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December 10, 2011

Seeing Events, or Making Them

by Mike M

On the day that John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, a man stood, quiet and still, by the side of the road used by the presidential motorcade.  He was holding an opened umbrella on a cloudless and bright day.  And reports suggest that the first bullets to strike the president rushed directly past the Umbrella Man.

What are we to make of this?  The guy had to be a conspirator, or somehow engaged in mischief.  Maybe an FBI agent sending a mysterious signal.  Some speculated that he had a flechette-firing weapon in that umbrella.

Yet what, in the end, can we draw from an isolated fact, or action?  How do we come to assign meaning to phenomena and events?  Do we impose meaning or derive it from observation?

The brilliant director Errol Morris asks these questions in a fascinating new short film, “The Umbrella Man.”  (It’s a New York Times link, and the video resists embedding.)  The work is part of Morris’s focus over the last few years on perception, meaning, message, and consciousness.

The film suggests one main theme, which might be termed “the principle of assumed meaning.”  When we “see” a phenomenon—say, the National Security Council “seeing” Iran take certain steps to reconfigure its security services—we must interpret it, assign sense to it.  And to do so we must decide the purpose and intention of the act.

Except of course that we do not have access to the mind of the decision maker on the other side, and so we’re just, as it were, guessing.  We are generally pretty awful at this game of assigning purpose and motive, often because we are carting our pre-established worldviews and perspectives to the scene.  We impose our meaning more often than we read it, neutrally and objectively, out of perceived facts.

Running a simulation exercise is a great way to see the “principle of assigned meaning” in action.  Walk from one team to another and you’ll see a constant process of mis-assigned motives.  The China team will see the American offers of a settlement as a ruse, designed to fool them until the carrier they know is on the way can arrive; the Americans meant nothing of the sort with the offer.

Yet how often do we hear “experts” blurt something like, “Clearly, what Putin is trying to do with this move is X.”  Assigned meaning combined with thoughtless self-confidence in one’s own judgment is not a healthy combination.

Morris’s little gem of a film drives home the point that nothing is clear.  Because of all the possible motives assigned to the Umbrella Man, none of those suggested at the time came remotely close to the truth—which was simple, pure, elegant, and would have been utterly unavailable to anyone who didn’t know the man holding the umbrella, and his prejudices.

Taken to its logical extreme, this principle calls into question the basis for any positivist course of analysis.  We cannot ground objective, “rational” assessments of goals, costs, risks, benefits and other factors on the quicksand of ignorance of motives.

“There are no facts,” Nietzsche told us, “only interpretations.”  A healthy reminder to the managers of foreign policy in a world of constantly misinterpreted aims, motives, and behavior.

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