Culturally we tend to lump both concepts together, brand it all as ‘assuming’, speak of it with scorn and catchy word plays about making ‘an ass of you and me’, but then seem to find ourselves constantly doing it on a daily basis. The mislabelling can lead to feelings of hypocrisy, an impulse to mistakenly dismiss something we actually need, and the danger of depriving ourselves of the space to do the best we can with the knowledge we have at the time. Assuming is a purely knee-jerk reaction but presuming is a key part of how we filter the mind-boggling amounts of information we are continuously bombarded with. In order to give ourselves permission to develop and use our ability to presume we first need to disentangle it from its mercurial cousin.
Assume — suppose to be the case, without proof
Presume — suppose to be the case, based on probability
Both are essentially a form of guess but the important distinction lies in the use, or avoidance, of previous evidence. Assumptions spring from a place of pure emotion, primarily fear. The fear of the object breeds a fear of even knowing anything about it, lest that knowledge force us into further exposure to it. “I don’t know, I don’t want to know, so I will declare my reaction as certainty and dig my heels in to defend it.” It’s not only an act of blind reaction it’s also a willful commitment to further blindness.
In recent years there has been a disheartening, and increasingly alarming, surge of deliberately blind reactionism. People not only becoming openly resistant to new information but also seeming to take pride in the willful blindness and then doubling-down on the reaction. While it’s tempting to blame certain people in power for this the truth is they didn’t create the phenomenon, they are simply able to flourish because of it and then are more than happy to keep nudging it along so they can continue to do so.
Presuming is also a reactionary act, but one guided by previous experience and understanding. “Based on what I know, this is most likely the case.” The key distinction is not only the presence and inclusion of evidence but also the implicit acknowledgment that further additional information could possibly lead to a different conclusion.
We can’t know everything about everything, even when it comes to things we are passionate about. We are always making the best decisions we can with the information we have at hand, but that only works when we acknowledge and invite the information into the mix. Allowing ourselves to be pushed away from factual examination into a realm of purely emotional reactionism hands the reins power to the most deceitful and manipulative among us.
We can see this struggle with examination vs. reaction in our relationship with news media. Reporting factual information is being forced to bend its knee to the whim-driven ADHD of ‘headline only’ consumers whose main criteria is novelty. This leads not only to a dangerous ‘better to be first than accurate’ paradigm but also to an immensely imbalanced amount of power being given to the limited wording of those ever shrinking headlines.
Assumption based reactions spiral quickly away from the original source event and get stuck in broken-record loops of personal insults and threats where the only changes occur in volume and intensity. Searching for actual understanding by gathering as much information as possible takes too much time, too many characters, and doesn’t generate enough clicks which either means it gets avoided or is the reason a story gets dropped from the news cycle in favor of something new which will fit into soundbites.
The mishigas around a certain recent encounter between a protesting teen and an Indigenous Elder offers a solid example of this struggle and cycle.
I do feel for both the teen and the Elder caught in the center of it all. The initial flash-fire reactions were pounced upon by pundits who zealously fanned the flames and then did their best to keep the conversations reactionary and antagonistic. Fingers were pointing in all directions, righteous indignation was flaring from all sides, but as more and more information came to light making the picture harder and harder to oversimplify the reaction stokers lost interest. One of the most common and impassioned accusations was that of ‘blind’ or ‘biased assumption’ but the truth is our initial reactions were based on apparent evidence of precedent cultural tensions.
Was the kid sneering? Yes. Teenagers sneer when presented with something they don’t understand or like, especially when it’s someone ‘old’ clearly taking whatever it is seriously and all the more powerfully when flanked by a ramped up group of their peers. Why wasn’t his behavior simply seen as teenage angst but instead branded as racism?
There were two sources. The headlines and articles labeling him as a ‘Catholic Teen’ there to protest abortion, fairly or not religious conservatives have a notably problematic track record on race issues, and on a more visceral level the hat he and several of his peers were wearing. We couldn’t know for certain if he fully endorsed all the rhetoric associated with those hats but the plentiful precedent of behavior associated with them made the inference completely understandable.
Was the Elder being aggressive? Perhaps. Certainly easy enough to see it that way since the first reports made no mention of another group apparently trying to antagonize and provoke the teens. Being already accosted by one belligerent group it’s not hard to see how the kids might have interpreted the Elder’s approach as more of the same. Well intentioned or not the Elder certainly asserted himself into a situation.
Did the boys actually chant about walls or could the sight of those hats have set him up with certain expectations, possibly warping his perceptions of the event? Both are certainly possible but given the above mentioned precedent of associated behavior those expectations would be completely understandable.
Again, I feel for both of them. Would that we lived in a world where adolescent impulses didn’t get us into trouble and a Native Elder’s attempt at ritual peace-making was instantly recognized and respected as such. Whatever their motivations or thoughts on the day they got caught up in a war of people wanting to oversimplify the situation to fuel shouting matches and generate media traffic, to further agendas which had virtually nothing to do with them whatsoever.
Having said all that, assumptions are not automatically evil and presumptions are certainly capable of leading us astray. The important thing is that we do our best to hold our reactions to account, to try and ground them in factual evidence, and make every effort to ensure that evidence is as current and reliable as possible.
Challenge your reactions. Before you act.
We are creatures of emotion and so we react, there is no evil or malfunction in that. The key is to ask ourselves that all important and trickiest of questions, why. Obviously not every situation in our lives will afford us time to sit and reflect but the ‘count to 10’ approach has been around a long time for a reason. Even just a breath or two can be long enough. The source of our reaction doesn’t need to be complex or annotated with footnotes, there just needs to be one and we need to do our best to understand what it is. If not, perhaps count to 20.
How accurate, abundant, and current is your information?
If we want our reactions to be based on probabilities derived from evidence how reliable is that evidence? Is it a single anecdote a friend of a friend told us once years ago or is there a chain of supporting evidence offering dependable predictability? How many different sources has our evidence come from, how recent or current are they? Our deductions are only as good as the materials used to form them. Seek out as much information from as many varied sources as you can. The more informed we are the better equipped we will be when the need arises.
Who are your sources?
Variety is important but it alone does not breed reliability. In a day and age where it is far too easy to ‘preference blinder’ our channels of information it is all the more crucial we cast our nets as wide as possible. Read articles from as many different outlets as we can, from outside our area or even outside our country if available. And build a habit of vetting sources. As the entertainment model dominates more and more of our news media the various channels, papers, and magazines are all now in the habit of catering solely to their target demographic. Look at completely opposing sources to see where they overlap and if people reference studies of any kind look into those studies, and not through any links they provide.
Is your reaction aiming you at the core issues or just the flashy dressing?
Returning to the protest example, that was an incident which could have been used to catalyze conversations about responsible protesting, cultural differences, the need for thoroughly factual reporting, the issues the groups were there to protest about, constantly sparking racial tensions, but instead it became a national scale exercise in finger pointing and name calling. Once things get trapped in that space we waste energy simply shouting into the wind.
Again, we are creatures of emotion and our reactions happen for a reason but the stronger the reaction the more important it is to ask ourselves if that reaction is going to aim us at the heart of the matter, at the true source issues, or are we getting swept up in flash-fire antagonism or defensiveness. There is always more to a situation than that which sparks our initial reactions, always.
We can’t know all things and be everywhere at every moment. Even if we wanted to we can’t read everything there is to read, listen to everything there is to hear, watch every video there is to see. There are only so many minutes in the day. Until someone comes up with the omniscience pill we will continue to navigate through our lives by making quick assessments based on our current information. We will continue to presume, which we can make stronger and more reliable by constantly challenging and informing ourselves. And by making sure to count to 10.