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Vail Daily column: Perception is a flawed reality

My brother Dane has a color defect in his vision. He is not colorblind, but he sees the world in different colors than the rest of us. It is not an oppressive handicap, although it does prevent him from being a fighter pilot, which was once devastating to a boy of a certain age. Dane’s condition has always captivated me. I wonder whether he sees the world in neon, but thinks that it is normal as that is his only frame of reference. Is what he perceives as red actually blue when viewed through my eyes? It is a question of no little importance as our respective loves for those colors have defined us from early childhood. In my line of work, Dane’s color defect is a poignant reminder that every individual sees the world, literally and metaphorically, through a different lens.

Each person’s views are comprised of overlapping strata: observational, socioeconomic/political and moral. The former comes into play often when investigating the facts of a case. My first year criminal law professor ran a startling experiment on us one morning that illustrates the fallacy of relying too heavily upon eyewitness accounts. In the midst of a lesson, a person burst into the lecture hall, ran down the stairs, stole something off of the professor’s desk, and then retraced their steps and exited the classroom. While we were still reeling from the interruption, our professor began asking us to describe the intruder. In a class of approximately 100 students, there were just as many descriptions. We could not agree on whether the interloper was male or female, black or white, what clothes he/she was wearing, whether he/she said anything in the midst of the “robbery.” Thus, basing a legal claim on what a witness thinks he saw is a flawed endeavor, particularly if the witness is also the claimant and necessarily tainted by an agenda.

Internal Predilections

Our physical perception is irretrievably influenced by our mental processes and our biases. A racist is more likely to see a thief as a person of color. These internal machinations and predilections in turn inform how we view the opposing sides of a dispute. An unconscionable business practice in one person’s eyes is just another day at the office for someone else. A tidy house to a tenant may be viewed as an abomination to a landlord. Although one may vehemently disagree with these perspectives, they are valid nonetheless because they are intensely personal and we cannot deign to dictate how others think, feel or act. Each person is entitled to their own reality, of course subject to the safety and other considerations of living in a civilized, non-anarchic society.

When embroiled in a dispute, it is critical to remember that each person’s perception is unique and legitimate. Successful marriages survive arguments both petty and monumental because they are built upon the maxim of attempting to see the situation from the other spouse’s perspective. Our other personal and business relationships can significantly benefit from this example. Rather than insisting that your view is the only possible reality, it breaks down the barriers built up by conflict to acknowledge that your opponent’s version of events is credible, even if it is disputed.

This consensus building approach is subject to an important limitation. When people are willing to lie to further their cause, they abuse the privilege of having a legitimate point of view. Their claimed perspective is founded upon deception and they deserve all of the consequences flowing therefrom. The frustrating aspect of dealing with a liar is that it can be very difficult to prove the falsehood when someone is committed to the fraud and is practiced in their mendacity. In the end, we have to rely on our own perceptions and feelings of trust to effectively evaluate the matter.

Objective truth is the law’s unicorn/Sasquatch: We posit that it exists, indeed we base the entire legal system on the fiction that one judge or six jury members can divine a tidy resolution to a universe of conflicting perspectives. However, those that truly claim to have seen objective truth are either crackpots, charlatans or both. In disputes, it is an open secret that we are subject to the vagaries of relative truth. Cognizant of this fact, we should be seeking a mode of resolving conflicts that embraces different viewpoints rather than setting them in opposition.

T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril LLC, a local law firm, and the owner-mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, tj@rkvlaw.com or visit http://www.rkvlaw.com.


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