Proximity, Similarity, and the Mechanics of Accepting Lies
As Donald Trump addressed the issue of California sanctuary city laws on May 17, he went on his latest rant about illegal immigrants in what has become a sustained assault on the psychology of Americans with his campaign to dehumanize people who are not white.
Fresno County Sheriff Margret Mims conveniently set the stage with her comment, “There could be [a] MS-13 gang member I know about, if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about them.”
Trump responded, without mentioning anything specifically about MS-13, “We have people coming into the country or trying to come in, we are stopping a lot of them. But we are taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people, these are animals. And we are taking them out of the country at a level and rate that has never happened before. And because of the weak laws they come in fast. We get em, we release em, we get em again. We bring them out. It’s crazy.”
Even before the metaphorical ink could dry, these words were either being scrutinized or qualified, depending on which side of the political football field people pledged allegiance to.
Some saw his comments as referring to all immigrants as “animals,” and others felt that his remarks were in context, and only referring to the gang members of MS-13. Either way, everyone was again talking about Trump.
This is a man who long ago figured out how how to make vague enough statements that both attract or distract us. Trump says anything, only to have these statements be later qualified. The tactic paints him as the ultimate victim of mainstream media.
It is clear that his base eats this up, as he continues to make a mockery of political correctness by being unapologetically crass. His base is embolden to mimic this behavior, going by all of the videos being shared lately of immigrants targeted by hate speech.
It then falls to Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to sort out the mess, as she attempts to make sense of the senseless. Every time Trump goes on one of his signature tirades, where he says whatever bounces into his head, she takes on the role of a divine mystic who alone can interpret the will of the gods by explaining the things Trump says.
In her follow-up press briefing, Huckabee stated that “this is one of the most vicious and deadly gangs that operates by the motto of rape, control, and kiII. If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they’re more than welcome to. Frankly, I don’t think the term that the president used was strong enough. Frankly I don’t think the term ‘animal’ goes far enough, and I think the president should use his platform and everything he can do to stop these types of horrible, horrible, disgusting people.”
With the same breath, Huckabee went on to graphically describe some the worst acts committed by members of this gang. She inflamed an already emotional discussion, adding fuel to the fear about why “brown men” should be kept out of civilized American society because they are subhuman.
This is problematic, but not for direct political reasons, and that is the concern. Because I understand that the human psyche operates by clumping people together by visual perceptions, I can see the pattern of damage caused when the President of the United States uses these opportunities to make sweeping and dehumanizing comments. He does this to earn points with his racist base, advance a racist agenda, and still play the role of the misunderstood and victimized champion of the downtrodden.
While decorum or qualifying facts has never been this President’s modus operandi, these types of statements are not accidental. They are done with the purpose of detailing a picture that is already been painted. A picture backed by a history of using divisive propaganda to justify harm on vast populations of people. A picture that is reinforced by the perceptions of our biological psyche. A picture of an US vs. THEM.
In the past, I have used Gestalt psychology to explain how our minds acquire, organize, and reinforce our philosophy about the world we exist in. One of the major parts of Gestalt psychology is that our mind understands external stimuli as the “whole rather than the sum of its parts.”
Our minds want to simplify and organize the crazy world around us into a digestible form. This is done at a very unconscious level, and for the most part, serves the function of quick computation. However, it also serves the function of simplifying people into groups and developing dangerous leaps of thinking. The process goes from a specific group of people like MS-13, to seeing that all Mexican people are like that.
This theory states that visual perceptions are formed by the grouping Laws of Proximity, Similarity, Closure, Symmetry, Common Fate, Continuity, Order, and Experience. The Law of Proximity states, “objects that are close to one another have more in common than objects that are further apart.”
The Law of Proximity is what makes segregation so damaging.
The Law of Similarity would state that objects that share similar visual properties, such as color or shape, would be more alike than those that do not look like each other. This pattern of thinking makes race such a significant factor in determining worth.
The Law of Closure basically helps our mind fill in the details when a part of the picture is missing. We naturally assume and draw conclusions.
Continuity tells our mind that it is hard to interrupt a pattern that has existed for so long, and Symmetry tells us that order is good.
The Law of Experience states that memory can link two recent events and perceive them together as one.
When we use all of these perceptual laws in combination, we understand why the news media can continually reinforce our deepest held psychological biases of what we think “the other” who is different represents.
This is where Trump’s comments, and the painting of an already painted picture, is not about who scores the most political points but how much social trauma is inflicted between generations.
Instead of finding strength from the foundations of liberty enshrined in the Constitution, Americans allow Trump to paint over words that proclaim freedom with a picture of fear. It is a picture that says we need to build walls. A picture that reduces human beings to animals. A picture that condenses a complex world into overly simplified view of being different is bad, so we are justified in how we treat others who do not look like us.
As individuals and as a collective society, we need to continually ask what we are building, for ourselves and the future. All the issues we face today did not sprout overnight. They were decades in the making, and it is a bitter pill to accept that so many problems are due to our own making.
Those who can’t enjoy freedom make their own prison. Trump is a culmination of America’s inconvenient and dark history, an embodiment of our national sins.