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Johnson’s Mumbling and Top-Down Effects on Perception

photograph of Boris Johnson scratching head

On December 6th, in the midst of his reelection campaign, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke about regulating immigration to a crowd outside a factory in central England, saying “I’m in favour of having people of talent come to this country, but I think we should have it democratically controlled.” When Channel Four, one of the largest broadcasters in the UK, uploaded video of the event online, their subtitles mistakenly read “I’m in favor of having people of color come to this country,” making it seem as though Johnson was, in this speech, indicating a desire to control immigration on racial grounds. After an uproar from Johnson’s Conservative party, Channel Four deleted the video and issued an apology.

However, despite Tory accusations of slander and media partisanship, at least two facts make it likely that this was, indeed, an honest mistake on the part of a nameless subtitler within Channel Four’s organization:

  1. Poorly-timed background noise and Johnson’s characteristic mumbling make the audio of the speech less-than-perfectly clear at the precise moment in question, and
  2. Johnson has repeatedly voiced racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes in both official and unofficial speeches, as well as in his writings (again, repeatedly) and his formal policy proposals.

Given the reality of (2), someone familiar with Johnson may well be more inclined to interpret him as uttering something explicitly racist (as opposed to the still-problematic dog whistle “people of talent”), particularly in the presence of the ambiguities (1) describes. Importantly, it may not actually be a matter of judgment (where the subtitler would have to consciously choose between two possible words) – it may genuinely seem to someone hearing Johnson’s speech that he spoke the word “color” rather than “talent.”

Indeed, this has been widely reported to be the case in the days following Johnson’s campaign rally, with debates raging online regarding the various ways people report to hear Johnson’s words..

For philosophers of perception, this could be an example of a so-called “top-down” effect on the phenomenology of perceptual experience, a.k.a. “what it seems like to perceive something.” In most cases, the process of perception converts basic sensory data about your environment into information usable by your cognitive systems; in general, this is thought to occur via a “bottom-up” process whereby sense organs detect basic properties of your environment (like shapes, colors, lighting conditions, and the like) and then your mind collects and processes this information into complex mental representations of the world around you. Put differently, you don’t technically sense a “dog” – you sense a collection of color patches, smells, noises, and other low-level properties which your perceptual systems quickly aggregate into the concept “dog” or the thought “there is a dog in front of me” – this lightning-fast process is what we call “perception.”

A “top-down” effect – also sometimes called the “cognitive penetration of perception” – is when one or more of your high-level mental states (like a concept, thought, belief, desire, or fear) works backwards on that normally-bottom-up process to influence the operation of your low-level perceptual systems. Though controversial, purported examples of this phenomenon abound, such as how patients suffering from severe depression will frequently report that their world is “drained of color” or how devoted fans of opposing sports teams will both genuinely believe that their preferred player won out in an unclear contest. Sometimes, evidence for top-down effects comes from controlled studies, such as a 2006 experiment by Proffitt which found that test subjects wearing heavy backpacks routinely reported hills to be steeper than did unencumbered subjects. But we need not be so academic to find examples of top-down effects on perception: consider the central portion of the “B-13” diagram.

When you focus on the object in the center, you can probably shift your perception of what it is (either “the letter B” or “the number 13”) at-will depending on whether you concentrate on either the horizontal or vertical lines around it. Because letters and numbers are high-level concepts, defenders of cognitive penetrability can take this as proof that your concepts are influencing your perception (instead of just the other way around).

So, when it comes to Johnson’s “talent/color” word choice, much like the Yanny/Laurel debate of 2018 or the infamous white/gold (or blue/black?) Dress of 2015, different audience members may – quite genuinely – perceive the mumbled word in wholly different ways. Obviously, this raises a host of additional questions about the epistemological and ethical consequences of cognitive penetrability (many researchers, for example, are concerned to explore perceptions influenced by implicit biases concerning racism, sexism, and the like), but it does make Channel Four’s mistaken subtitling much easier to understand without needing to invoke any nefarious agenda on the part of sneaky anti-Johnson reporters.

Put more simply: even though Johnson didn’t explicitly assert a racist agenda in Derbyshire, it is wholly unsurprising that people have genuinely perceived him to have done so, given the many other times he has done precisely that.