Interviewee: Susanna Siegel; interview: Zan Boag
Zan Boag: Philosophers and the lay person have very different ideas of what perception means. What does it mean to philosophers and how do we take in information from the outside world?
Susanna Siegel: As lay people we count three different things as perception. First, there’s sensory perception: what we see, hear, touch, feel and smell, either consciously or unconsciously.
A second kind of perception is your overall take on a situation – your personal vision. An optimist perceives things as basically looking up. You and a sibling might have different takes on your family’s dynamics, and in that case you’re perceiving the same situation differently.
Third, there’s perception as a culture-shaping force. Stereotypes belong here. Women bosses or public figures are more easily seen as angry or aggressive if they criticise a person or a policy. We speak of how perceptions of a political candidate might be shaped by campaign coverage. Despite their differences, perceptions of all three kinds have this in common: they characterise the world as it appears to us. We navigate the world on their basis, drawing inferences from them, acting on the basis of them, relying on them to interpret what we find.
Philosophers study all three topics: sensory perception, personal vision, stereotypes. But each one is so complex that it needs analysis from other disciplines as well: cognitive neuroscience for sensory perception; social psychology for personal vision; politics, history, and sociology for stereotypes.
It’s something that’s quite relevant for you in the US at the moment, particularly personal vision and stereotypes, in that the culture of particular areas that people grow up in will influence the way they see the world; the way they vote. But it’s also going to determine whether they’re going to be influenced more or less by particular advertising campaigns or particular messages in the media. But before we discuss the media, I’d like to get your take on how much you think culture and gender shapes how we perceive the world.
Great question. The varieties of perception interact in powerful ways. Sensory perception can reveal that someone fails to fit a stereotype. Personal vision directs attention, shaping sensory perception: the relaxed optimist stops to smell the roses. And stereotypes can inform one’s personal vision of a situation.
How do stereotypes shape our personal vision? Sometimes their influence is innocuous. Other times it is politically or morally problematic, as when a person lets a negative stereotype shape an interaction, presuming someone else to be incompetent, dangerous, or otherwise low in status.
The extent to which stereotypes influence personal vision depends on their interplay with sensory perception. The influence can be stabilised, if sensory perception reinforces the stereotype, or it can be destabilised, if sensory perception challenges it. This interplay is especially pronounced in chance encounters with people you bear no other relation to other than sharing a society – ‘strangers’. In these moments, you rely heavily on your prior assumptions, and you use them together with sensory perception to form an interpretation.
There’s another reason why the interplay between the three kinds of perception matters: taken together, they are a form of political consciousness. You become aware of sharing a society, if only implicitly, when you occupy the same public space as someone else, by waiting in line at the grocery shop, passing on the sidewalk, riding the subway, or playing in the park. On these occasions we express reactions to our political association: hostility, openness, curiosity, seriousness, respect, joy, indifference. Any reaction here is a mode of political consciousness.
Not all such encounters are harmonious. Sometimes they’re occasions for rehearsing patterns of domination, as when one person’s suspicions lead her to call the police about a man who is birdwatching, because the sight of him activates in her a stereotypical fear, even though the man couldn’t be doing anything more peacefully ordinary. Here, stereotypes are overpowering sensory perception, shaping a person’s vision in a harmful way.
Public micro-interactions are also opportunities to manifest simple forms of trust. Such moments may be of little significance taken on their own: someone lets you go first when you approach the same long line. So what? But having ample opportunities for these interactions is important, because they manifest basic forms of civic recognition. This can matter a lot in a society rife with patterns of social domination, especially when there are orchestrated attempts to perpetuate them.
The interplay between the three kinds of perception has enormous potential for developing interpretive skills that enable you to learn how other people experience the society you both share. Here it’s interesting to contrast in-person interactions with online formats. Think of jury duty, a classroom discussion at night school or college, or a neighbourhood meeting. In these settings, when people speak, you hear what they say, taking it in alongside all the other information you get through your sensory perception. You hear their voice with its tone of sarcasm or hesitation or passion. You see what they look like, you see how they comport themselves. You bring all of your cultural understanding to bear on how you interpret what you perceive.
By contrast, in many discussions on the internet, you may know very little about the people you’re interacting with. By leaving out direct sensory perception, social media platforms divorce the message of what somebody’s saying from the surrounding information that you’d normally get from sensory perception. Here, too, we rely on our cultural understanding to interpret the messages. But all our interpretive powers are focused on the words.
Each of these formats has its pros and cons. When a platform filters out information that you’d get from embodied sensory perception, the filtering lets you focus more directly on what the person is saying. That’s your only access to the other person – through what they say. In some types of discussion, this filtering can be an advantage. In a town hall or in a seminar, for instance, it is important to be able to separate what people say from who you think they are, based on what you can perceive. When you are discussing reactions to a text or a film, or when you’re brainstorming how to solve a problem, or evaluating potential solutions, what matters are just the points being made.
Subjecting views to public reactions can be a step toward turning inchoate opinions into something more thought through. John Dewey emphasised this point: having to explain your opinions prods you to consider them from your interlocutor’s perspective. This process often makes residual questions evident, and can lead people to change their mind, provided they are not overly invested in their views to being with. Writing things down for others to read is a way to work through your thoughts. This is why students write term papers. When you’re asked to deliberate with people in a classroom, a conference, or meeting of jurors, your task is to consider what people are saying on the merits. And if the most direct route to ‘the merits’ is through articulated thoughts, then an online format can be pretty good. A more sensory-perception laden discussion might even slow down the process.
Social media platforms in principle enable such discussions with people you might not otherwise interact with. But we’d be missing a lot if we tried to substitute this format for in-person discussions with all their perceptual richness. It’s not that the perception itself reveals the truth about people. Often it doesn’t. But the process of having to integrate what you perceive, what you are inclined to infer from it, and claims made by your interlocutors is a skill with civic significance. It’s no accident that mass propaganda campaigns subtract embodied discussions from the equation. There may be nothing more important for democracy than having forums for discussion that allow us to test our assumptions about people against what we find in actual encounters. If we only ever interacted on platforms that filtered what someone says from the rest of what we can perceive, we’d sidestep the skill of building up the nuanced, layered perceptions of people. That’s an important skill in a democracy, when people whose situations are not like your own have a say in how you will be governed.
Democracy suffers when we lack the forums and opportunities for developing all three kinds of perception in public, by the public, for the public. When we lack these forums, democracy suffers, and so do our powers and habits of social interpretation.
So stereotypes shape how we perceive the world. The critical question is how malleable our prior assumptions about one another are. How easily can they be adjusted, and by what? Which social spaces, public spaces, and media vessels expand the opportunities for interplay between the three forms of perception? Which kinds reduce it?
The internet does allow people to behave quite badly at times, certainly in ways that they wouldn’t normally behave. I’d like to get back to, you mentioned a little bit earlier, the influence of the media. Today it is so pervasive, whether it’s social media or the news media, television or radio, that it has a huge influence on how we perceive the world. Yes, we’ll choose certain media channels, potentially culture will shape which ones we’re going to choose, but are we, in a way, victims of the media we choose to consume, in that it will determine how we perceive the world?
That’s an important question. I’d flag the phrase “victims of the media we choose to consume”. It highlights the idea that our primary relation to the deliverances of media is consumption. Running with this metaphor, when something enters your mind, it stays there for a while, the way that food stays in your stomach. Your body takes what it needs from the food and the rest gets discarded automatically, and then it’s on to the next meal. Over time, our bodies are shaped by what we eat.
On the consumer model, the flow of information from vessels of media into our minds has roughly the same trajectory. Information comes in, much of it is discarded, some of it sticks, and over time, we’re shaped by information we retain, with little interaction between that information and our prior state. Just as we can choose what to eat depending on what we like, we can do the same with media sources. In both cases, we may not know what the long-term effects will be of our consumption.
The consumer model for how social and news media affect our perception is sometimes apt. It treats news on par with entertainment, and some formats for news media do the same – infotainment, which highlights attention-grabbing things: celebrity, novelty, the sensational, the bizarre.
The consumer model is also apt for the kind of influence campaign designed to create negative perceptions of groups using mass media, and make them more sticky and less malleable.
A particularly effective way to generate new negative cultural perceptions, where before there were none, is by fabricating accusations that one group of people is feeling schadenfreude toward another group, for instance by cruelly celebrating the other group’s pain. If you knew nothing about a group, but learned that they were celebrating your pain and believed the message, you would be offended and feel disdain. You would not trust them. Propaganda of this form is an effective way to create perceptions and stereotypes that are not likely to be malleable, unless the accusations are shown to be false and the accusers discredited.
Most types of propaganda amplify pre-existing negative perceptions. A typical far-right conspiracy theory website is heavily populated with accusations of schadenfreude, including that anti-Trump activists laughed as they threw objects at Trump’s caravan, potentially causing an accident, and that Black Lives Matter protestors celebrated the murder of a white five-year-old.
Here, perceptions are likely to be resilient all around. An opponent of Trump probably wouldn’t give the propaganda much credence, whereas for Trump supporters, the propaganda only strengthens their support for him and disdain for people he denigrates. Like accusations of schadenfreude, this type of propaganda is meant to have asymmetrical effects.
The consumer model of media is apt for propaganda of this sort. It deals in absolutes, aiming to avoid any chance of inciting reflection. One expert in propaganda, Adolf Hitler, counselled against nuance: “As soon as our own propaganda admits so much as a glimmer of right on the other side, the foundation for doubt in our own right has been laid.”
But the consumer model has some limitations as a tool for analysing the interplay between perceptions and media. For one thing, it doesn’t fit every type of influence campaign. A well-known and fascinating media technique developed in Russia is called ‘the firehose of falsehood’, in which the same messages are continually repeated in multiple media, so that it appears to come from different sources. Due to the high volume of messaging involved, executing the technique needs a labour force: bot farms. But rather than solidify a single message, here the point is to sow confusion with contradictory messages, so that people will be left not knowing what to believe, will feel they have no way to find out, and therefore will simply have to decide whom to believe, or become apathetic. Authoritarian politics thrives on the kind of confusion. Trump used this technique when he contradicted his own health adviser, Dr Fauci, about whether to wear masks during the pandemic, and again later when refusing to say when he had last tested negative for COVID-19.
The firehose of falsehood method does not fit the consumer model of media and its uptake. Instead of choosing to consume certain media, you’re bombarded no matter which media you choose. And rather than ending up engaged with the media that leaves you most comfortable, you’ll likely end up bewildered, unless you have a theory to help interpret the role of the informational chaos.
The firehose of falsehood is designed to destroy democracy, and the consumer model isn’t so good for democracy, either. Both make it easier to get stuck in a single perspective, whether it is apathetic or opinionated.
Democracy needs a better model for media. Even in its currently fragile state, it still has one. It’s the public importance model: what belongs in the news is what’s important to publicise in a democracy. And some news, when publicised, will facilitate action, expression, and inquiry, making us less like a mere spectator or consumer.
For instance, election news coverage could focus on what voters think the main issues in the campaign should be, instead of on how candidates are polling, or how they’re perceived. Readers would then no longer be mere spectators or consumers. Instead they’d see themselves as potential contributors to the story, as someone whose perspective the newspaper is trying to reflect. The media analyst Jay Rosen recommends this type of election coverage, and I agree. Political deliberation is supposed to be about deciding what would be best overall for everyone, but how can you do that if you don’t know much about other people’s concerns? Voter-centred coverage is a way for journalism to help bridge that gap.
When journalism turned into a profession in the United States in the 1920s, a central plank in its professionalisation was that editors and journalists needed to use ‘news judgement’ to decide what was important for the public to know about, and even what it was important to want to know about. This role for journalism fits the importance model better than the consumer model.
For a recent example, consider the Hatch Act: the anti-corruption law that prohibits federal employees from political campaigning, excepting the President and Vice-President. It’s a safe bet that outside political elites, many people have long been unfamiliar with the Hatch Act. And you can’t care if a law is violated, if you have never even heard of it.
But what if appointees routinely violate it by disparaging political opponents in official speeches, as former Trump counsellor Kellyanne Conway routinely did? What if a president all but forces his appointees to violate it by holding the Republican National Convention on the White House grounds, as Trump did in August 2020? Part of a journalist’s job here is to inform the public about the law and show them why it should care about it, even if they had no antecedent knowledge or interest in it. On the importance model, journalism frames problems, and can just as much leave us wanting to know more, rather than sated with information or ‘infotainment’.
We find framing effects on cultural perception wherever there are political forces. That includes journalism, social media, and political campaigns. The Occupy movement gave us the concept of the 99%. This was a frame that people could easily use to think about vast inequality, and it stuck.
It’s interesting you mention the word framing because the media is constantly doing that, but I wonder if we’re stuck with the frame that we choose.Take any of the examples that you’ve used there. Certain elements of the media are going to present that story one way and other parts of the media will present it in a completely different light. The media you choose will determine how you perceive the story. I just wonder if we’re stuck with the media that we choose. We see ourselves as ‘this’ type of person, we choose to read The New York Times, or ‘that’ type of person and we choose to read Breitbart. Are we then stuck with that? Do we get stuck in this kind of tunnel of information from which we can’t extract ourselves?
Getting stuck is a real pitfall. How stuck we remain depends on what kinds of countervailing forces there are. I think there are several forces that could be cultivated to prevent informational insulation.
One thing that works against such insulation is the type of journalism that focuses on portraying the problems of a community back to the community. That doesn’t mean the community gets to define the problems necessarily, but one aspiration of professionalised journalism is to help their readers see who they’re sharing a society with. When it plays this role, it helps you see what it’s like for other people differently situated than you to live in the same place you live. It’s a very place-centred type of journalism, and it’s one reason why local news is important.
A powerful example of this kind of journalism is the Boston Globe’s 2017 seven-part series on racism in Boston. For a week, the paper published a long article on a different aspect of this issue each day. One day was healthcare, another day was the Seaport neighbourhood development, other days focused on sports, education, political power, and potential solutions. It was extremely informative for everybody. A lasting result was to make it commonly known that the median net worth of black Bostonians is eight dollars – that’s the figure you get by subtracting debts from assets. By comparison, the median net worth is zero dollars for Dominicans in Boston, and $247,500 for whites. (The newspaper had to publish a follow-up article to reassure readers that these figures were not typos!)
Another countervailing force is increased transparency in digital media. Ivy Lee, the founder of public relations, wrote in 1925 that “failure to disclose sources of information is the essential evil of propaganda”. He made a good point. Data analysts can identify “high-volume users”, aka bot farms, and can find patterns of text and photos used in orchestrated disinformation campaigns. This kind of information shouldn’t be limited to technologists. If platforms were designed to highlight information about the etiology of posts and how often the same message is repeated, it could help discredit a lot of highly-charged misinformation designed to go viral. Social media platforms are currently economically organised around principles of virality and engagement. Transparency can put a brake on virality, just as dire warnings on cigarette packages make them less attractive.
We tend to think that we have this idea of what we perceive out there in the real world. We see a world out there. We think we, to a certain extent, understand what it is that we’re perceiving, but is there much more to the real world than what we can experience?
Yes. A lot more. There’s the microstructure of the world. Some of the regularities in this microstructure are beautifully reflected in the periodic table of elements. Physics and chemistry and biology all tell us about parts of reality that aren’t perceptible to us through our senses. That’s one of the great achievements of humanity: being able to make discoveries about the microstructure of the world. So there’s that dimension of reality, which goes beyond sensory perception.
Then there are the dimensions of reality that you can read about. You can learn a great deal about other people’s lives from books and from films. James Baldwin is often quoted as saying he thought his pain was unique until he read books and realised that it wasn’t unique at all, it was the most common thing in the world. That’s incredibly important, especially in cultural moments when social differences are sometimes held up as kind of unbridgeable gulf.
We do sometimes live in a kind of experiential apartheid, where a pair of people living in the same city, attending the same university, have vastly different experiences, even though they occupy the same roles in the institutions. Two students, two faculty members, or two staff members might experience the same environment quite differently, because of patterns of social domination that manifest mainly in personal interactions. One of the crucial things that the Humanities as a broad field of study does is to help people understand the terms of these kinds of experiential differences in depth. This kind of engagement is a route to recognising both the similarity and the distance between you and other people. You don’t get that from the quantitative sciences, as important as they are.
So yes, there is definitely more to the world than you can perceive, much more. There’s the world’s microstructure. And there are social structures and dynamics that are possible to know if we are open to qualitative modes of study and engagement. In an era when literature, poetry, drama, music, philosophy, history are often devalued as modes of study and subjected to scepticism, we should recognise their crucial role in expanding what we can know about.
One final question. Is perception reality?
No. Perception is not reality. Reality outruns perception. No matter how much intellectual work you do, or reading or experience or talking, you’ll never have the full picture, and that’s why there are so many books in the library. The sad truth is that you’re never going to read all of them. But they’ll be there, and some of them depict the parts of reality that you can’t know about. The upshot? Both in intellectual life and in politics our fundamental attitude should be humility about the perspectives we occupy.
Susanna Siegel is Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. She currently works on topics in the philosophy of mind and epistemology. Her books The Contents of Visual Experience and The Rationality of Perception were published by Oxford University Press. Other publications include “Rich or Thin?”, a debate with Alex Byrne about the contents of perception in Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Perception; “The Epistemology of Selection Effects”, in Oxford Studies in Epistemology; and “Cognitive Penetrability: Modularity, Epistemology, and Ethics” with Zoe Jenkin, in Review of Psychology and Philosophy. She is past President, American Society for the Scientific Study of Consciousness; and upcoming President, Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology. In 2018 she gave the Saul Kripke Lecture, CUNY Graduate Center, and in 2020 she delivered the Jack Smart Lecture, at ANU. In 2019 she was named Centenary Fellow, Scots Philosophical Association, University of Glasgow, and in 2012 was awarded Walter Channing Cabot Fellow.