Perception vs. Reality. Can We Handle the Truth?

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It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau

There is a pivotal scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy, Elsa, and Donovan have reached the temple of the Holy Grail. Hidden among dozens of imposters, only the true grail will bestow eternal life. Drinking from a false goblet ensures immediate death. Aware of Nazi collaborator Donovan’s presumptions, historian Elsa hands him the solid gold chalice. He eagerly accepts, blind to the fact he is about to be incinerated as a result. Indy ponders his options carefully and selects the unadorned cup of a simple carpenter. He chose wisely.

Our perceptions govern how we select and interpret information. We are all magpies, attracted to the bright and shiny data that reinforce our opinions. As such, how can anyone formulate a truly accurate viewpoint? Is an unbiased opinion even feasible or an impossible dream?

It fascinates me how two people can look at the same set of facts and come up with completely opposite conclusions. I live in Los Angeles. We were lucky enough not to have most of our hospitals overrun and the USNS Mercy was underutilized. For some, this means we all did our job to flatten the curve and not strain the system. Kudos to Angelenos. To others, it proves that we never needed to quarantine in the first place. Our freedoms were curtailed for unjustified reasons. Both sides can cite “proof” to validate their positions. The debate rages on incessantly.

Now we find ourselves in a much more volatile environment: the #blacklivesmatter movement and subsequent protest/backlash. My purpose for this piece is not to deliberate the heartbreaking details of what transpired on May 25, 2020. I know my musings would be simple and inadequate. My quandary stems from how I — a middle-aged, middle-class white woman living in the suburbs — am to appropriately react. I want to — I NEED to get this right. In the past few days, I have seen and heard “evidence” to support positions on each end of the spectrum and thousands in between. Law enforcement tear-gassing peaceful protesters, protesters spitting and throwing bricks at police, Sheriffs kneeling with demonstrators, demonstrators providing water to the National Guard. Reports of Antifa inciting vandalism and destruction countered by stories of white supremacists doing the same and placing the blame on minorities. Looting rooted in crimes of opportunity and mob mentality. Marching for justice. Marching for anarchy. Marching for peace. Whatever your predilection, you can find facts to sustain it.

The dirty little secret of “truth”

In reality, ALL content is clickbait. From the National Enquirer to CNN to Fox News to the New York Times each and every bit of media is designed to grab your attention and keep you reading/viewing for as long as possible. Anyone searching for truth can easily be sucked into a whirlpool of disinformation. Journalistic ideals are built upon the notion of keeping the public informed, but journalists need to make a living. Conglomerates are not known for their altruism. The more readers/viewers, the more advertising dollars to feed the machine.

As a result, every article’s construction is designed to keep you captivated. Which, by the way, is no easy feat. Only 20% of readers will read past the headline. (Side Note: nearly 60% of readers will share an article after only reading the headline.) Half of that 20% will read halfway through and barely a fourth will read 75%. That means for every 100 views, maybe five will read the entire piece. To counteract disinterest, journalists are taught the inverted pyramid structure of article writing. This top-loaded method is designed to present the Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? and So What? as quickly as possible. Not only to attract the reader, but also to make sure the story still makes sense should the piece be shortened due to column space or time constrictions.

Compounding the difficulty is the rule of thumb that all that information — at least the 4Ws and the H — needs to be presented in 25 words or less. Anything more than 30 is considered cumbersome. Additionally, an adept journalist is expected to “know their audience,” cater to it and relate why this information is important to them. Complete objectivity is an illusion — and unprofitable.

This sensationally crafted lead also has to be written for the average reader. That’s understandable, you might say, until you realize that most Americans have a 4th-8th grade comprehension level. Next time you read a piece that feels like it is written for adolescents, you’d be correct.

What you feed your mind determines your appetite — Zig Ziglar

It’s no secret that social media utilizes algorithmic curation to determine what gets priority on your newsfeed. Google searches, email lists, Facebook likes, etc. are continually fine-tuning the filter towards the content will promote an emotional engagement and ideological brand attachment, weeding out any or all information that may not align with your way of thinking. Facebook has made it clear that its policy is not to differentiate between propaganda and facts. No one is immune to this chumming of the media waters. Every reader is caught up in an optimized feeding frenzy designed to stimulate their convictions, not challenge them. To think you are reading objective information without putting forth an active effort is tilting at windmills. Our current obesity crisis is not based on a scale, but in self-righteous bloat.

Highway to a Danger Zone

Have you ever shopped for a pair of polarized sunglasses? Touted as the epitome in protective eyewear, polarized lenses can add around $100 to the price tag of your shades. Which, of course, ups the status quotient.

Polarized lenses enhance your vision by dissipating glare, thereby reducing eyestrain. Better clarity is what they promise. But that crystal-clear vision is only possible in ideal circumstances. If the angle of the sun isn’t in the sweet spot, your sight can be obscured — sometimes placing you in great peril. Filtering out high and low lights blurs obstacles into their surroundings. You could be on a highway to a danger zone and never even know it.

Creatures of comfort

By design, polarized lens alter how you see the world. How much more so do our preconceptions contribute to the polarization of society? By screening out the glare, we run the risk of extinguishing the brilliance of an idea. Furthermore, warning signals of false information may be concealed. Any deviation from our beliefs generates unease and agitation. Our vision is focused on only what makes us comfortable.

The media’s great strength is its ability to inform and connect. But this lofty ideal has a negative underbelly. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we are drawn to what appeases our intellectual appetites. We truly believe we are enlightened, but in reality, we are placated — riveted to content that reinforces our inclinations. America’s melting pot is breaking into simmering caldrons of discontent.

IMHO — Resist the need to be coddled

Our latest bout of civil unrest shouldn’t come as any surprise. It’s not the first, nor will be the last. Throughout history, the one constant has been the quest to control our environment. Human beings instinctively crave power. Whether the mission is for domination or freedom, there isn’t much difference.

What is one to do when they are thirsting for accuracy? I can only propose the following strategy:

  • Consider the source of your information. Scroll down to the bottom and Google the author or organization. Check the date of publication to see if the data is current. Investigate who funds the studies presented to validate their data.
  • Make sure what you’re reading is news and not an advertisement. If there is any pitch to purchase a product or a discount code provided, someone is making money and their objectivity is tainted.
  • Don’t fall prey to emotional headlines. Claims of “You won’t believe this!” or “Guess what happened next!” are clear indicators of what you are about to read lacks any true substance.
  • Seek out contrasting viewpoints. How can you defend a position without knowing what the opposition may be?
  • ABOVE ALL THE REST —PRACTICE EMPATHY. It’s time stop demonizing those whose beliefs differ from our own.

We need to rise up above passive consumerism. Counteract the coddling by exercising our minds. Be discerning. Hold everyone’s truths to be self-evident and resist the urge to judge. Maybe then we can achieve our pursuit of happiness.

I Have an Autoimmune Disorder. Will COVID-19 Make Me a Second-Class Citizen?

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Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

I, along with the rest of the world, live in fear of COVID-19. But, unlike most of the population, I am petrified of the aftermath. How will society view me — someone with a dysfunctional immune system — and others like me, once we completely emerge from our cocoons? Will I be shunned and segregated? Or will I be forced to isolate myself to “protect” my physical health? What will be the cost to my mental health?

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is the systemic disease that has chosen to take up residence in my body. This parasite, as I choose to visualize it, can affect any organ and/or any joint at will — often spreading its tentacles in multiple areas simultaneously. My immune system is hyperactive. It goes to eleven and beyond when triggered, wreaking havoc in the process. People with RA are more susceptible to catching a virus, developing infections, and experiencing cardiorespiratory complications. In other words, I’m poised to hit the COVID trifecta.

So, what’s a gal like me supposed to do when restrictions are lifted? Proponents of herd immunity want everyone out and about so we can all catch it, recover, and develop antibodies. That is all well and good unless you’re one of the individuals most likely not to survive such a grand Darwinian roulette.

I realize I am not in the majority. We need to reopen our economy, get kids back in school, and restart society again as soon as possible for it to survive. It would be unrealistic (and selfish) of me to expect anything less. I just wonder if it will be safe for me to go out and play. Will I even be permitted? Is becoming a recluse my mandated future? Human contact reduced to the afterglow of a digital screen.

Underlying Conditions

Currently, I am unemployed. My chosen field, travel and events, has not only been shut down by the pandemic — it has been decimated. In all likelihood, it will be one of the last industries to recover. I am but a single droplet in a sea of millions that will be seeking new employment once our first crisis wave is over. It is illegal for an employer to inquire about medical history, but how long will that protection last? Italy and Germany are considering issuing COVID immunity certificates. Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN the idea “has some merit” and is “being discussed.” All things being equal, won’t the candidate most likely to weather an outbreak be the more attractive option? I can envision a world where my economic future is regulated by my health condition. Ala Willy Wonka, I could be barred from entry to the factory unless I possess a golden Corona ticket.

Even if I can find employment, will it be safe for me? Restrictions are being lifted across the country, but the guidelines for those of us with autoimmune disorders are still in place. Web MD and Arthritis.org both advise avoiding travel (that’s a boost to my career), staying home as much as possible, and forgoing physical contact as much as possible with anyone outside your home. “Healthy” agoraphobia will be in control of my social life for the foreseeable future. Left behind while the general public moves on.

Our new world rests on order. The danger is disorder. And in today’s world, it can now spread like contagion. — Tony Blair, 2003

Apple and Google are ready to roll out their COVID Tracker app. Health agencies and the like will be able to use it to verify an individual’s COVID status. If you encounter someone who has tested positive within the last 14 days, you will receive an alert on your phone. Privacy issues aside for the moment (as of now, it will be up to the user to enter his/her COVID status), they have yet to minimize the number of false positives to an acceptable level. That’s reassuring. Can you imagine a chorus of viral emergency alerts blaring as you are walking down the street? People could be dodged like COVID zombies — their uncleanliness determined by Bluetooth.

The coronavirus has also recharged the call for a Unique Patient Identifier (UPI) system. All citizens would be issued a code, similar to a Social Security number, that provides access to their personal health database. Your entire medical record available within a few keystrokes. Proponents of UPI say it will make it easier for doctors to make diagnoses and provide proper treatment to patients. Citing security and confidentiality issues, opponents are wary of having such records under the control of the Federal government.

When HIPAA was passed in 1996, it mandated that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) create a UPI system. Two years later, Congress prohibited funding such a project due to privacy concerns. The subject has been debated every year since and in June 2019, the House voted to lift the ban. In September, however, the Senate appropriators left it in place and so it still stands — for the time being.

As a patient that has had been under the care of multiple types of physicians due to my condition, I can see the convenience of such a system. No more lugging charts from office to office or trying to remember all your past surgery dates and previous medications when filling out forms. The worry lies in how all that collective data will be analyzed. Will pre-existing conditions predetermine the quality of care? Will classifications based on antibodies and immunities ultimately determine our employment, housing, or recreation options?

That’s All Folks

I’ve read my fair share of dystopian novels. Set my eyes upon hours upon hours of post-apocalyptic tales. Perhaps they’ve altered my world view — sowed a bit of paranoia into my fertile imagination. Prompted me to foresee an ominous hierarchy at every turn.

There is no doubt I am overthinking. It’s been my stress reflex even before we were forced to steep in our own thoughts for months on end. I would like to think of my musings as a fine Earl Grey: Bold and rich, with a touch of aromatic citrus. More likely, they are like the gooey remnants remaining in a teacup forgotten on a desk for at least a week.

In reality, it’s the uncertainty of it all that sends my fears into a category 5 tailspin — whirling around me like the Tasmanian Devil. Oh, how I long to be Tweety Bird — projecting wide-eyed innocence, while always having the upper hand. Being ready for every contingency is what has always provided me peace of mind. Having some sense of control — even if imagined — is what settles me. The uneasiness resides in getting prepared for uncharted territory. Society’s next blueprint has yet to be drafted. Will I be deemed suitable for inclusion or cast off? There is nothing to but sit back and wait.