Daniel Simons is a professor at the University of Illinois. A while back he became somewhat of a YouTube celebrity with his experiment in visual cognition which became known as the “Invisible Gorilla.” The experiment demonstrated that if people are looking for a gorilla, they will see a gorilla. But if their attention is focused elsewhere, a gorilla can walk into a room and at least half of them will miss it.
In Simon’s experiment, two groups of people, some in white shirts and others in black, walked in a circle, passing a basketball back and forth. A group of observers was asked to count how many times the people in white shirts touched the ball. Moments after the basketball passing began, a guy in a gorilla suit randomly walked through the circle, waving his arms and jumping around. Not something, one might think, that could be easily missed. But afterwards, half the observers were quite shocked when they were asked if they had seen the gorilla. They insisted that there had been no gorilla, and doubted those who claimed to have seen one.
Simon’s point was clear: perceptions of reality are contingent upon our mode of attention. What we are prepared to focus on — people passing a basketball — determines what we see. We can and do miss obvious realities when our attention is on something else. We develop a kind of observation blindness — a blindness, I would argue, affecting millions of Americans in these days of Trump.
How else to explain the continued support of the Trump immigration policy by scores of evangelical Christian pastors, even in the face of well-documented reports and eye-witness observations of the horrific conditions in immigrant detention camps, especially in camps confining children? And yet these “Christian” pastors insist everything at the border is just fine, ignoring cruelty which makes a mockery of Jesus’ words about caring for the “least of these.”
Trump may know nothing of Daniel Simons, but he certainly knows how to distract us. His presidency depends on our observation blindness — on keeping our attention focused everywhere except where it most needs to be. With his tweets, temper tantrums, lies, fear-mongering and name calling, he keeps us distracted and unfocused.
There are so many gorillas that millions of Americans simply do not see — or choose not to see. Again, children live in filthy conditions in enclosures surrounded by razor wire, and much of America chooses blindness. Trump embraces and praises murderous tyrants while denigrating long-time allies, and much of America chooses blindness. Blatantly racist taunts and lies are directed toward immigrants, Muslims and women of color — including women in Congress — and much of America chooses blindness. Climate change is denied, environmental laws are weakened or ignored, and millions of acres of public land in the West are turned over to the oil and gas industry, and much of America chooses blindness.
Forty-four percent of voters and over 90% of registered Republicans say they approve of the job Trump is doing. Values, decency and morality are dragged through the mud and millions approve. Yes, it would seem that the daily Trump Show of misdirection, lies, resentment and fear is working.
The Irish poet, John O’ Donohue, shares this blessing: “May the sanctuary of your soul never be haunted.” These feel like days of a great haunting — a time when the best within our hearts and souls is being stripped away from us.
But we must hold on, we must remain faithful, and we must not be afraid to open our eyes and see the truth — to open our mouths and speak the truth. For only then can we, in the words of the poet, “Feel the deeper knowing in us…the unquenchable light of the spirit that can turn the darkest destiny towards dawn.”
The Rev. Gene Nelson is the retired pastor of Sebastopol Community Church.