Psychologically, contrast is necessary for perception. It is the contrast (the difference) between the fingers tapping on this laptop keyboard that makes it possible for me to see “my hands,” and the more specific contrasts between the individual keys, not to mention the letters of the alphabet, that make it possible for me to type this sentence. Only by distinguishing between the accelerator and the brake in my car can I make it safely to work this morning. Don’t even get me started about the differences between my wife and me — that is an entirely different article.
You get the idea: contrast is necessary for perception. Now, let’s take this awareness of the necessity of contrast into the world of politics. Politics, and in particular, election campaigns, are all about contrast. That is as it should be. Or more pertinently, that is how it will be —- “accept the things we cannot change” — whether we like it or not. What concerns me is the apparent need of some people (politicians and constituents alike) for only drastic contrast. These folks are like a person with severely impaired vision who needs extremely sharp contrasts in shapes and shades in order to navigate through his world, a person who is unable to distinguish the more subtle contrasts. This person lives in a world without visual detail. There is no such thing as distinguishing between royal blue and process blue, no reading of small print, let alone the fine print.
Interpersonally (this is not exclusive to political thinking), when someone has this kind of impaired vision, his philosophy (world view) is made up of broad generalizations, ideas that are black and white, and an insistence that something be either good or bad. Remember, this person is almost blind in the world of gray. Without polarized contrast, he is going to feel extremely vulnerable. (For the purpose of empathy, consider what it is like to stand in fog so thick that you can barely make out the shape of objects, or better yet, to drive through that fog, not able to see other vehicles’ headlights until they are right upon you.)
In assessing the world before him —- in this case, candidates for elected office — our metaphorical Mr. Magoo forms opinions based on questions like,
“Is this person good or bad?”
“Will this person help or hurt me?”
“Is this person like me or different from me?”
There is not much detail in such evaluation, but this, in and of itself, is not necessarily dangerous.
What makes Magoo dangerous is that because he cannot see clearly, he is prone to accept the guidance of a kind stranger, who is more than happy to show him the world in the vision and language of sharp contrasts —- black and white, good and bad, safe and dangerous, villains and heroes. In fact, the kind stranger tells Mr. Magoo that he does not have a vision problem at all; that, instead, the world is exactly as he sees it: made only of gigantic generalizations and sharply polarized contrasts. What a relief!
So today we watch as the kind stranger tells a very grateful Mr. Magoo things like …
– Barak Obama is a bad man who doesn’t care about Magoo or anyone else.
– Living near Russia (Alaska) counts as international diplomatic experience.
– John McCain will make everything okay, simply because he says he will.
– If candidates are people Magoo can identify with (regular guy like me or hockey mom like me), that means they will make an excellent President and Vice President of the United States.
I will leave it to you, the reader, to continue this list of simplistic, generalized lies Magoo is being fed. Send me what you come up with – firstname.lastname@example.org. (I’m learning to delegate.)
Both professionally and personally, I like to think of myself as a problem solver. An essential component of effective problem solving is clear and accurate problem definition. That is what I have intended to do with this article: contribute to framing a problem definition that will help us create solutions. Ironically (big fan of irony, aren’t you?), I will leave you with a pretty broad generalization about potential solutions to the problem of “Magoo and The Kind Stranger.”
If we agree that this particular problem can be defined as an inability on the part of some people to perceive (and value) more intricate details of contrast, coupled with the fact that expert political strategists are taking advantage of this deficit, then there are two directions for us to look for solutions: 1.) exploring the question of whether or not we have the ability – and if so, if we have the time — to help Magoo see more clearly, and/or 2.) accepting the sad possibility that in order to win an election, we have to win the contest for Magoo’s loyalty, that we have to get him to believe our gross generalizations more than he believes theirs.
One other possibility occurs to me, one that involves a frightening gamble, but it is a gamble to which I believe we are already committed. On election day, we are going to be betting (hoping, praying, etc) that George W. Bush & Company have inadvertently healed the vision problems of enough of their previously loyal Magoos to put us over the top.
THOM RUTLEDGE is a psychotherapist in Nashville, Tennessee, and the author of Embracing Fear: How to Turn What Scares Us into Our Greatest Gift. For more information: www.thomrutledge.com