Sometimes we read things and think, “No, not me! I don’t do that!”
We can’t say that about perception or maybe we should use Pastor Labberton’s term “misperception.”*
We all misperceive. It is our nature. We think we know others but we don’t.
As a communications teacher, I sometimes make a great effort at fighting misperception but it is inevitable for two basic reasons: we don’t really know what it is like to be another person and we just can’t spend enough time trying to understand others.
Everyone is a collection of unique experiences. Things happen to us, we react to those things and the events of life become our life. No one lives a life like you do. No one reacts to life like you do. Each person’s collection of memories is different from everyone else’s. Those memories shape the way you respond to future events in your life.
To really get to know other unique human beings it takes spending time with them, time conversing, time working or even time living with them. The problem is that most of us don’t have time to devote to knowing the “others” in our lives and even if we did, we may still “misperceive.” That happens often when someone says something like “I sure did not see them acting that way” or “I did not see any signs of that in their everyday behavior.” Human behavior can be surprising.
The fact of the matter is we categorize people we don’t know using flimsy evidence. We look for signs of their social upbringing. Maybe we don’t look beyond the color of their skin. Sometimes their clothing will cause us to categorize their economic class. In listening to others, we may draw educational conclusions based on their language use, the depth of their knowledge or even the sound of their voice.
We all do this.
Just yesterday, it happened to me. It is hard to admit and my example is going to be fairly harmless but I could use other examples that are more hurtful and just plain shameful. On a trip to Nashville, I left my destination and was driving down the street. To my right walking down the sidewalk was a young woman in pajamas and house shoes. This was in the middle of the day. I commented to my wife that that type of clothing in public was a real “turnoff” for me. The young woman was a “slouch.”
Sounds bad doesn’t it?
Did I know the young woman? Of course not. What did her outfit indicate? I really did not know. Was she a “slouch?” I really had no way of knowing.
And yet I labeled this stranger and worse, I shared my label with my wife.
Labberton begins Chapter 3 with a story of a Bengali Hindu girl who was never picked to play on her school P.E. teams. One day she suffered through the picking process only to be the last one and the captain of the team said “Fine then, I’ll take that ugly, black thing.” You may remember Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent. This solid-bodied Scottish woman was laughed at when she took the stage but she was not laughed at after she sang her song. Then there is a Kenyan boy named David who was shot in the wrist and hand when he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Since other black youths were skirmishing with the police, it seemed appropriate to use force on David even though he was not causing trouble. He was just walking through the area. He survived the shooting but his hand did not. No one got too upset because in his society, he is “dispensable.”
People who really know about human social psychology indicate that it just seems to be human nature to have a fear of people we really don’t know so we label them in order to create some safe distance between them and us. Also, humans have a need for dominance. It hurts to admit it, but we like being “better than others” even if it means we have be cruel in our judgements.
I wonder how God sees our unjust and cruel diminishment of others.
We read in Genesis that we are created in God’s image. We know from Ephesians and Colossians that God’s image of us consists of knowledge, righteousness and true holiness. We know from Psalms that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Yet we don’t act like others are wonderfully made, do we?
We “misperceive” others all the time and erect mental roadblocks to really knowing or helping others.
“No, not me! I don’t do that!”
Yes I do…
And God is not happy with me…