The Rorschach Test and Public Opinion
“Can you pass the Rorschach Test?,” asked Jesus ‘Sixto’ Rodriguez in ‘The Establishment Blues,’ one of the little-known gems on his ‘Cold Fact‘ album. What does this have to do with crime and public opinion? The ‘Rorschach Test’ metaphor comes to mind when considering how people react to sensational news stories, as they tend to imprint their preconceptions onto them before the facts have a chance to be fully known.
Consider the following: The Susan Smith story, the Duke Rape Case, the Tawana Brawley story, the the ‘Beltway Shooter’ and the unfolding situation surrounding the deadly shooting of Treyvon Martin by George Zimmerman. (One could mention the O.J. Simpson case, as well as many others, but the foregoing examples are sufficient to illustrate the issue at hand.) What do they have in common? The end of each was unlike what the press reports would’ve led one to expect at the beginning. All were also marked by people, some opportunist, some conditioned and habituated to sincerely expect a certain kind of reason for what they saw, jumping to conclusions about what actually happened. Tom Wolfe novelized this phenomenon the sharp, cynical prose of his ‘Bonfire of the Vanities.’ That novel still has a modern feel because the conditions described and the characters portrayed are still to them. The reason for this is that Americans are still too apt to take each new press sensation and imprint it with their own prior experiences, fears, assumptions and agendas, rather than seeing each as what it is: A distinct happening that may or may not play out according to what they’ve come to expect. (In other words, generals aren’t the only ones preparing to fight the last war.)
If there is a moral to all of this, perhaps that it is best to get up each morning and shave with Occam’s Razor; that way, the face each of sees in the mirror will have in it eyes more likely to see the simple truth of a matter than the complex morality play that our minds would make of it.