Sunday, July 17, 2011

If Janet Jackson's Nose Was a Carrot

I watched the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl alone. Consequently, when the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" occurred, I had nobody to turn to and ask "Did that just happen?" And given that the total amount of time that there was any nudity on-screen amounted to less than one second, I think it was legitimate to enquire as to the accuracy of my perception. Not having a live human to compare notes with, I logged onto the World Wide Web (using a dial-up connection), and tried to find evidence that somebody else had seen what I had seen. I checked Google News, then used a few search terms that a good parental filtering system would have blocked, then checked sports sites, and nowhere did I find a mention of anything related to a wardrobe malfunction. Finally, I found a live chatroom on, and saw that somebody had typed something to the effect of "Did they just show Janet Jackson's breast?" Even though nobody answered the question, and even though the anonymous soul who had typed it wasn't sure of the answer to the question, this was sufficient to satisfy me that I wasn't out of line to have perceived such a thing. I put the matter out of my mind and focused on the second half of the game (which was a truly outstanding Super Bowl).

Later that night, I saw news stories reporting that CBS had issued an apology. By the next day, the story of the halftime show was bigger than the game. And now, several years later, I'd bet that the sensational media fallout has colored people's recollection of the original event, and most don't remember their initial perception. Most likely, numerous people who would claim to have seen Jackson's exposure didn't actually realize at the time what had happened. Obviously, for many the Super Bowl is a communal event, and I'll bet that in gatherings across the nation, one person turned to another and asked for confirmation of what had occurred. Given the extreme unliklihood of the occurrence, and given how fleeting it was, I think my reaction of questioning what I had seen was a common one. In other cases, those who didn't see it would perhaps have been informed by others. But I'll bet in a number of those cases, there were arguments about what had really happened.

Of course, now the game has changed. If "Nipplegate" had happend at last year's Super Bowl, it wouldn't take me any time at all to be able to confirm my perception. A quick check of Facebook or Twitter would tell me immediately whether I was hallucinating or not. Social media may not construct a perfect hive mind--there is certainly dissention on any given issue (the fallout from the Super Bowl controversy itself engendered a variety of dissenting opinions). However, the degree to which we are experiencing a common objective reality is likely greater than ever before (no reasonable person argues today that the exposure of Janet Jackson didn't actually happen).

So in a world where our perceptions are shaped by collective judgment more than ever, what are the implications? It's been more or less proven that most of us are relatively unconfident of our ability to perceive. We've known since the Asch conformity experiments of the 1950s that people will often surrender their own judgment to the majority, even when the majority is wrong.

I posted a question on Facebook awhile back: "You are the TV play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football. At one point during the game, you notice that one of the team's quarterback has had his nose turn into a carrot. At least, that's what it looks like to you. But absolutely nobody else is seeming to notice this. What do you do or say?" Everybody who chose to respond noted that they would first find some way to confirm the perception before commenting on the air.

The above example is obviously loaded. You are dealing with high stakes when you are forced to make a judgment on potentially exposing yourself as a fool before millions of television viewers. But even though most of us are never in a position to be exposed before so many (with apologies to Janet Jackson), that doesn't mean the stakes aren't higher than they used to be. As the hive becomes more encompassing and the expectation of conformoity more enchanting, our capacity for self-reliance atrophies. And it may just become less, rather than more, possible for someone to point out when an emporer has no clothes.


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