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In Linda Nagata’s excellent real world sci-fi thriller, The Red: First Light, the main characters struggle to grasp the concept of an external agent, in the form of an autonomous digital program, which is working to engineer the distribution of information through the Cloud (the network of servers that stores and shares digital information).  This mysterious external agent – known in the book as “the Red” – throws up filters through which information is either accepted or rejected, “controlling information flow to tailor our perceptions of the world.”


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While this kind of information-controlling conspiracy may be at the core of Ms. Nagata’s story, I was also taken with her suggestion that we all put up our own filters to control the information that color our own perceptions and make up our own beliefs.  While this is not a new concept, in the framework of the novel, these filters have already become alarmingly rigid and narrow by choice, with “people cutting themselves off from everyone but their tribe,” despite there being more information available than ever before in human history.  As the main character, James Shelley, points out regarding a powerful yet evil mastermind in the story:

“… None of that matters to Thelma Sheridan.  She’ll believe what she wants to believe.”  I tap my head, remembering what Elliot told me.  “It’s the mental filters.  We all have them.  Sheridan’s filters allow her to believe impossible things, and to deny things that are real.  She already has a fact-free belief that it’s okay with God if she murders a million people…”

We see that in our own world, don’t we?  Ethnic groups cleansed by “the chosen of God.”  Refugees fleeing conflict and persecution turned away at borders due to suspicion and distrust.  People who believe that other races, other cultures, other sects are inferior because of the color of their skin, or due to where they were born, or because of what gods their parents did or did not worship.  People who believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and that man and dinosaurs co-existed.  Or they believe that all progress is good, or that chemicals released in our air, our water, our soil, will all just magically be absorbed with no lasting ill effect, ever.

Everywhere, people are erecting filters around themselves so that only certain, often very narrow, information is allowed in to their consciousness, although there appears to be no attempt to filter what comes spilling back out.  This seems to be especially prevalent today.

But that’s not what this Gimbling is about.  There’s already a more than adequate number of far more eloquent people gnashing their teeth and rending their garments about the ignorance that pervades our society today.  Instead, I wanted to share how this discussion of filters affected me personally.  It was piqued by another passage that I read in Ms. Nagata’s novel:

“Step back and look at yourself, Shelley.  Don’t you see how hard you’re trying not to hear what I’m telling you?  It’s like you’re afraid of what I might say.”

Don’t you see how hard you’re trying to not hear what I’m telling you?  Or, put another way, can I possibly be not hearing something because I’m trying so hard to filter it out?  Am I my own impediment to an honest understanding of something?

And the more I started looking for self-erected filters, the more I found them.

The easiest ones to find were the one that allowed me to rationalize away doing the right thing. (“I can’t go to the farmer’s market, I have the dog in the car,” even though taking the dog home and driving/busing/walking to the farmer’s market would be an easily attainable thing; espousing the merits of composting but not doing so myself because the city hasn’t issued us a curbside organics recycling bin yet, when the reality is that I have a perfectly useable compost bin in my backyard but the “hassle” of collecting the organic waste in the kitchen and then getting it out to that bin is just too much, especially when I’m the only one who seems willing to do so…).

Most of my filters seem to allow for a certain level of social hypocrisy.  But there are others, ones that feel more deeply entrenched so as to be unmovable, or that are so large I don’t even see them.  (At least I feel guilty about not composting!  Well, sometimes.  A little bit.)  These are ones that have been with me a long time, ones that are part of my upbringing, or a part of the society that I grew up in, masquerading as morality.  They are the filters that allow me to believe things that, once they are exposed, I can’t just admit to, I must confess to believing in.

For example, I must confess that I once belonged to the camp which believed if a young women dressed “like a slut”, or drank to the point of passing out, that she was asking for trouble, and that if she ended up being raped, then she shared some of the responsibility for it.  Having a modern, progressive daughter – and son – proud of their place in society, showed me that my beliefs were not only wrong, but helped to perpetuate a male-centric code of morality where it is accepted as a matter of course that men simply can’t control themselves when faced with a sexual provocation.  My kids didn’t have those filters, thank heaven, so the “boys will be boys” sentiment simply didn’t fly with them at all.  Seeing them reject that erroneous and hurtful sentiment allowed me to see how I had filtered out the enabling end result of accepting it.  (Kids are great for helping parents recognize their own filters.)

But perhaps the most insidious filter is the one that inhibits us from seeing someone else’s viewpoint, that keeps us from being able to understand someone else’s need, someone else’s hurt, someone else’s anger.  This, I think, is the hardest filters to detect, because it is a defensive one, one meant to protect us and promote our own needs.  Yet as we move towards a more crowded and diverse world, it is the one that needs to be examined the most closely.

A watershed moment for me came when Black Lives Matter protesters shut down the Bernie Sanders appearance in Seattle, Washington on August 8.  When I heard that Mr. Sanders had left the podium without being able to address the crowd, I was indignant.  I mean, Bernie Sanders is probably the most sympathetic of the presidential candidates to the concerns of Black Lives Matter!  Why piss off the very people who are most likely to help you?  The “activists” had made their point and gotten their media coverage, so why goad the hundreds of people who had assembled to hear Bernie speak?

I thought of how difficult it would have been for me to have made it to such a rally:  spending money on transportation, suffering the frustration of being short in a crowd of people, and standing for hours (which is physically difficult for me).  Having gone through all that, I wouldn’t have just been disappointed with what transpired, I would have been pissed the hell off – and I wouldn’t have been alone.  Lots of people expressed their outrage at what happened, and the general consensus seemed to be that Black Lives Matter had done more harm than good that day.

It wasn’t until days later that I read an article – and I wish I had kept it, but for the life of me I can’t find it – that finally penetrated the filters that are so strongly in place in me regarding culture and race; filters that I still have the darndest time seeing past, even though I am fully aware that they exist.

This article pointed out that our society – our predominately Western European, Caucasian society – values order above all else.  We enact laws to keep that order.  We drive in lanes on marked roads.  Our cities lie on grids, our property lines are straight, our houses generally tidy. We can only be loud during certain hours or in certain places.  We tend to not interrupt, we use napkins at dinner, we put our garbage in bags in bins and take those bins to the curb on Friday mornings and return them to the garage Friday night.  (Okay, so this is based on a bunch of assumptions – garbage pick-up at my house is done in the alley – but you get the gist of what I’m saying, right?)  And these are good things.  Really.  Nothing wrong with them.  It’s how we want to live, what we’ve worked for most of our lives.

But when that order is upset, man, do we get mad!  How dare someone inconvenience us?  Isn’t life hard enough without this irritation in our lives?  Road construction, water meter readings, neighbors celebrating with loud music during the night, dogs barking continually, internet interruptions, parking places stolen, telemarketers calling during dinner… Infuriating!  And now these protesters not only interrupt Bernie Sanders – someone who seems to stand for decency and inclusion – but they make it so all those folks who came away with nothing more than a glimpse and a bone to chew!  What were they thinking!?!

Well, here’s what they were thinking.

Sorry to break up your little party.  But you know what else sucks?  Getting shot and killed for no reason.  Dying in police custody for no reason.  Having your son go to the store for Skittles and never come back.  Having your sister get pulled over for not signaling a lane change and three days later she’s dead.  Not inconvenienced.  Dead.  Yeah, we’ve tried marches.  We’ve tried speeches and memorials.  And you know what happens?

Nothing. People tut-tut, and “like” our posts on Facebook, and show up to our marches holding posters of MKL, but nothing changes.  Our children are still dying.  Dying.  Not inconvenienced.  Dying.  We even get backlash, with “All Lives Matter” or “All Police Lives Matter”, like it’s an either/or thing, like agreeing with Black Live Matter negates any other life from having value.

So now, it’s time to up the ante.  You give up an afternoon of carefully laid plans and a chance to ogle a political celebrity, but consider what it is that we have given up.  Our lives.  Our LIVES.  Here, let me throw it in your face so maybe you’ll actually notice it, yeah, let me damage your calm.  You get caught in a traffic jam or have to find an alternative way home because we’re blocking the streets?  You want to cry because your nice orderly world was nicked up a bit?

Well, we’re crying because our children are dead.  Dead.  Went to get Skittles and never came back.

(deep breath)

After seeing the Black Lives Matter protest through a different filter, I will admit to having a different outlook.  I sit on my porch now and watch a young black man walk by, and I wonder how much more fear his mother carries in her heart than I do in mine for my own blond haired, blue eyed son?  If that young man with downcast eyes has to worry about being scrutinized everywhere he goes, if in the back of his mind he is constantly aware that one unintentional “wrong” move may have dire consequences just because of the skin he was born with?  Does anger and fear simmer under the surface of who he is and who he is trying to be, volatile and easily stoked, ready to turn him from the boy next door an angry young man who lashes out, who needs to be subdued, removed, negated, a self-fulfilling prophecy?

All he’s doing is walking down the sidewalk.  How much of his life do I simply not understand, sitting on my nice, tidy porch, with my white skin and European background?  I may not ever know, but at least by opening my filters a bit, and letting information in, I can at least ask the question and be honest about accepting the answer, even if it’s something I don’t want to hear, even if it’s only a tiny step towards an elusive solution.

You know, actually filters are great.  If we were to open ourselves to unregulated information, the sheer volume of it would be overwhelming.  Unbalanced, the negativity would be too much; we’d be smothered, crushed by despair.  Bad information, hurtful information, dangerous information, needs to be carefully filtered.  But neither should we strive to live in a sterile environment, physical, intellectual or emotional.  Without diversity of environment, we weaken, we become ripe for easy infection, we sicken, we die.  Or we live in a bubble, cut off from disease, perhaps, but also from all we love.

It’s time to examine the filters we erect in our lives.  They might be clogged with misinformation, misunderstanding, a lack of perception, a lack of empathy.  They may need to be cleaned or even replaced with something clearer, something more efficient, something updated.  Or they may need to be discarded, to let in the fresh air.  I dunno… that’s kind of pushing the metaphor a bit too hard, perhaps.

Or maybe not.

~ Sharon Browning

* Header picture credit: Mike Savad





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