On the Mystery and Meaning of Perspectives
The title of this little blog post could be the title of a book! And perhaps someone has written it. I haven’t—yet. These are merely my musings about the subject sparked by a recent series of essays and letters about a television program.
I live in the American city where a very popular television program produced by the cable channel HGTV (Home and Garden Television) is filmed and produced. The show is called “Fixer Upper” and stars a local couple—Chip and Joanna Gaines, owners of Magnolia Homes—a real estate and construction firm that specializes in remodeling old houses for their clients. Sounds boring, huh? Well, if you’ve watched the show, which has now aired its third season, you know it’s not boring—to many people.
In fact, this single television show has, in less than three years, turned around the national and international reputation of an American city and brought thousands of people from all over North America and some from other places here to visit the scenes and sites—especially the new Fixer Upper empire which now includes not only beautifully restored homes (one only three blocks from my house) but a home decorating “mall,” a bed and breakfast, and (soon to be) refurbished and reopened historic restaurant. Other parts of the “empire” are in the works.
This little television program is watched by people of all ages and both genders and widely commented on—from coast to coast. Everywhere I go around America—from Pennsylvania to Oregon people ask me “Have you met Chip and Joanna Gaines?” I can proudly say I have. They would not remember it, but I met them at a local coffee house two years ago.
The show is about remodeling old homes, but it’s also about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their family. I think the real attraction of the program is the chemistry between the couple and their beautiful children. They have become local and even national celebrities. She is exceptionally beautiful and charming and he is exceptionally affectionate to his wife and children and at the same time a “real man.” (Sometimes he can be exceptionally silly, but I think that’s part of the show’s charm.)
The responses to “Fixer Upper” and to the stars provokes some serious and, to me, puzzling questions about truth. Or, perhaps better said, they illustrate those questions which have been swirling around in my mind for decades and maybe since I first became aware that equally sincere and intelligent people can and often do have totally opposite interpretations of the same events.
I think most people tend not to take that phenomenon seriously enough. The whole idea of trial by jury of peers—especially as practiced in the U.S. today—tends not to take the phenomenon seriously enough. Or at least we tend not to take it into account. Modernity, rooted in the Enlightenment, lingers in our tendency to believe that twelve people hearing and seeing the same data will agree and come to the right conclusion. I happen to think it might be better for trials to be adjudicated by one of Plato’s “philosopher kings”—a high-minded, intellectual, observant, trained person who has proven himself or herself capable of being relatively objective. (After all, such a person—a higher court judge—has the authority to overturn a jury decision!)
Back to the case study at hand: “Fixer Upper.” The humble television show has provoked serious reflection—including by Christian scholars. Grove City College’s social psychologist Lisa Hosack has written one such essay reflecting on the values and virtues and dangers (!) of the show from a Christian perspective: http://www.visionandvalues.org/2016/03/a-fixer-upper-project-of-the-heart/ . (I do not put hyperlinks here because, for some reason, they always lead to the wrong place! Please copy and paste this URL into a web browser and read this wonderful piece of Christian interpretation of popular culture.) Hosack thinks one of the attractions of the show for women is the husband’s affection (“obvious adoration”) for his wife. I have talked with some people who think Chip Gaines’s displays of affection for his wife are a bit cloying.
Today the local newspaper published another piece—a letter to the editor from a social worker in Ohio who is also a viewer of “Fixer Upper”—arguing that the male star of the show is abusive toward his wife. The editor placed the headline above the letter: “Are we watching the same show?” Among other things, the letter writer claims that Chip Gaines has hit his wife, verbally abused her, and chased her with malicious intent. She interprets Joanna as an abused wife.
I will let you decide what you think about that difference of opinion—assuming you have watched the show regularly and often. (I have watched every episode of all three seasons—with my wife who thinks the female letter writer from Ohio is “crazy.”)
So, here we have a single reality-based television program that gives rise to at least two radically contradictory interpretations of the same facts—the husband’s behavior toward his wife as shown on television. (At issue is not his behavior towards her off camera although the female letter writer suggests it may be worse than on camera.) How can this be?
One might be tempted to think the difference has to do with gender, but that seems to be undermined by Lisa Hosack’s interpretation as well as my wife’s. (My wife agrees with me that sometimes Chip Gaines’s adoration of his wife is a bit over the top.) What can account for this radical difference of interpretation of the exact same data?
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (d. 1952) argued that all “seeing” is “seeing as.” In other words, there is no “view from nowhere.” Every individual “sees” things, interprets them, from a subjective point of view. In other words, there is no such thing as pure objectivity in interpretation of data. I do not think this to me obvious fact has filtered down to and influenced the average American. We are still fascinated and captivated by the illusion of pure objectivity—when it “works” for us. In other words, we may jump to it when it works to our advantage but most of the time we believe pure objectivity is possible and desirable.
Ironically, most Americans are also, and at the same time, conditional relativists—people who believe truth is contextual, never absolute.
If we believed with Wittgenstein and his postmodern followers that there is no view from nowhere perhaps we would be much more humble in our assertions of and attempts to enforce our own perspectives.
Let me give one—to regular readers here predictable (!)—example and illustration. If we took the reality of “seeing as” seriously we would abolish the death penalty because we would realize and acknowledge that any individual’s or groups’ interpretation(s) of data could be so biased and flawed as to be simply wrong. In fact, that has turned out to be the case in hundreds of jury decisions that have sent innocent men and women to prison for life. Without doubt it must have been the case in at least some jury decisions that resulted in executions.
We can’t stop incarcerating people, but we can and should realize that perspective so intrudes into everything that putting someone to death because they are judged guilty of a heinous crime “beyond a reasonable doubt” is too final and absolute. It assumes an objectivity that may not be available to finite minds.
The reality of perspective should result in fallibilism—the belief that human beings can be wrong about anything (and possibly everything!). And fallibilism should result in acknowledging that even a jury of twelve “reasonable” peers (are they ever really “peers?”) could be wrong even when the evidence seems beyond doubt. We all know this was the case in the past—when all white juries of only men condemned poor African-Americans to death (to say nothing of lynchings!). Why do we think it couldn’t still be the case? We believe, apparently, in the modern myth of progress and assume we have reached the stage where we are beyond the past. Now, we assume, we are above the past. How arrogant we are.
Note to potential commenters: Please refrain from injecting here your own interpretation of Chip Gaines’s behavior on “Fixer Upper.” I have already acknowledged that there can be and are radically different perspectives and interpretations. (My own is that he is totally innocent of the Ohio woman’s accusations.) Please restrict your comments to discussion of the phenomenon it illustrates and what should be our response to that.