Do not look at the sun! I think we might have heard that before—like a bajillion times when we were growing up, right? On Monday, much of America will be standing outside on a hot summer day looking up at the Great American Eclipse.
Not looking at the sun is good advice because, no shit, solar staring is worse than running with scissors. Fortunately, there are special glasses—with super-dark lenses—so that all of us gawkers can be protected from the sun’s blinding rays.
So super-dark lenses will save the day. But it’s just one day. And only one type of lens.
Looking through lenses is nothing new. I’m convinced that we look through lenses—our own customized set—every day, nearly all the time. Unlike eclipse glasses, though, there’s no frantic search to buy these lenses. I’m talking about looking at life through lenses of bias: our preconceived opinions and beliefs. And just like corrective lenses in eyeglasses alter our perception of objects, lenses of bias alter our perceptions of life.
The notion of these life lenses came to me, oddly enough, at a baseball game. A bunch of baseball games, really. I gradually understood that two honest people could witness the same event—say, a play at home plate—and perceive two different outcomes. A fan of the Yellow Jackets, whose player is barreling down the line and sliding into home, will believe with all his heart and mind that his guy slid under the tag—safe! At the same time, a Bearcats’ fan, whose catcher is protecting home plate, will genuinely believe he witnessed the tag being applied before the runner’s foot reached the plate—out!
How the two fans react to the call—silent disappointment or full-fledged rage—depends on other personality factors. But how they mentally processed their perception of the event is based on bias. And there’s nothing evil about it; each entered the ball park that day wanting his respective team to win.
I’ve seen a similar bias play out—again, oddly enough—on HGTV’s “House Hunter” shows. A couple is looking for a house, and one of them is, say, “budget conscious.” We know this because they mention the damn budget at least a dozen times during the episode. Now, I understand these shows are somewhat manufactured, but I have to believe they have at least some connection to the actual house-hunting situation. Why else would a dude shun the house with a home theater and the one close to work and instead pick the one with the shitty siding? Because it fit the budget, and he’s viewing every house through budget lenses.
(As HH fans know, the oft-stated bias can also be “close to the beach,” “my man cave,” “a white kitchen” or “all bedrooms on the same floor.”)
Another place I’m seeing life lenses affect perception is in the political arena. And while I think a series of lenses are in place, but there’s usually one overriding issue—or one demographic—that serves as the first filter. If a voter, for example, believes that women are unfit to be president, it will alter that voter’s perception of everything a female candidate says or does. Similarly, if a voter’s No. 1 issue is allowing same-sex marriage, that voter will view every candidate through that lens first and regard other stances as secondary factors.
This concept has helped me understand how voters I know to be good human beings can support a candidate who is widely recognized as ill-prepared or saddled with what I believe to be disqualifying flaws. But the issue of competency—or the bias against those flaws—is not as strong as that voter’s bias for something else that candidate possesses, whether it’s opposition to taxes or support for raising the minimum wage, or bias for a particular background or style.
In the controversy over Confederate statues, I have to think it’s another lens we look through when we evaluate the appropriateness of those monuments. This isn’t uncharted territory for any American citizen. What biases did each of us have long before the Charlottesville clash—or New Orleans’ removal of statues, or the debates that have cropped up across the country? In some cases, the lens is political: “I’m taking sides with the leaders of my party.” But in most cases, we either stand against the symbols of racial oppression—Rebel flags and Confederate monuments—or we’re OK with them.
And then when Charlottesville or New Orleans or Lexington, Kentucky, happen, different people—with different life lenses—view the same event but reach different conclusions.
There’s one more thing. An eclipse is the obscuration of light when the moon blocks the sun. A similar eclipse is common in today’s news-gathering process. Most of us have sources of news and information we prefer, and we block out the light and, often, the truth of other sources. If you find yourself shout “fake news” at reports that run counter to your political beliefs, you’re often not wearing lenses; you’re wearing blinders. And that’s a whole ’nother essay.
I’m not trying to tell you I’m right and you’re wrong—about Confederate statues or Donald Trump or the play at the plate. I’m just reminding you of the existence of bias, or preconceived beliefs. Being mindful of life lenses not only helps me understand the actions and words of others, it also helps me understand—and even to search to clarify—my own motives and beliefs.
The only thing I’m sure about is that you absolutely need eclipse special glasses—with super-dark lenses—to look at the sun on Monday. And that the Yellow Jackets’ runner was safe at the plate.