What is perception?

Lt.Gen. Charles Bouchard of the Canadian Forces, NATO Commander of the Libyan operation, briefs reporters in 2011. (Retuers)

For six years I worked on the NATO International Staff’s Public Diplomacy Division where I managed a variety of portfolios and campaigns relating to the Alliance’s audiences across North America and Europe.  Public diplomats are officially obsessed with the public’s “perception” of government and organizational policy and we track opinion polls, favorable and unfavorable op-eds, news article “slant” and public protests to gauge what people think of us.

I choose the word “perception” deliberately. How we are “perceived,” how the public “perceives” us, how we are “seen,” are variations on a theme. We don’t usually talk about what they think about us, whether they like us or not, or do or do not support us or a policy or course of action.  We do occasionally see those questions in public survey data, but those are more concrete answers relating to policy, and they don’t come that often.  How the public perceives an event in the flow of time is much more important, and volatile, and much more dependent on the details.  For example, the public may support a UN-mandated NATO coalition going after Muammar Gaddafi, but once U.S., French and British aircraft start pounding targets they may perceive a neo-colonial agenda at play. That’s the difference between supporting a prospective course of action and the perception of that action once it is under way.

My question has long been, Why does perception exist?  This becomes much more a matter of ontology, a matter of human knowledge, than that of political theory and philosophy. But it affects politics because it determines how people make political judgments and political decisions.

Public perception is a reality of almost any contentious political issue. Every political issue — health care, terrorism, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, the economy — is a three-dimensional object placed in public view. Everyone who then views it or contemplates it sees it not just from their perspective but placed against a very specific context and backdrop.  The way you view it is not just different from the way I see it but entirely separate from our separate contexts.

From where I sit, then, to really understand a political issue, I want to stand up and walk around the issue and see it not just from all angles but against all contexts.  I especially want to talk to the other people looking at the thing itself, to understand what they are seeing and why.  (The cliche “things look very different depending on where you sit” suddenly sounds much more profound.)

Perception has much in common with political judgment as I argued in my previous post. Judgment, again, is the human art of getting things right in the absence of complete information. In prospect this is exceptionally hard, but it is difficult enough in real time, the here and now.  We are not blessed with the historian’s leisure and insight. So we apply judgment based on our experience. And our experience, taken together, is the whole vast plurality of the human collective.

Much of perception can be a put-up job, to be a sure — exploited perceptions, as it were. While there may be reasonable differences over the health care reform act, for example —  mandated access to drive down costs versus concerns over government interference in the economy — demagogues are especially good at distorting motivations on both sides. So proponents want to dictate what Americans spend their money on and opponents want to leave the uninsured to get sick and die.

But this gives you a better idea of how and why good politicians operate and thrive. They can run the calculus in three dimensions quicker (perhaps four dimensions, evolving perceptions over time) and exploit them to their benefit. We’ll see who wins in November.

Unfortunately in public diplomacy and public affairs “perception” — a real subjective difference of view — would often be shaved down to “image,” a pale flat version of a more complex and evolving issue of public opinion.  (“Image,” I am convinced, is the result of headline exigencies. But now we must worry about it to fit into newspapers and answer reporter questions.)  If we become worried about image then we are obsessing over a shadow, not something real.  Perceptions may be “incorrect” and out of line with the sincere intentions behind policy or actions that create those intentions, but they’re usually focused on something hard and real.  Obama’s birther and Islamic-detractors come to mind. It’s not that they believe he’s foreign-born or a Muslim and we know it. But changing that “perception” is a much more difficult problem. And we know that, too.


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