Another shooting happened this week in America.
. . . of course, telling when I wrote this doesn’t matter, because such violence happens here almost weekly. But for the sake of example, I’m referring to the case of Robert Aaron Long, a White Evangelical terrorist who deliberately targeted Asian people at two different massage parlors in the metro Atlanta area in March 2021. He killed eight people and was shortly thereafter taken into police custody.
While the noncommittal line from government officials was that the terrorist had “no known motive” at the time, various perceptions of the tragedy began to coalesce around the typical political poles after the news broke.
One narrative saw a clear racial motivation behind the violence. At the time of the killings, roughly a year had passed since the US shut down, along with the rest of the world, as the waters of the pandemic rose to dangerous highs. And as with all disasters, which are fundamentally amoral and indiscriminating (two traits that don’t mesh with commercial life), people wanted someone to blame for their pain. So, thanks to the power of America’s right wing propaganda machine, designed to influence perception, China became the villain. And by extension, so did anyone who looked even vaguely Asian, including Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI)
The hatred wasn’t merely rhetorical, but soon manifested in actual, physical violence, which is always the result of dehumanization. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a nascent research initiative, there were nearly 3,800 reported instances of anti-Asian violence reported between March 2020 and February 2021. And most of that violence was directed towards Asian women in particular.
As a macabre coincidence, that report was released earlier the same day as the Atlanta killings, mostly finding traction in op-eds and left-leaning media networks—many of which also soon picked up the news from Chosun Ilbo, a Korean-language news platform, which helped break the story of the shooting. In the article, one witness heard Long say, “I’m going to kill all Asians.”
And thus, the perception formed that the murderer was motivated by racial hatred.
The other narrative found traction on the tail end of the “no known motive” excuse and originated from the police themselves. Long was a sexual addict, the story went, and his killings were motivated by an admixture of Evangelical paternalism and hormonal mania. One of the police captains from the arresting department said that the massage parlors were a “temptation for [Long] that he wanted to eliminate.” Later, he added, “Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.”
The implication is that racial and sexual violence are mutually exclusive. And ultimately, the latter plays better on TV, because it also quickly became the primary narrative relayed by the Associated Press and most other corporate news platforms through social media posts, push notifications, and punditry.
And thus, the perception formed that the murderer was just a normal guy having a bad day.
Between the two narratives dominating these points of perception, there would be no compromise or mutual agreement. The outrage (or indifference) soon passed, occluded by new, never-before-seen episodes of the political intrigue and terrorist violence emblematic of overall democratic subsidence.
This is the problem of perception playing out in real time, with real lives at stake. And the problem is simple: We see what we want to see.
The combination of desire, intention, and ideology—that is, our worldview—governs our perception as well as that which constitutes how we conceptualize reality and its doppelgänger, illusion. And insofar as our perpetual, base philosophical drive towards enlightenment attempts to elucidate the principles governing our worldview, these concepts tend to elude intellection like deep-sea cephalopods turning transparent in sunlight.
In other words, we can’t really know why we want to see some things rather than others. Critical theories, articulated with of variable degrees of veracity, are sometimes effective in exposing the social, economic, political, and historical latticework climbed by the vines of ideology—but none penetrate the abyssal foundations of consciousness and language that make perception possible in the first place.
Because it’s unknowable, this abyssal domain is likewise the source of psychic fatigue that makes perception controlled and inorganic, no matter how much we like to think of ourselves as creators. Perception is always interpretive as such, but admitting this in practice also means admitting the existentially exhausting reality that the principles governing my interpretation are outside of my intellection. This admittance is exhausting because it evaporates the a priori sovereignty we otherwise like to attach to our perceptions and the conclusions we draw from them; for example, that Robert Aaron Long was either a racist killer or a just an everyday American sexist who had a “bad day.”
Power, politics, and poetry (that is, religion, organized and otherwise) also originate from this same place of fatigue and exhaustion, insofar as each acknowledges the darkness of the abyss between what we think we know and how we actually know it. Religion in almost any form either claims to bridge this gap or deny its existence altogether. It uses a story, system, or social structure to put the percipient in a supposedly fixed place—making perception that much easier to moderate.
Alternately, if I acknowledge and accept this fissure as an inevitable infinity, or what some philosophers call the curse of consciousness, I relinquish a meaningful degree of control that I like to think I have over my own perceptivity. This can be scary, because it demands constant questioning, evaluation, and the ability to be comfortable not having an answer. This is, of course, the injunction of philosophy, which is the love and pursuit of wisdom, but it also has the potential to defang the influence leveraged by the polities, institutions, and so-called social movements that can materially and politically benefit in a very real, practical, and exploitable way, from the acquiescence of my perception.
But defanging the powers-that-be by mapping out their influence on our worldview doesn’t actually enhance our perceptivity or allow us to see more clearly. This is what Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle calls a “false consciousness,” because as long as we’re living and breathing, we’re always subject to the desires, intentions, and ideologies governing our perceptivity. However, by understanding perception as a composition of sensual mystique, we’re able to put both our visions and the conclusions we draw from them into their proper context; to recognize their merely nominal utility; to not deify them or turn them into a basis for dogma; and to not try to convince others of the truth of our own point of view or the untruth of their own.
Perception becomes problematic when the percipient elevates their conclusion to the realm of universal truth—an idea that forms a basis of philosophical inquiry from Feuerbach through Debord, who finally presents modern society (our society right now, not an ancient abstraction requiring levels of hermeneutical analysis) as an amalgamation of “the spectacle, [which] presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned.” Perception is almost always problematic as such, no matter which polity is served by its conclusions.
Simplistically, if everyone at once were to admit the limitations of their own perception, the conclusions we would all draw from what we see in that moment would be reduced to a matter of course: if a murderous man kills eight Asian people in an American city with a population of nearly 490,000, where Asian people constitute only 4.4% percent of its population, the data show that this was not a crime of convenience or everyday grievance. With the gospel of a supreme view, the temperature of the rhetoric is allowed to cool, as the law presents one matter of course for dealing with the murderer, and culture presents another matter of course for ensuring that something like this never happens again.
Allowing the events of the world to follow a matter of course represents a Hegelian reservation on one hand, but on the other hand, this tack avoids the reformist compromises and pseudo-revolutionary collective actions critiqued by Debord as “driven by an abstract desire for immediate effectiveness” but nonetheless “obeying the ruling laws of thought, adopting a perspective that can see nothing but the latest news.”
Beyond the limited horizon of the latest news lies the gloaming of universal history, which cannot be approximated individually or even through organized communities, but as Debord writes, “only and always by the class that is able to dissolve all classes by reducing all power to the de-alienating form of realized democracy—to councils in which practical theory verifies itself and surveys its own actions.” This class, as the originating point of realized democracy, walks on the paradoxical, pitch-black, perceptual boundary between what we think we know and how we actually know it, making no supreme declarations, but only decisions derived as a matter of supposition and course.
Maybe then, the shooting will end.