• Kenneth Jacobs

Perception Generates a Common Interest

Updated: Jan 11

One of John Dewey's major insights was this:

  • If we cannot perceive one another's actions for what they actually mean, then we cannot get on with a democracy that works for the good of everyone.

Dewey (1927) used words like conjoint behavior and associated activity to emphasize the part of human nature that is communal. When we engage in the conjoint behavior that is speaking-and-listening, we learn that we have interests in common. We name that which we find rewarding; we name that which we find aversive; and we name that which secures one and eliminates the other. We share meanings when we say things like "measure twice, cut once." Words like these "get one's point across" in the sense that they effectively guide one's actions.

Other meanings, however, seem to be intentionally confusing. There is your "premium," your "deductible," and the "out-of-pocket maximum" that is NOT a part of your deductible, right? Words like these are "lost on me" in the sense that they do not effectively guide my choice of healthcare plan. Furthermore, they are words that actively deter me from pursuing regular healthcare services. Even if the logic is flawed, I can't be alone in thinking: "My deductible is so high that a doctor's visit is not worth the out-of-pocket expense!"

Problems of Perception

When names like "deductible" are practically incomprehensible, it means that their implied consequences are imperceptible. "Would you rather your deductible to be low or high?" is a question that depends on many circumstances, personally and socially. Dewey (1927) was right when he said:

"Men feel that they are caught in the sweep of forces too vast to understand or master. Thought is brought to a standstill and action paralyzed" (p. linked here).

Recent news surrounding COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd has revealed meanings that many of us misunderstood or outright failed to perceive. The World Health Organization (WHO), for instance, made a statement about the spread of COVID-19 that required translations from many specialists to understand. The misunderstanding was over "asymptomatic spread," which has definite consequences for how we conduct ourselves in public. In order not to cause more confusion, I will let the linked article speak for itself!

Another example, which is a failure on the behalf of the privileged to perceive, is with issues like "qualified immunity." If you are like me, then you probably did not know of qualified immunity until the murder of George Floyd. Like many, I am a latecomer. There has been a boiling over since before my lifetime, and it has been hidden from me by the suburbanites who chose to bury their heads in the sand. This is by no means an excuse though. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that our channels of communication––meant to stoke a common interest––are nonexistent. Nonexistent because our neighborhoods, our schools, our businesses, and our politics are segregated and racist.

The problem of perception is systemic racism, as it prevents us from getting on with a democracy that works for many and not just a few.

Demanding Channels of Communication

When two people are differentially affected by consequences that they both perceive, there is a cause for communication.

"Thus perception generates a common interest..." (Dewey, 1927, p. linked here).

Our common interests are brought to the fore when we communicate our perceptions and demand transparency from our institutions. We demand a common interest when we name certain institutional practices for what they are: racist, predatory, deceitful, unjust, unequal, etc. And when that common interest is held by many and not just a few, we begin to communicate the means by which we need to conduct ourselves––for our own good, and for the good of others. In Dewey's (1927) words:

"Then there arise purposes, plans, measures and means, to secure consequences which are liked and eliminate those which are found obnoxious" (p. linked here).

As of this writing, common interests are being demanded and purposes, plans, measures and means are being implemented. Perception has played no small role, as we can directly see the consequences of institutional racism.