The Great American Rorschach Test

The nation is having a bit of a moment as it grapples with the power of perspective, partial context and seeing what we want to see despite facts, realities and the nuances that can often make truth a complicated endeavor. Over the weekend, video footage of a confrontation between Trump supporting teens and an indigenous veteran went viral both in news and culture. If a picture paints a thousand words—a viral video generates billions. And that’s exactly what happened here. A nation fixated on what appeared at face value to be a binary story. Racist teens taunt indigenous elder complete with the visceral image of a privileged grin confronting decades of oppression. It’s a powerful image and for the majority of the news cycle, it was reported as this—at face value without any skepticism. The story seemed straightforward and the short video appeared to offer proof:

But the video and the visceral image above was incomplete and as a much longer video made the rounds and eventually caught the attention of media—a second wave of the news cycle began to emerge, attempting to offer a more nuanced view of the incident. When looked at in full context, one can see that the group of teens was initially being taunted by a smaller group of religious activists who were hurling hate-filled insults at others before turning their sites on them. Further, the video shows the indigenous elder walking up and into the group of boys vs. them seeking him out and surrounding him as was originally stated and largely supported by the shorter context video.

But the above video even with full context doesn’t underscore the bigger societal shift that we’re all grappling with and will only get worse. Stories like this whether you see the partial context or the full context with your own eyes are essentially societal Rorschach tests—we see what we want to see. And we’re becoming incapable of objectivity because as science tells us, the heart overrides the mind more than we like to admit.

Rorschach Reporting
Add to this dynamic that journalism has for years been struggling with failing business models due to emerging platforms and changing technology. So, the professionals who we rely on to separate the head from the heart are in a tougher position to report things with substance and some healthy skepticism. The business environment demands immediate eyeballs, traffic, shares, engagement comments etc. etc. Media companies are competing with tech giants for advertising dollars, and they are really struggling so as the adage goes, “if it bleeds it leads” has never been truer. Society cannot function properly with media that doesn’t dig into stories and presents them at face value. To the credit of many media outlets including CNN, The New York Times and many others, in this specific scenario a more complete story is being told—but in a culture where attention is fleeting and Rorschach media rules the day, it may not matter much, except in legal matters.

More Rorschach Not Less
At the risk of sounding like a downer, the trends point to more Rorschach interpretation not less, especially when it comes to media consumption. It’s simply too difficult for the majority of people to step outside of the filter bubbles they’ve created and too easy to view stories like this as we want to view them. They are almost by design, set up this way and asking the average citizen to spend over an hour watching something with full context is probably be too much, though we would all be better for it…

So culture becomes a huge Rorschach as do news cycles. Regardless of the facts, there will always be enough proof to see what we want to see. To break this, we’ll have to see things from multiple perspectives, but that requires time, patience and objectivity—things that are in short supply. And let’s face it, looking at a Rorschach is kind of fun—we spend a little time in our own heads describing what we think we see and it gives us a voice to explain why we think what we think. Rorschach interpretations pull us into the experience and make it somewhat interactive.

Interpreting a Rorschach makes us a part of the story and with that comes a responsibility we haven’t fully gotten our heads around.

Marketer, strategist, thinker and doer. I write about human behaviors and the relationship we have with technology and brands