Saturday, May 09, 2009

Ruminations on Christian Idealism and Objective Thought vs. Subjectivism, Visual Impressions, and Image in Society (Spurred on By a Photograph of Me)

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This whole thing began as a result of a discussion brought on by a woman (Becky) on the CHNI board having met me during a recent vacation of ours (see that post), and writing her impressions of me. Some of the discussion had to do with a photograph of me (the "serious" one you see above) and the impression it gives some folks, and what this means. That in turn became a fascinating little dialogue / debate on several levels: ultimately epistemological in nature. Becky's words will be in blue, David's in green, Ali's in orange, and Ted's in purple.

* * * * *

I always thought that Dave's picture on his website, with the black leather jacket and all, made him look kinda scary.

Yeah, Ted, I have to agree. I must say that old picture captures NONE of the real Dave Armstrong. I was totally unprepared for the real guy.

Ted, I met Dave Armstrong and his wife myself last year, and I must say that Becky's characterization of him is spot on. The old picture of him in the leather jacket quite macabrely turns him into a grimacing mafioso. He is nothing of the kind; . . .

I get the biggest kick out of the comments about my leather jacket "serious" picture (which is from March 2007). I've heard this before, too. Virtually all the previous portraits of me on my old website and blog, going back to 1997, were smiley photos. So I decided to do one set of serious pictures, and people get these bizarre impressions. Why would a simple serious expression reduce to looking like a "mafioso"? Smiley Cheesy We go through most of life with a serious expression on our face. LOLOL

I don't comprehend how anyone (not you guys, but the implication is that others might think this) could possibly sum up a person's entire personality or persona from one serious picture, where I put on my cool leather jacket and my glasses were still dark (photo-grey) because we had just been outside taking the other portrait shots and were pressed for time. Elvis wore a leather jacket, too. Was he ever called a "mafioso"? LOL

I guess it's the visual equivalent of the stereotype of apologists that drives me nuts: we write about serious, heavy topics and dare to correct errors on occasion, so we must be (so many people appear to think) killjoy, puritanical, super-stern, perhaps a bit condescending, taskmaster types. Well, I've met almost all the Catholic apologists who are known by name at all, and there have been only one or two at most I could think of whose personality even remotely resembled the caricature (with the vast majority of the rest being utterly the opposite of the caricature). Dunno what can be done to change that impression (probably nothing). I have plenty of lighthearted material and humor and personal stuff on my blog, too, which I would hope helps people to see that I am not some dour, morose sourpuss, even though I am a part-Scotsman of the Armstrong clan. LOLOL

Below is the smiley photo that was my main portrait on my website and blog from 2000 to 2007, and it is still on my personal page. [the "smiling" photograph posted at the top of this page]

The suit pic is nice. I guess maybe it's hard for the camera to capture a spirit of affability. Perhaps if you wore a casual shirt, no beard, no dark glasses, and held Pumpkin Bear in your lap, the real you would come through in a photograph. Smiley

And here is the "mean mafioso" photo Grin [see also, above]

My glasses were dark because we had just done outdoor photos, and my glasses (I've since gotten new ones) were photo-grey and hadn't lightened up yet. So it wasn't like I was purposely trying to wear dark glasses inside to achieve some "sinister" persona . . . .

I'm very curious now about this "photos conveying a persona" business. Does this nice smiley picture (from April 1995) convey what I seem to be like in person?



Dave, that pic is certainly a big step in the right direction. I'm not sure it's possible to capture all the positives of one's nature in a still photo. The important thing is to avoid suggesting negatives that are not reality. This pic avoids suggesting the false negatives that the "mafioso" pic suggests.

I still maintain that it is ridiculous in the first place to draw any conclusions from a picture simply because it is serious and the person isn't smiling from ear to ear. Most of the portraits in the history of the world were serious in nature. What is so terrible about that, and why in the world would it dawn on anyone that a person who isn't smiling in a picture is probably (or likely) some negative killjoy?

By the same token, a nice smile in a photo has no implication that the person therein is truly nice, warm, charitable, etc. Stalin had a pretty good smile. So does Bin Laden. It means nothing (necessarily) other than that, well, the person has . . . a nice smile!

I think folks are way too caught up in mere images and subjective impressions. There has to be some deeper thought on this. The fact is that we can't tell all that much about a person from a photograph, just as we don't seem to be able to do so from words that they write (as rampant Internet misunderstandings attest). There has to be some time spent, at least talking on the phone, so that a lot more real human communication and interaction can occur.

I know I'm making a basically fun conversation heavy and "philosophical", but I think there is something we can learn from this; sumpin' to ponder and think about.

Well, Dave, I will suggest a couple of things for you to ponder.

1. Consider the three persons who gave you a unanimous report: David, Ted, and Becky. Have not all three of them demonstrated a loving, supportive spirit of good will toward you? Do you not have a fairly high opinion of these three persons? OK, then should you not make the reasonable assumption that the three of them perhaps see something you do not see, recognize something (about human behavior and the global, intuitive ways in which folks form impressions of others) that you do not recognize? (Your seeing in that pic only the absence of a smile or the presence of a serious expression is evidence of not "seeing" something, I think.)

2. It is not fruitful to argue that folks should not be drawing conclusions on such a basis. That is how impressions are formed. That is the reality of human behavior and human interaction, whether one likes it or not. Declaring that it makes no sense will do nothing to change the reality of how folks respond to others and to images and photographs. The assumption, I think, was that you would want to post pics that take into account how impressions are formed and that you would want to avoid doing yourself a disservice. Three out of three friends are saying to friend Dave, "Hey, friend Dave, that pic is not a good choice." Smiley

I do understand your attitude in a way and actually took the same unfruitful approach myself when I sold my last house. It is a pet peeve of mine that house hunters form an impression of a house on the basis of how it is staged. This makes no sense.

The buyers are buying only the house, not the furniture, not the furnishings. They should be looking only at the house, not the decor. Why do they get caught up in the personal taste of the current owners? I find that sort of thing so illogical that I rebelled against the common wisdom and the advice of real estate agents and cleared everything out of the house before I put it on the market. I was going to FORCE all those silly illogical folks to look at the only thing they would be purchasing.

That's fine. I had that right. However, I did nothing to change how folks form impressions of a house. Instead, the house took longer to sell and I got less money. (I've learned a great deal about real estate since then and am confident this is true.)

It boils down to what was important to me. Did I want to protest against the way house hunters decide whether to purchase a house (without doing anything to change the process)? Or did I want to get as much money as possible for my house?

If this post doesn't "do it," I'm going to have to call on David and Ted to take a turn. Cheesy

Hoping all persons form only positive impressions of you, my friend,

I understand the thoughts you express, but I respectfully disagree with them. I'm a socratic, an idealist, and a nonconformist by nature. The socratic goes to the roots of assumptions. On this score, you'll notice that I did just that: the place and nature of first impressions and impressions in general. I'm not trying to deny that they exist: only to deny that they should be determinative of anything. It's a stand (as I see it) for objective truth over subjective impression.

If someone forms an impression of me based on one picture (despite maybe 20 "smiley" pictures I have also had on my site through the years), then they do. There is nothing I can do about that. But it won't cause me to take it down, because that's not how I operate. I always want to concentrate on the principle and the objective factors of an issue, not subjective ones (though I don't discount those in their proper place and I have a great appreciation for Pope John Paul II's personalism).

It works the same for an idealist. Thus I approach the issue not based on how things are, but on how I believe they should be -- which fits in nicely with Christianity, I would add: because that is always a high ideal to attain: not settling for the status quo and so-called "normal."

The nonconformist also approaches things in the same manner. Lots of people think that the picture gives an impression of me as a "mean or dour" sort of person? All the more reason to keep it up, because I greatly appreciate the humor of that. I'll always be provocative, as long as I harm no one in doing so.

Of course I respect and like all three of you who think this, as I do my other friend who made such a comment many months ago. That has nothing to do with anything. I simply disagree with you on this and have given my reasons why. The world is too caught up with images and subjective impressions, and I instinctively rebel against that, and always will.

I would switch it around and throw it back to you by saying that you (and anyone else who did so) were obviously wrong in drawing that impression of me from one photo, as proven by what you saw was my real personality when we met. So I submit that the "move" that needs to be made is for you three to revise your opinion on what photographs supposedly convey, rather than my needing to take it down because (as I see it) people reasoned incorrectly and drew improper conclusions based on inadequate data.

It's all in how one approaches these things. Like I said, it comes from my socratic outlook, my idealism, and my nonconformity against much that goes on in society. If I weren't these things, I wouldn't be me. If I weren't a nonconformist and idealist, I would have never become a Catholic, or an evangelical, or a pro-lifer, or participate in Operation Rescue, or decide to take on full-time ministry, both as a Protestant and a Catholic (at considerable personal and financial cost), or to adopt a traditional Christian view on sexuality before I got married, or to take a stand against contraception even before I became a Catholic. It's central to my identity, and so it causes me to reason in the way I do about this interesting issue regarding photographs and impressions.

It is not fruitful to argue that folks should not be drawing conclusions on such a basis. That is how impressions are formed. That is the reality of human behavior and human interaction, whether one likes it or not.

I know that, but why would that cause me to believe any differently? This is purely pragmatic reasoning, which I reject. It's (when closely scrutinized) a sort of Madison Avenue / public relations / "images front and center" approach that I always spurn. It seems to me that the Christian should try to fight for objective truth. A photograph is not a person. No one should form any definitive impression of a person based on one photo. That is the problem with our society insofar as we are so obsessed with images (the whole movie star / magazine model / facelift mentality).

I'm saying that there are many levels of complexity and nuance about this issue. It's not simple at all. I'll be misunderstood about it as I always am, but that won't cause me to change if there is a principle at stake. It's just how I am. To me it is ultimately a philosophical issue: specifically one regarding how we know what we know, or epistemology (which is familiar to you, as we discussed briefly in person).

Declaring that it makes no sense will do nothing to change the reality of how folks respond to others and to images and photographs.

Well, no. I disagree again. Having precisely this conversation we are having could indeed persuade people (maybe two or three) to think differently about it. Again, I am staking out a position of challenging the status quo and people who accept it without pondering the issue more deeply. Why do we have to accept that? I say that we don't! This is what the idealist and nonconformist (and socratic) does. It's why Socrates was killed. Wink

If we wanted to reason like this about, say, evangelism, what good would that do? We could say that folks will never change because they are a certain way; therefore, why try to persuade them of the truths of Christianity? It's the Christian's role to challenge the false assumptions of the culture they find themselves in. And America and the western world today is obsessed with images: almost to an idolatrous extent. I'm saying that one photograph proves next to nothing about a person! I don't even see that it is arguable. Why would anyone think in the first place that they can form an impression of a person and their personality based on that? I'm challenging the root assumption that takes place there.

It's a fun discussion (I'm enjoying it immensely), but it has a serious element and a philosophical aspect that I think is worth discussing.

The assumption, I think, was that you would want to post pics that take into account how impressions are formed and that you would want to avoid doing yourself a disservice.

But I've already done that by having 95% smiley, "warm fuzzy" pictures on my blog. I put up ONE serious one and I get this reaction. Sorry, but I find that really really funny and ironic. All I would have to do (to adopt your suggestion) is put up two smileys on the sidebar surrounding the serious photo (where it is probably seen the most). Then people can have a vastly different impression of me! I say the whole thing is absurd from the get-go. If I surround the one with two smileys would that then prove that I am a "mafioso" one-third of the time and a teddy bear the rest? Grin A reductio ad absurdum . . . If I challenge even one person to think more deeply about this issue of image and subjective vs. objective, then I will have accomplished my task. That's how the idealist thinks. It's not going for the big numbers but for a profound change of opinion in a few.

Your comment about selling a house gets down to brass tacks of the issue. I do agree that one must do some of that if several thousands of dollars are at stake, but of course that is not the case with my photo, so in a way the analogy has no direct bearing on one photo of mine. We bow to the societal obsession with image at times (as you did, reluctantly) when very serious things are at stake, or when feelings might be hurt. I'm not hurting anyone else by choosing what photo to post. I may be misunderstood, at worst, but what else is new? The idealist and nonconformist (and, alas, the apologist) always will be. That's part of the package. I'm not being stoned by anyone, so it's no big deal.

If this post doesn't "do it," I'm going to have to call on David and Ted to take a turn.

I hope they do! I consider it a very fascinating discussion. Things having to do with the intersection of Christianity and culture always are.

Hoping all persons form only positive impressions of you, my friend,

That will never happen, because I am an apologist, and known to be provocative about ideas (the influence of ol' Socrates again, but I would say, also Jesus and Paul, who are the models for all of us). Those who actually get to know me seem to have a positive impression, which is the entire point I am trying to make: photographs and disembodied words cannot possibly convey a full or totally accurate impression of a person. That's really all I'm trying to say by way of my multitude of words and arguments.

People will probably think this post is all "stern" and serious and overbearing. It's not at all from my end (not in the sense that is often mistakenly perceived). I'm simply having fun discussing philosophy and Christianity and culture, in my usual "passionate" fashion. So if someone thinks otherwise, then it goes to prove my point all the more: they are going by highly faulty and fallible subjective impression rather than taking my own report about myself, which is the objective thing. Happens all the time.

Thanks for the great discussion!

* * *

Your seeing in that pic only the absence of a smile or the presence of a serious expression is evidence of not "seeing" something, I think.

The only other two allegedly "sinister" elements were the dark glasses and the black leather jacket. I've already dealt with both: I explained that the glasses were dark purely by accident. Even if that weren't the case, how do sunglasses per se make someone into anything? Of course people may think that way, but in objective reality nothing is proved whatever. What, now blind people who wear sunglasses all the time are perceived as daunting and unapproachable?

The black leather jacket question I dealt with by referring to Elvis: did he become a mafioso because he wore black leather in the famous 1968 TV special? But he smiled, too! So now he's half mafioso and "scary" and half genial nice guy and good ol' boy Elvis? The reasoning doesn't work any way you look at it.



"Mafioso" Elvis vs. "Good Ol' Boy" Elvis?

Of course, I was trying to look "cool" in the photo. That was the fun of it. I'd never even owned a black leather jacket until about six years ago, and I love it. I always thought they looked great. What amazes me is how so many people didn't understand that this was what I was doing, and came to these other (I think) bizarre conclusions. Some people do (and have complimented me on it), but others didn't. Past pictures had a suit or my usual casual attire, so we did a photo shoot with the leather jacket. Different strokes . . .

I submit that I'm not being naive and unrealistic and not understanding human perceptions and reactions (which is usually the opinion I receive back when I get into discussions about image and presentation and public relations and what not). I understand them full well, but I am analyzing them and saying that they are not (in this case) reasonable. There is such a thing as good reason or rationale or justification and such a thing as illogical reasoning and unwarranted conclusions. The world needs to step back and take a deeper look at how things are sometimes. To the extent that this sort of opinion holds me to be "unrealistic and naive" I take it to be mushily subjective and unreasonable. It's all in how one approaches the issue. Subjective impressionism and an uncritical taking in of images is one way, mine is another . . .

I think it comes down in one major sense to the subjective vs the objective. I don't discount the subjective at all. In fact, I have a very high opinion of experience and emotion and intuition and all such things. I'm a Romantic, too (in the artsy, literary, musical sense) which is extremely subjective itself. But I emphasize the objective elements of things, whereas I think a lot of the criticism in this area we are discussing is almost entirely subjective without paying proper attention to objective variables. The image is not always the reality. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote at great length about this. We mustn't place image above reality, but our society does this all the time. And I fight against that in my own small, inadequate way.

* * *

We were gifted with a weekend trip to AZ in February (glad to fill in details if anyone cares Smiley )and before we went I colored and cut my hair. I was graying early (I'm only 35!) in my Dad's footsteps and my hair was halfway down my back. I liked my hair, but wanted to look nice for our special weekend. I did it for *me*, not to make myself look better for other people, kwim?

Well -- I am pretty much disgusted with how people relate to me since I did that! I get lots of compliments. But I hate that people judged me based on the color of my hair. They say I look so much younger, and just treat me ~differently~. Blech. Youth is not end all and be all the media makes it out to be.

Sure, it's nice for the ego to have the compliments, but I didn't think I looked bad or old before.

Now I'm stuck with short hair that I can't pull back, lol, and hair that I have to keep touching up Tongue I think I may try to take the color back to the original color next time. (I'm lazy, lol.) But, damn, I looked cute for a little while! ROFLOL

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I get what Dave is trying to say. And it irritates me that our society is so heavily influenced by looks and not content.

Besides I always thought leather jackets & dark glasses = bad boys. And you know how good girls cannot resist a bad boy. No doubt that's what attracted Judy to you Wink

I think that example is of a piece with what I am trying to express, yes.

It's sort of like a two-edged sword: you get the compliments now but the implication is that you looked bad before (which I highly doubt was the case, having seen your photos!). You did it for the right reason.

On a related note, I have dyed my goatee 3 or 4 times, because my wife Judy doesn't like the grey in it. I don't care, myself. It doesn't bother me, but I did it for her. So we all bow to image stuff at times. She doesn't like goatees, period, which is another issue. Wink But I think they look cool. So it's a balance in marriage of doing what we like for ourselves and trying to please our spouses. Then there is the element of what is currently in fashion as a style (I used to have shoulder-length hair in the 70s). I think it has to be considered on a case-by-case basis. I love the heavy-rimmed glasses that women wear these days and find them very attractive; Judy didn't at all. Guess whose opinion won out with our new glasses? So she does what she wants, too. Therefore, I grow a goatee when I want to (which is off and on lately; I have one again now), but I dye it, too, for her sake.

Besides I always thought leather jackets & dark glasses = bad boys. And you know how good girls cannot resist a bad boy. No doubt that's what attracted Judy to you

LOL Yep, just like too much make-up and tight-fitting clothes or short skirts etc. = a "bad girl." Sometimes; sometimes not. And a really good-looking woman can wear absolutely anything, anyway, and will be attractive to men . . . another big discussion: as to what constitutes modesty, propriety and lack of flirtatiousness or what-not.

But of course, as I mentioned, I never had a leather jacket till about six years ago, so obviously that was no factor in our courting. I may have still had photo-grey glasses. I got married in a beard, which she likes. Some think that is a "negative image" thing, too, but I always liked looking more like Jesus and Paul and the apostles. Wink

Maybe if I got the leather jacket back in college when I had a seven-year period of intense loneliness, I woulda had more girlfriends (according to your lighthearted theory). Perhaps even in my own life, then, I was the victim at times of all this obsession with image. I was just trying to be a gentleman and respect women, but apparently that was unfashionable in the late 70s and early 80s when I was so lonely . . .

What really brought Judy and I together (since we had been non-romantic close friends for a year and a half), was attraction to the (Christian) person and each other's character, as we got to know each other better. Not that we had no opinion on looks (I always thought she was really cute and attractive) all along, but that's truly what did it. I was sick and tired of meeting women that seemed to be inconsiderate of men's feelings (which we do actually have!) and to not care about what I felt was most important, and it was the same with her and guys. I was treated like dirt over and over. I didn't always treat women perfectly, either, in retrospect, though I'm sure I never consciously tried to use them, as so often happens. All of a sudden, a godly, more "innocent" sort of woman who had her spiritual priorities straight was extremely attractive to me (and this was a change that God had to bring about).

So in that fashion, we sort of lived out what I am talking about now, even in how we came to fall in love and get married. It was getting down to the reality of persons and going far beyond and deeper than mere image and "electricity" and "chemistry" and all that.

Consequently, God has doubly blessed me. I got a wife whom I truly think is the best woman in the world, and I still think she is a knockout too! That works for a guy! Grin

Thanks for your input.

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