths are held by observers of the scene.
- There is no objective truth to resolve the debate.
These are difficult ideas to accept, given our preference to determine truth through evidence and moral certainty.
In the best possible case for you, there is an objective truth, and your perception of the situation aligns with it completely. In other words: You are a hundred percent correct, and anyone who disagrees with you on any front is wrong.
What do you do with that?
At our most altruistic, our inclination is to present evidence as a way to guide people who are wrong to your clarity. If everyone can agree on an objective truth, then a shift is likely. To maintain an incorrect position in the face of this truth must indicate some malicious intent or deficiency. These are the people we discard from our lives as unworthy of our time, sometimes motivated by self-preservation.
If your goal is to be correct, then such alignment matters. If your goal is to connect, however, then the truth you do not see is just as important as your own.
In any relationship, conflict is inevitable. The difference between self-destruction and change is how we go about waging good conflict. That involves not only a willingness to find a meeting place where everyone is capable of change, but also a fundamental acceptance that connection is necessary to ending oppression.
Waging good conflict doesn’t require all people all the time. It is enough to have some people do this work while others re-fill their cups through the healthy, mutual relationships in their lives, as described by Relational-Cultural theory. It is preferred that people apply their privilege toward opting into conversations across difference, to carry the largest burden of connection in situations that harm those lacking your power. There is also room for moving on, although the cost is the isolation that holds oppression in place.
It is not enough merely to demand others to discard their incompatible truths in favor of yours. Even the most deplorable groups offer human connection between their members, and severing those ties is healthiest if there are new connections already present to replace them.
“The world is full of people who test our capacity for empathy,” acknowledges Dr. Maureen Walker, a psychologist who centers her work on bridging cultural differences. “Shared humanity does not always come with rainbows.”
Days and many think pieces have passed since the videos surfaced from the National Mall, and attention has largely moved on to other politically-motivated acts of aggression. Connection is much slower than the news, however.
I choose to linger in this space with the hope of understanding the truths I do not hold or cannot see. I do so without giving up my own truth or the morality upon which it is based. I stand in the middle of these bridges with easier access to both ends, aware that my privilege shields me from the worst of the world’s harm.
Because it is the work needed to fight oppression, I look for the edges of becoming, the only place where change happens.