It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see
– Henry David Thoreau (Walden).
On 26 February 2015, ‘The dress’, a photograph posted on Tumblr, became a viral sensation when viewers disagreed on whether the colours of the item of clothing depicted were black & blue or white and gold. The world, or at least the fraction of it represented on the Internet, was split right across the middle trying to figure out who was right and who was wrong; each group asserting with near unflinching certainty that they were right. The polarising nature of this photograph was an especial shocker because prior to this, the perception of colour had arguably been accepted as a generally uniform experience and a profound disparity of this nature would only be expected in people with visual abnormalities.
This controversy of course came with peculiar significance beyond the social media hurrah it incited because, perhaps for the first time in history, it gave an explicit representation of an idea that H.D. Thoreau, many scholars, philosophers, sages and religious leaders before and after him have tried to iterate — The idea that the true home of vision, literally and metaphorically, is not in the eyes but rather in the mind(brain). In other words, what we see isn’t merely what we’re looking at, but specifically how our mind interprets what we’re looking at. It is a principle with many close relatives, an abstract cousin derivative would be to say, however true a claim may be, it still relies heavily on our understanding of it to be so-called.
In reality, as made evident by the controversy generated by ‘the dress’, there is an intrinsic tendency common to every one of us humans alike to access the world, and the people in it on the basis of how we have come to see it for ourselves. Our own understanding of the world is the ready-made criteria we employ when attempting to understand other people. This happens naturally because to effectively communicate, empathise, bond or simply to tell what is from what is not, we look to the uniformity of the human experience i.e. If the other party cannot see what you see, communication becomes impossible or perhaps what you see may not even be there.
It is however important to note that as much as majority of the human experience (physical and abstract) is shared, it is never truly identical – each experience presenting itself with varying degrees of uniformity to each set of observers. And with our scope of understanding being directly proportional to the nature & vastness of our experiences, an increasing disparity in either or both the nature & vastness of experience would give rise to an increasing difference in our individual and/or community understanding of the world. This is why it is no surprise that, following the similarity in the nature of their experiences, members of the same family, ethnic group, society, country, etc. are more likely to hold closely similar views. And elders, given the vastness of their experiences, are expected to have a better understanding of the world.
Unfortunately, the relevance of these differences in experience and how easily they influence our understanding is very easy to neglect as we’re yet prone to the natural erring of either consciously or inadvertently holding others solely to those standards consistent with our own world view. For example, in many cultures as well as ours, it is an accepted norm that certain persons, such as the elderlies of society, should be respected by default. For us Yorùbás, that is a good thing. There are other cultures that suggest that respect must always & continually be earned regardless of age, position or statue. Valid arguments can be made for both and one cannot simply discard any of those views as right or wrong; or label its propagators as culturally bankrupt or otherwise, without properly understanding what each of those norms are premised on and/or the experience that guided their formulation.
Premising on the differences in perspective, the relevance of the perception of truths (especially moral truths) & the dependence of that perception on our understanding is also a common biblical theme. This was in fact one of the more central themes of Jesus’ message as he was recorded to severally refute the perception of certain truths on the basis of a grander understanding of what made them relevant. In the following passages, Jesus was seen to look at the same truths and/or people who others looked at and saw differently than others did.
In Mark 10 : 2 – 5,
Jesus Vs Pharisees on confronting the truth regarding the moral rightness of divorce.
The Pharisees saw a law that had strict application. “And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away”
Jesus, upon examining the same truth, saw the context that informed its creation and was therefore able to modify its application. “…for the hardiness of your hearts he wrote you this precept”.
The same principle held in Mark 7 : 15 – 20, when Jesus and the Pharisees looked at the law concerning washing of hands (defilement). The Pharisees saw the law, Jesus saw its relevance. He stated that the laws were not meant to be ritually followed but rather understood and applied accordingly.
Luke 4 : 1 – 11 & Matthew 4 : 1 – 13.
Jesus Vs Satan on the biblical truth of God’s protection.
Satan advises Jesus to jump from a pinnacle & rely on angels to break his fall, the narrative of both Luke and Matthew have Satan quote Psalm 91 : 11–12 to show that God had promised this assistance. Jesus looks at the truth of that psalm & again puts it within context, emphasising that it cannot be used to justify presumptuous acts.
“Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”. Or as Yorùbás will advise,
Folórunso kò gbodò f’okùn ògèdè gun òpe
He who is protected by the deities must not tempt fate
Similarly, in John 8 : 1 – 11, Jesus, the scribes & the Pharisees all converged to weigh in on the sin of adultery. Everyone looked at a woman caught in the act of adultery. The scribes saw a sinner to be scapegoated as sealed by the law of Moses while Jesus saw a flawed person, hardly any different from the rest of humanity. Another case with a striking similarity to this is in Jesus’ treatment of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 : 1 – 10.
All of the above passages have a unifying trend; the emphasis Jesus placed on the importance of perception. He continually challenged his followers to evolve from their more commonplace perception of moral truths as static but rather attempt to understand the angle within which those truths were to be applied. Recognizing that humans are inherently flawed by the limitations of perspective — that behaviour is directly predicated on the depth of a person’s understanding — and that understanding finds structure in the nature & width of individual experiences. He sought to broaden the perspective of his followers by helming his teachings on essence of religious truths instead of focus on the dictates of the truths themselves. And unlike the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes who were quick to make value judgement on people’s characters on the pedestal of their own moral standards, Jesus displayed much greater tolerance for conventional sinners, taught them to see things from his perspective & therefore converted them much more effectively. A method that earned him the title, “friend of the sinners”
Another all-too-familiar parlance where perspective finds everyday significance is in nurturing children. Parents scarcely hold children to the same behavioural standards as they would adults. There is that recognition that it is never a child’s fault for acting childishly, it simply comes with the territory (1 Corinthians 13:11). Effective admonishing/parenting comes from firstly relating to how a child thinks, and then correcting accordingly without necessarily becoming one. It would be unfair to access a child otherwise. Additionally, in the legal parlance, establishing the motive of a crime is fundamental to passing proper judgement. Even though ignorance is not an excuse in law, a guilty verdict is never passed on a person that isn’t capable of knowing that he/she has done wrong. Case in point, the insanity plea.
Granted, there exists certain world views, beliefs & opinions that are arguably more functional for the flourishing of all sentient life (or at the very least, all human life) than others and we owe it to ourselves & the world to find, adopt and preach those views. It is however important, in pedalling such views, to realize that before a person can accept any such view as more functional, he/she must first be able to recognize that it is indeed so. To reiterate this without the distraction of a complex sentence; it is unlikely that a person will accept a view they don’t understand is good for them. Withal, what you know you don’t know isn’t the real problem, it is what you don’t know you don’t know that truly damns you.
Into the bargain, as much as it is within our capacity to hold people morally accountable for their actions, it is much more important to do so knowing that as compared to us, their understanding of the world could be far more extensive, much narrower, or anywhere in between depending on the robustness of their perspective. And it therefore becomes our moral duty to ceaselessly endeavour to understand the alternative perspective(s) before qualifying it, discarding it as false and/or attempting to impose ours.
Although the original colour of the controversial dress was later revealed to be black & blue, the resulting resolution was that the differences in opinions were a result of how the human brain perceives colour, and chromatic adaptation. Essentially, the dress was either black & blue or white & gold depending on who was looking at it, when they were looking at it, and how they were looking at it; an apt metaphor for all the different shades of perception from person to person.
Conclusively, to become better citizens of the world, in our everyday lives and interactions, we must live with the recognition that experiences are never entirely uniform; we must attempt always to teach, not impose those views we’ve come to accept on the basis of their usefulness & perhaps most importantly, we must show great tolerance for those whose understanding of the world differ from ours by borrowing insight from the same wealth of perspective that inspired those timeless words of Jesus when on the cross he saw his victimizers gamble with his clothing:
“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”