Mental JPEGS and the Evolution of the False Dichotomy
Al Sharpton was in the news yet again, this time for his defense of the stripper who accused several Duke University lacrosse players of rape.
Why were the Duke lacrosse players so widely presumed guilty before being proven innocent? Is it because many automatically equate "white, male" with "oppressor" and "black, female" with "oppressed"? Is it because "lynch mob mentality" really knows no color?
So many others are commenting on this case that yet another entry in the blogosphere would be redundant. So let's move on to a more thematic topic.
For any reader who assumes these past two entries have been about defending white guys while criticizing blacks, or have been making any presumptions about my race, sex, place in the political spectrum, etc. then you probably haven't been thinking outside your personal Crayola box.
In the book "Blink", Malcolm Gladwell discusses how the human mind has been programmed to make "snap judgments"; which are often based on earlier learning experiences. Our minds grasp a learned concept; it is compressed into a kind of shorthand form of information and then stored in memory for quick reference. I'll refer to these here as "mental jpegs". As with jpegs, complexity, nuance and details often get lost, and in addition are usually contaminated with personal bias of some sort. This is the brain's way of economizing energy, which really came in handy back in the days when snap judgments were more of a matter of life or death.
Mental jpegs are roughly defined as a subset of ideas, assumptions, traits or characteristics. Conversely, a partial or incomplete set of ideas or characteristics can elicit a mental jpeg label with the assumption that all other ideas, characteristics, etc. are associated with them. (For instance, assuming that someone who discusses evolution also votes Democratic.)
One of the shortest shorthand forms of thinking is "us vs. them". Either something is "on our side", or it's "against us". Judging from the universal popularity of sports, video games and other forms of competitive behavior, we are seemingly programmed to react in such a manner so we can enjoy combat or sparring of some sort. Or perhaps, too, this is rooted in our social/tribal makeup, based on an instinctual need for group solidarity. ...In fact, neuroscientists more recently performed a study that demonstrated that partisan thought is rooted in the unconscious. Note this particularly glaring example of "affiliation over idea".
The power of this kind of reflexive mental jpeg has been demonstrated time and time again throughout the course of human history. It appears to be an innate part of our nature and nobody seems to be immune to it no matter what political party, nationality, race, sex, educational background or affiliation. It appears to arouse a certain irrational combative mode of behavior and often gets in the way of problem-solving.
If we really need to harbor any particular dichotomies, perhaps they should be: "is this thinking, or is this reacting?"