Perception is the 21st century’s reality

“What color is the sky in your world?”

I once thought this was a rather peculiar question to ask someone. But with today’s 24-hour mass communication, often-biased news reporting and manipulative social media, where do we find truth?

What do we call reality?

A basic understanding of logic instructs us to rule out bias or presupposition when weighing an issue, entering into a discussion, making a decision or reaching a conclusion. If we foolishly stereotype all Democrats social welfare zealots who detest capitalism and want a free ride; and all Republicans cold-hearted, greedy scoundrels who only care about corporate bottom lines, how can we ever begin a meaningful, constructive discourse on an issue to reach common agreement—or ultimately, an objective truth?

Likewise, if we rely on a single source of information for the formation of our opinions—for example, cable TV’s MSNBC, or FOX News; a single newspaper (perhaps the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post); a single radio station: National Public Radio or conservative AM talk radio; a single video documentary by liberal Michael Moore or a book authored by conservative Bill O’Reilly, all of which we know all have their obvious biases—how can we expect to have a balanced view of today’s issues?

We’ve learned how Facebook and other social media material can be skewed. With computer software like Photoshop, one can do just about anything with an image. The National Enquirer learned that many years ago.

Alternate versions of reality, or “selective truths” became evident to me following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. I always thought empirical science was pure; sacrosanct and above any type of political manipulation. I was astonished when in their environmental impact assessments, state and federal scientists came up with different results than Exxon-sponsored scientists. Examining the same areas of Prince William Sound, government scientists sometimes found damage more severe and widespread than the Exxon-appointed scientists. The results seemed to be a function of what organization was paying for the studies.

Physicists versed in quantum mechanics theorize about “alternate realities,” but we have to live and work in a world we can perceive with our senses, even if we have diverse views of what constitutes reality in that world.

Humans tend to view things dualistically: up, down; good, bad; light, dark; forward, back. Perhaps because of our innate dualistic nature—which I (and it seems I alone) believe has its origins in the two-hemisphere structure of our brains—we have divided ourselves mainly into two camps: conservative and liberal. We witness it in discussions with friends, at public meetings, throughout social media, in our local governments and state legislatures; and as we all know, nowhere is that deep division more dramatic than in U.S. Congress.

Many of us can remember when members of Congress worked in a bipartisan fashion to get things done for the benefit of the country. Alaska’s former senior U.S. senator, the late Ted Stevens, worked often with Democrats on resource issues and a host of legislation; and our current U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has reached across the aisle on many occasions on education, energy and Alaska Native issues. But in today’s polarized, partisan hyper-political climate, the only thing most members of Congress seem to care about is the retention of their well-paid positions.

But isn’t it true that we have the government we deserve? For decades, too many Americans have not participated in the democratic process. They have not payed attention to issues and failed to thoroughly evaluate information to separate fact from fiction. Haven’t we erected our dysfunctional government brick by crumbling brick and allowed lobbyists to wrest democratic control so that big-money interests are the loudest, most pervasive voices in Washington, D.C.?

The only thing more insidious than those who do not care about finding the truth are those who purposefully purvey views they know are not true, simply to fulfill their social and political agendas. If you want to wax dualistic, and humans seem to have a difficult time doing anything else, both conservative and liberals are guilty of this. It seems we need a stronger third option. We need to elect more moderates and independents as opposed to radicals and the politically entrenched.

Perhaps we have a natural inclination to distort reality, however we define it. We embellish stories. We romanticize and glorify our heroes. We use computer-enhancement on photos to make them brighter and more colorful. In our movies and other entertainment, we ramp up the sound and gravitate toward the sensationalistic. We embrace one viewpoint and remain safely cloistered in its intellectual boundaries.

But as a very sage philosophy professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks once told me, listening and quiet reflection are some of the most important things we will ever do. We should always try to think outside of the box and continuously ask questions, he admonished. “Questions,” he observed, “are more important than answers.”

Maybe the sky does look different to many of us. But shouldn’t we reach out and ask others why they see it the way they do? And more importantly, wouldn’t it be great if we really listened to their answers?

A lifetime Alaska resident since 1946, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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