This post came about after hearing a transgendered person stating in a television interview that, “I want to be perceived as female.” I’d been thinking about perception and reality for some time and this person made me realise something I’d not previously considered. I’d been contemplating the different ways that different people perceive reality and, mainly, thinking about individual’s perceptions of the same realities. It had occurred to me that reality was a difficult thing to pin down, due to our differing perceptions, hence reality was up for debate. What I’d not considered was the idea that that individuals’ perception itself could, or even should, be up for debate.
Part 1: Introduction to Perception and Reality.
The featured image of this post is what’s now a fairly common tattoo. Like a lot of tattoos, it suggests a slightly confused view of reality. Maybe we shouldn’t judge people, but the reality appears to be that everybody judges everybody else all the time. Even in terms of that particular tattoo, a judgement has been made on the part of the wearer regarding who is in a position to judge them or not. If it’s actually down to a God, then what right does that individual have to tell anybody else what they can and can’t do? Not forgetting, of course, the unambiguous message in Leviticus 19:28, which says, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.” Bear also in mind that Leviticus also tells us not to eat shellfish or wear clothes made out of more than one material, so maybe we ought to have a think about that one for ourselves. Obviously, those of us who do choose to follow our own paths are going straight to Hell, but that’s a risk I can live with. Not that I even eat shellfish because my perspective is that if shellfish lived on the land, they’d be called ‘insects‘ and I don’t eat those either.
I like Magritte’s paintings a lot.
When she was very little, I was keen on introducing our daughter to the arts, not least because I’m a bit of a ponce like that and as parents, we tend to think that what we like is right and thrusting it upon our offspring who are young and malleable enough to believe everything we tell them means that we engage ourselves in a sort of positive feedback loop. You know, “This is great, isn’t it?” “Yes, it is, isn’t it?”
One of the first artists I introduced her to was Magritte. I have a large sized book with a lot of his paintings reproduced in it. Our favourite was The Son Of Man.
I’ve been a fan for a long time but what I really enjoyed about showing it to our daughter was that she broke down in tears of laughter when she saw it. She literally pissed herself the first time I showed her it. 28 years she was. She wasn’t. She would have been about two or something. I don’t keep a diary, so I don’t know exactly. Pretty young at any rate.
I might have influenced this reaction a bit because I’ve often found myself drawn to art that makes me laugh and The Son Of Man provokes that reaction with me too. I tried not to influence her. You know, she was sat on my knee, I was holding the book, turning the pages and asking her, “What do you think about that, then?” and she’d burble away, not making too much sense. 28 years old she was. Again, she wasn’t.
Anyway, it wasn’t like I was only keen on introducing her to Belgian surrealists because I’d show her all sorts of paintings, took her to galleries and things like that. She’d go along with most stuff, like little kids will, but her favourite was, as she called it, “The Apple Man”. And that got me back into it, as having kids often does for parents. I got a reproduction of it and hung it on the wall in our back room – the dining room, although it’s where I go to avoid being in the same room as the telly when it gets on my tits – and the result is that we take it for granted now. Once we’d laugh at it and now we don’t – through over familiarity. The same joke’s less funny when you hear it every day for fifteen years, isn’t it?
Anyway, the image at the top of this post – The Treachery of Images – is one that my daughter, like a lot of people, is less impressed by. I don’t mind it. Actually, I feel ambivalent about it.
Diversion – Psychologists, ambivalence and clever twats.
When I was at university, during my second year, we all had to go and see a psychologist and undergo a course of therapy in order to see what it was like. By this point, I’d started to become somewhat disillusioned by Psychology in general, or at least what we were getting taught about it so I ended up being a clever twat about it and not really getting as much out of it as I probably should have.
The psychologist who lead my sessions was into non-directive therapy, which I made a point of reading up on and decided, like the clever twat I was, to subvert it. Non-directive therapy means that the therapist doesn’t direct the conversation and the person who goes to see them directs it by talking about whatever it is that they think’s important to them.
What I was interested in doing was seeing what would happen if I didn’t say anything at all. Which was terribly clever of me, I’m sure.
The first week, I knocked on the door, sat opposite the therapist to whom I’d been assigned and she told me that she was going to be following this non-directive therapy concept, which I already knew because my professor had told me and, generally preferring to be prepared for things, I’d looked into it. I nodded.
She told me I could talk about anything I wanted and she’d go along with that. I briefly contemplated talking about sex or something odd but decided not to. I kept my mouth shut and nodded.
Silence. A bit uncomfortable. Maybe a minute of it.
She told me about patient therapist confidentiality and that whatever I told her wouldn’t be discussed elsewhere. Unless I was planning on murdering somebody or something. I gave her the flared nostrils of recognition and enjoyment but kept my mouth shut.
More silence. Maybe two minutes of it. It felt like a long time and I began to doubt whether I’d be able to go through with my smart arsed plan. I looked around her room which was mainly empty, apart from a couple of paintings, neither of which I recognized. They looked like they were examples of pictures that you could put in frames when you buy picture frames. Bland.
She asked if I was alright. I spoke.
“Yeah, I’m fine thanks.”
“Whenever you’re ready, Middlerabbit.”
I smiled again and looked out of the window for a bit.
And that’s mainly what happened for the first session. She was alright and I was a silent nobhead.
Next session, she started off by saying that I’d not actually spoken at all for the entire hour of our previous session.
I asked if that was bad.
She said that it wasn’t bad, but it might not be all that helpful. I nodded.
She asked if I was going to speak this week. I shrugged. Not an aggressive shrug, I tried to incorporate a bit of slightly worried indecision into it, which isn’t that hard.
After about twenty minutes of our sitting in silence again, she took her glasses off and asked me what I thought was happening.
I told her that I thought that we were sitting in silence and nothing much was happening even though I knew something was happening and that something was that both of us were getting a bit tense.
She asked me why I wasn’t saying anything.
I told her the truth: I was seeing what happened in non-directive therapy if the client doesn’t say anything.
She asked me what the point of that was.
I thought about that. Again, in silence. For a few minutes.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know that there is a point.”
She asked me why I was doing it if there was no point.
I told her that I didn’t really see the point in most things and maybe there wasn’t a point.
She told me that the point of things depended on what we wanted the point to be. And that was one of the cleverest things I’d heard up to that point which made me feel worse about being a clever twat.
“That’s very good.”
“What you just said. That the point of a thing depends on what you want it to be.”
“Is it? Why?”
I told her that I’d not really thought of anything like that before and it resonated with me.
She suggested that, in light of my being impressed with her first suggestion, perhaps I might enjoy these sessions more if I made a point of participating in them more actively.
At that point, even though I was impressed with her, I still couldn’t help myself being a smartarse.
“I feel ambivalent about it.”
I’d read somewhere that if you tell a psychologist that you feel ambivalent about something – anything – they’ll cream themselves about it. So I thought I’d see if it was true.
Sadly, it did appear to be true. I noted the change in her posture and level of eye contact between us and decided that it was all a crock.
“Why do you feel ambivalent about it, Middlerabbit?”
The sad truth is that I didn’t feel ambivalent about it – I liked it unreservedly, but I was more interested in acting the nobhead than doing something that I might get something out of, so I just went back to not saying anything.
I probably should have gone to university when I was a bit older. Certainly a bit more mature. I was much too busy being a dick to get much out of it at that age. 28 years old I was. I wasn’t. I was about 20, even though emotionally I was only about 14.
End of Diversion.
Anyway, even though I didn’t feel ambivalent about nice, friendly psychologists making salient, intelligent points about worldviews, I did – and do, although to a lesser extent now – feel ambivalent about Magritte’s The Treachery Of Images.
The reason I liked it was because I thought it was a good painting of a pipe. Nothing more than that. The reason I didn’t like it was because of what it meant. What it means in terms of, “This is not a pipe,” is that it’s not a pipe because it’s a painting of a pipe.
I’ve shown it to kids here and there over the years and they tend to feel as I did – it’s a bit of a con. Pedantic. But now I’m not so sure.
A few years ago there was a mild hoo-hah regarding a dress and whether it was blue and black or gold and white.
It was a strange thing and there doesn’t yet appear to be a definitive answer as to why different people perceived something blue and black as being gold and white. It’s not like some shades of blue that look a bit greenish, these are radically different colours.
You might argue that people weren’t arguing over the colour of a dress because they weren’t. They were arguing over the colours they perceived in a digital photograph and that’s a different thing altogether.
Even so, does that mean that if one person saw it as a photograph of a black and blue dress and another saw it as a photograph of a gold and white dress that those people witnessed a different reality in the same image? The photograph was of the same dress but people perceived it differently. Not in the way that some people liked it and other people didn’t, but in terms of what it actually was. Or at least, what the photograph was.
In short, this is not a black and blue dress, this is a photograph of a black and blue dress that might have been manipulated in order to mislead people and sell advertising through the media, which is a bit cynical. A bit of a con. Ce n’est pas une robe noir et bleue, if you like.
Let’s take a different, still fairly facile if a bit more classical, example.
The above image provokes either a young woman whose head is tilted away from the viewer or an old woman with a big nose. The image has been purposely constructed to be interpreted in either way. But what does it mean, whether you see an old woman or a young woman first?
First, what it doesn’t mean is that you’re a pervert, whichever image your brain selects to focus on initially. In itself this is fairly unusual in classic psychology. What it does mean is that your brain focuses on particular sections of an image and constructs what it means from there.
What that means is that your perception, at least of visual stimuli, is dependent on the way that your brain interprets light that strikes your retina. Pretty dry, eh?
Well, it is and it isn’t. C’est et n’est pas une jeune femme ou une vieille femme.
Of the images I’ve so far put up here to illustrate ambiguity of perception, the first two (of the dress) are unambiguous. The one on the left is black and blue, the one on the right is gold and white and, depending on the one you saw – probably on your mobile phone – when you discussed it with anyone, you’d be surprised if they held a different perspective to yours when the reality is that they would have only seen a different image. That example of perception is, frankly, a bit of a con that relied on people talking about different images when they were under the impression that they were discussing the same thing.
The one with the old woman and the young woman is ambiguous because both are represented.
But what about the pipe?
It’s unambiguously a painting of a pipe. However, most people aren’t going to say, “That’s a painting of a pipe.” What most people are going to say is, “That’s a pipe.” Which is, I suppose, what Magritte was getting at.
“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”
In modern terms, what Magritte’s doing is using subtext to draw attention to something or other. Painting, probably. He’s drawing our attention to the pipe and not explicitly writing, “This is a painting of a pipe”, but doing the opposite in order to allow us to work it out for ourselves. Or have somebody else tell us, I suppose.
To summarise up to this point then, in some circumstances, we can be manipulated by the alteration of an image into perceiving one thing when, in fact, it is an image of something else. In other circumstances, the way that our brains interpret visual stimuli can have an effect on whether we perceive an ambiguous image as one thing or another.
Part 2: The Meat of The Matter.
Stan: I want to be a woman. From now on I want you all to call me Loretta. Reg: What!? Stan: It's my right as a man. Judith: Why do you want to be Loretta, Stan? Stan: I want to have babies. Reg: You want to have babies?!?!?! Stan: It's every man's right to have babies if he wants them. Reg: But you can't have babies. Stan: Don't you oppress me. Reg: I'm not oppressing you, Stan -- you haven't got a womb. Where's the foetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box? (Stan starts crying.) Judith: Here! I've got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can't actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody's fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the *right* to have babies. Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister, sorry. Reg: (pissed off) What's the *point*? Francis: What? Reg: What's the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can't have babies? Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression. Reg: It's symbolic of his struggle against reality.
Extract from Monty Python’s “The Life Of Brian”.
Comedy and things that we laugh about can change over time. Things like The Black & White Minstrel Show were still on the telly when I was a little kid and there’s no way that sort of thing would be accepted now. To be honest, I thought it was shit then. In fairness, I consider a lot of comedy nowadays to be a load of shit too, so maybe I’m not the person to ask. The above extract, from 1979’s satire on religion (among other things) may fall under a broad banner encompassing ‘Things that we used to laugh about but we’re better than that now’.
Diversion – Acting.
If there’s a subtext to this post, I suppose it’s that’s everything’s more complicated than a lot of people would like, including me a lot of the time.
The Black & White Minstrel Show is now seen as a bad ting because it involved white men using makeup to look like black men and singing songs in a parody of the West Indian accents. Fair dos. If you want to watch black men singing songs in West Indian accents, why don’t you get black men to do it?
In Shakespeare’s day, women weren’t allowed to act, so men played the female roles which sounds similarly daft to me. If you want someone to play Juliet, wouldn’t it make sense to get a young looking girl to do it?
On the other hand, there have been suggestions that characters who are gay should only be played by gay actors.
Personally, I’m not convinced that’s a very good idea because isn’t the natural conclusion that only only straight actors should play straight roles?
Which leads to the obvious overarching issue that acting, as a concept, involves a person pretending to be someone who they’re not. Otherwise, it’s not acting, is it?
Perhaps it gets more (or possibly less, depending on your point of view) complicated when it comes to who ought to play the role of a transgender person.
The potential issue here is that, often, a film about a transgender person often requires an actor to play both gender roles in the before and after contexts. If the public ought to accept a transgendered person, say a female who has transitioned into a male, as a male, why should the audience accept them when they play the pre-op female? Or vice-versa?
As far as race goes, yes. As far as men playing women and vice versa, again, yes. But for sexuality and trans? Hmm. Don’t know about that one.
End of Diversion.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – changing your mind about things as you realise the broader effects of things. For instance, at school when I was a kid, the terms of abuse were primarily what we would now consider to be homophobic and disablist. Nobody ever pointed out how calling people gaylords and spastics might be upsetting to gay people and to the disabled. It certainly didn’t occur to me until I was much older. I was called, and called people both of those things without considering what they meant. I don’t now, but perhaps there are words I use today that I will be disappointed in myself in twenty years’ time for using.
Not that I’m about to beat myself up about it, although I do my best to give a bit more consideration to the words I use and what they mean whereas I pretty much didn’t then.
Right wing commentators sometimes refer to those things as “Political Correctness gone mad.” I don’t have any problem with political correctness. My belief is that all ‘political correctness’ means is ‘trying not to upset people’. I think that’s a good thing.
Having said that, the above extract from The Life of Brian derives its laughs from mocking transgender issues. In a way.
Loretta isn’t mocked for wanting to be a woman, she’s mocked because she wants people to agree to something that can’t happen: growing a baby in her non-existent uterus.
Last night I heard a person on television programme who said this: “I want to be perceived as a woman.”
While I can understand what she’s getting at, I’m not convinced that what she wants is either feasible or necessarily desirable in terms of a couple of things.
Personally, if somebody wants me to call them ‘she’ or ‘her’, I’ll go along with whatever they want. I might not think it, but I don’t want to go around upsetting anybody for the sake of it. I’m not going to change anybody’s mind about things like that but – and this might be important – neither is she.
To consider a similar but slightly different perspective, I’ve written about Oasis and how in interviews Noel was very keen on encouraging comparisons between his band and The Beatles, despite there being very little musical evidence to support his claim. Yeah, ‘Whatever’ sounds Beatley, but that’s one song in their entire catalogue. Nothing else sounds remotely Beatley. Slade? T. Rex? New Seekers? Status Quo? Gary Glitter? Yes, frankly. And that’s a lot of early 1970s Glam Rock. Yet, Noel didn’t really talk about how Glam Rock was a big influence because he’d rather be thought of as resembling The Beatles than a load of bricklayers in eyeliner and lippy.
Yet people went along with it. Why though? Maybe it was the times. The mid 1990s when people started remembering how The Beatles were fab. Maybe it was just that a lot of people can’t wait to be told what they’re supposed to think about something. I mentioned how Hitler talked about how if you tell a big enough lie often enough, they’ll start to believe it. You know, the ‘Conservative Party looks after the economy better than Labour do’, despite there being no evidence to substantiate that claim. Things like that.
So it’s not as if there’s no precedent for individuals telling people that they’re one thing when they’re palpably not and a lot of those people blindly agreeing with it. I can see why that tactic is appealing.
On the other hand, it also goes against pretty much everything I believe in.
In the classroom, I always tell kids to question everything. Especially when people tell them not to.
The reason I tell them that is because there are people out there who want to dupe others into believing things that aren’t true and I strongly believe that people ought to make their own minds up about things.
I get a good five or six emails every day from people claiming that they’re from Apple, or Microsoft, or a bank, or from an internet provider who want me to give them my details in order to rob me. Phone calls too. If I were to just accept everything that everybody told me to, it would be to my own detriment. Personally, professionally and financially.
As a middle aged man whose hair has largely deserted him, I don’t like being, well, not bald, but getting there. What options are, realistically, open to me to combat that?
I could get a hair transplant I suppose but they look crap and what am I going to say to people who’ve known me with a thinning thatch? Oh, it grew back? I could get a wig, but wigs look shit and the same question would arise, even if they didn’t. Or, perhaps I could say to people something like, “I want to be perceived as a man with hair.” But they won’t, will they? They’ll perceive me as a man with a(n) wig/hair transplant/unsubstantiated claim to have hair.
And that’s the point really. I can’t expect other people to perceive things as I want them to perceive them because that’s their business and not mine.
Then there’s Emile Ratelband (69) who went to court to change his age to 45 because that’s how old he thinks his body looks and he can’t get a date on Tinder.
That was thrown out of court because it would constitute deleting part of his life. His point was that “Transgenders can now have their gender changed on their birth certificate, and in the same spirit there should be room for an age change.”
Part 3: Nothing’s Ever Straightforward, Is It?
I enjoy George Carlin’s quotation about stupidity even though it pisses me off at the same time. Yes, something else I feel ambivalent about.
On the other hand…
I don’t like Winston Churchill in a lot of ways but, as his famous quotation suggests, he wasn’t stupid about everything. He might have been a racist arsehole, but I expect an awful lot of people were at that point in time, weren’t they?
I don’t know whether the people who are going around, fundamentally, telling people what they should think are stupid, deluded or impractical.
Maybe what’s happening is that, like Emile Ratelband, some people just see other people getting something and decide that they want a piece of it too. You know, people who push it.
I’ve also written about corporal punishment and what that was like. We don’t have corporal punishment in schools now and, on the whole, I think that’s a good thing. Mainly because I don’t want to hit kids myself. It doesn’t seem very fair. On the other hand, behaviour’s much poorer now that the threat of that’s gone. I don’t think you could bring it back now even if you wanted to, not that I do.
I think ideas can sometimes gain momentum, like pendulums and, like pendulums, they can sometimes swing a bit far in reaction to the opposite direction. Like Emile Ratelband, like some kids in schools who truly believe that they ought to be able to say and do anything they want but nobody else should be able to.
Ideas – which I’m generally in favour of, provided they get a bit of thought, which they often don’t – have to stand up to reality and the only reality that any of us really have access to comes from the way that we perceive it.
Our perceptions might be inaccurate due to alcohol, drugs or just having faulty brain processes. They might be inaccurate because something is ambiguous in its appearance. They might be inaccurate because somebody wants us to believe something that isn’t actually true. But what else do we have to go on?
I think the best we can hope to do is to try our best to make sure that we learn thought processes that make sense of the world as we perceive it.
And what that means is, you ought to think for yourself and not let other people tell you what to think. Consider the evidence yourself and think logically. By all means listen to what other people tell you, but make your own mind up.
Diversion – Logical Fallacies.
My favourite logical fallacy is “Appeal To Authority”, otherwise known by its high falutin’ term, argumentum ab auctoritate. This isn’t the first time that I’ve brought this up but that’s not all that surprising I suppose. What the Appeal To Authority states is that you should not accept an argument just because somebody tells you that they’re an expert in that field and therefore whatever they say is correct. In a way, it’s what Winston Churchill was getting at. Well, sort of. The concept is that if a person really is an expert – an authority – on a subject, then they ought to be able to explain it in such a way that it still makes logical sense to people who aren’t experts in that field because otherwise, you’re just taking somebody’s word for it and that person might have a nefarious agenda. Meaning, they might be lying or they might just be plain wrong this time. Think of experts from the past who claimed that the sun orbited the Earth. They were wrong, weren’t they? Or high priests who claimed that unless they burned the still beating hearts of slaves on the tops of pyramids then the sun would go out. They were wrong too. Doctors who used to claim that smoking was good for you. All experts, all of them wrong.
End of Diversion.
Which, for some people, is going to be an issue. I don’t know what the answer is to the travails of people who feel that their bodies are a false representation of what they feel inside, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve telling other people how to perceive reality.
It’s a complicated world, but maybe that’s the point…