Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Looking through me-tinted glasses

OK, I originally had this noted down as 'localisation of perception', but on further thought, that's only a part of it, so this title is more apt. What am I talking about, you ask? I'm talking about superimposing our own views on things in a search for more accesible context. Too many long words? OK, easy example, I'm talking about what is probably the reason why the traditional depiction of Jesus is white despite the fact he lived in Israel and was in fact more likely black. The reason? The depictions were created by white people.

Now, that sounds obvious, and it kind of is. There's a stereotype of stupid American fundamentalists who think Jesus was American, even. But while such people may exist, in general the cause of the image is more likely that the people envisioning it are white, and have never thought it through that clearly. Even the stereotype people (If they do exist, which they may not) are just an extension of this.
Come to think of it, this is also the reason why God is envisioned as looking human - in fact I think I read something someone else wrote about this once. That once humans came to the idea that some entity made the world, well that must have been complicated and taken a lot of thought. And what did those humans know of that could think through complicated designs and make things? Well, them. Humans. And nothing else, really. So they imagine God must be like them, only on a larger scale.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that we naturally view things from our own point of view (tautological but still meaningful), and in our own known context. Returning to Jesus, his appearance isn't described in the Bible, so what do we know of him? Well, we know he's a man. So, imagine a man. Without any other input, by default I think we will imagine a man of our own race at that juncture, because that's just what we're used to. It's the closest point of reference we have.

Enough of religion. This originally occurred to me when I was reading a book, and suddenly realised that all the characters had English accents in my head, despite the fact most of them were actually American. This was where the 'localisation of perception' thing came from. I never really thought about their accents, so I just defaulted to the accent most familiar to me. Even after realising I was doing this, I found it difficult to stop, because American accents just don't come naturally to mind. In fact in general, accents don't come naturally to me in and of themselves - to think of an accent, I have to think of someone who has that accent. I can recall specific voices, but not generic accents independent of those voices.

This actually feeds into something I tend to say about film/TV adaptations of books - one of their best features is that if they're well cast, they give us mental images and whatever the auditory equivalent of images are for the characters - we know what they look and sound like, making it that much easier to imagine the events of the book when we read it. This is also a good reason for why I will sometimes idly try to think up hypothetical film/TV casts for books - to assist in envisioning the events of the book, and thereby increase my level of immersion.

Back to my main point. By the same token, say a story involves a character wandering around his house. The furniture may well be different, but the layout of rooms? It's my house. If this occurs to me, I'll think "No, the house probably wouldn't be laid out exactly like mine," and try to imagine it differently, but it won't really work. At best, I'll imagine it being laid out like someone else's house that I know. Really, why bother? It's just an additional strain on my imagination, and while these details may be unrealistic, they allow me an easy gateway into the story.

It has come to my attention in the course of my writing this post that I'm not entirely certain what the purpose of it is. I suppose the simple observation may be considered purpose enough, but it robs the post of a  coherent and satisfying conclusion if I leave it at that. So what else can I say? Well, I suppose the question is do I think this is a bad thing, that we should try to avoid? I think I kind of already answered that question at the end of the last paragraph, but I could be a bit more precise. No, I don't think it's a bad thing. We need context and points of reference to understand and engage with things properly. It's part of being human. Indeed, one can take advantage of this tendency to more easily explain things to people by example/contrast, by giving them a point of reference for it. Or allowing them to contextualise it. something like that. So, no, we shouldn't stop ourselves doing this. But I think it's useful to be aware we're doing it. If you weren't before, you are now. Enjoy this newly acquired knowledge!

...still doesn't feel properly finished. Do I have to include some sort of farewell? I guess I do. See you around, peoples.


  1. I would be convinced that localisation of perception is a thing, if it turned out that more females than males assumed Vaarsuvius was female. Controlling for the fact that people got led astray by the -ius ending.

  2. I don't think that one really applies - they know Vaarsuvius is not them, and both men and women are common enough elements of people's lives that they could perceive V as either.
    Order of the Stick also has it somewhat differently, as does any comic strip, because there are visuals to influence people's perceptions as well. The voices bit would still apply, but not my house example, say, because we can see the house.