Last week I was reminded of the critical impression our friends in the UK have of us in America. I can’t give specifics, but I can say that even when using research to evaluate American attitudes and ideals, American culture and politics are so horribly misunderstood and misrepresented across the pond. As an introverted public school art kid who still spends a large amount of time reading alone in our public libraries and values education, equality and community more than most other things in this world, seeing my country forever misrepresented and internationally misunderstood as the land of bible belt, gun culture, machismo, individualism and extreme liberty makes me weep. And I fear that this is mostly our own fault. Does this portion of American culture exist? Yes. Does it define all of America? No.
I like to look at every situation as a proverbial onion in that what I am seeing is only on the surface and may not be indicative of what lies at the core. Doing this keeps at the forefront of my worldview an understanding of the fact that the way I see things is not always equal to the way others do, and that one’s intentions may not necessarily match my perceptions. In order to get to the true intentions, it’s necessary to peel back some layers. I make an effort to peel back those layers. That is how I keep from judging others prematurely.
But the world as a whole is quick to judge.
I want to talk about prejudice—cultural, religious, class—because at the heart of all quick judgments lies some form of prejudice, perhaps fueled by stereotypes, perhaps fueled by indoctrinated personal beliefs, self-righteousness, lack of education and experience, failure to apply critical thinking, or even just minor misunderstandings. Either way, prejudice in all it’s forms and for all reasons is a deep threat to communication and understanding.
Each of us will always view the world through our own cultural lens. Even if we don’t consider ourselves prejudiced, we’re likely to harbor some premature beliefs or decisions about others that we may abandon if given the chance to ask questions and get to know them better and if we remain open to changing our views as we peel back layers. But when we stubbornly let our premature beliefs stand in the way of peeling back layers, we’re destined to never make any progress when it comes to learning and revising those beliefs. You can’t sincerely make a judgment without seeing the big picture, and—since we’re still talking in onion metaphors—you can’t begin to see the big picture until you start peeling back those layers.
Prejudice, itself, is defined very simply as a preconceived idea, preconception or judgment. Some forms of prejudice contain bigotry, bias, partisanship, partiality, intolerance, discrimination, inequality … but prejudice in and of itself is not always equal to bigotry. I think that this is important to note because when we hear the word we tend to equate it with bigotry and other extreme forms of intolerance, hindering our openness to acknowledge that it may actually be a part of our own personal vocabulary.
I once attended a data visualization workshop with a colleague who feared being put on the spot to do mathematics publicly during the workshop, and wondered if this would be a possibility. My colleague has a learning disability, and while incredibly intelligent and capable, in order to work out math problems she needs a little bit of extra time and low pressure. She was interested in learning but afraid of being publicly embarrassed in the workshop. When I inquired on her behalf, I was bluntly told to come with an open mind and willingness to learn. This was a failure on the organizer's part to allow for a bigger picture, and because of my simple question I was unnecessarily seen as someone who was stubborn and close-minded. That is an example of how very mild prejudice works.
We in America could undoubtedly do with a better primer on prejudice when it comes to dealing with each other as well as with the rest of the world. But here I want to talk more about the way we are perceived by other cultures and the way predetermined ideas about America color who each of us is in the eyes of even some of our strongest allies. I want to get at why that may be, and I’m pretty sure the media plays a big role.
To understand America, it’s important to gain a full understanding of our history—from the Revolution and the Constitution through the journey West, the Civil War, the Great Depression, Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and how each of these historic events has shaped our society and culture up to and including where we find ourselves today. But more than that, it’s crucial to go beyond the surface layers of our history to identify the importance of counter culture, and underlying patterns that give more meaning to what’s evident on the surface. There is a lot of nuance.
The nuance is where it’s at.
Unfortunately for the everyday citizen, American media tends to be scrutinized and taken at face value by many both inside and outside the US. But if we’re going to take the media at face value, it’s necessary to remember that in reality the purpose of American media is primarily to make money. Ratings—or eyeballs—equal advertisers, and advertisers equal money. Sex sells, drama sells, extremism sells… The media will scream at us with these things to get our attention. Headlines and even reality shows are manipulated to capture eyeballs with sex, drama and extremism.
In short, taking what you see on the silver screen, on TV or read in a newspaper or magazine at face value all of the time, failing to dive deeper or peel back some of the layers, will result in misunderstandings. This is why I love personal blogs and OpEd pieces. I want to read people’s thoughts and personal views in order to get a better understanding of who they are, where they’re coming from, what they think and believe, and why they might think and believe those things. Only with this kind of understanding can we begin to influence the world around us.
And before making any judgments or forming premature beliefs about an entire culture based on portrayals by the media, we would all also do well to remember that an empty vessel makes the loudest sound.