In To Kill A Mockingbird the character Atticus Finch famously said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It’s a book that pretty much everyone had to read in high school, but that quote unfortunately seems to have evaporated from our memories as soon as we finished writing our book reports. We would all do well to remember it today.
It’s human nature to judge someone based on their appearance. The way someone dresses and grooms themselves can tell you a lot about their personality; or at least we like to think so. The man wearing a sharp suit and a neat a haircut is probably wealthier and more educated than the man of equal age wearing thrift store clothing and an unkempt beard. We do this all the time, and it’s why first impressions are so important. Within the first few seconds of meeting someone we derive all sorts of assumptions based on the standards that society conditions us to believe. We prejudge everyone we meet in this way, so you could say that everyone is in some way, and to some small degree, a little bit prejudiced. Sometimes our judgements can be spot on, but other times that can be way off.
Take the case of Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States, for example. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book about rapid cognition, the writer devotes an entire chapter to what he calls “the Warren Harding error”. Basically, it’s when we make snap judgements on people based on only what we see on the outside rather than peeling back the layers, going deeper, and collecting more information. Warren Harding was a handsome man with a commanding prescience and a pleasant demeanour. He was a wealthy man as well, and his sexual appetites were the stuff of legend. Everyone who looked at him swooned because of his physical properties, and thanks to this he ascended through the ranks of the political masses all the way to the White House. Two years later he died of a heart attack and news of his involvement in multiple scandals came out. Warren G Harding was the worst president the country ever had.
What does all that mean? Our snap judgments can lead us astray. In the worst cases they can be disastrous. People didn’t seem to notice that Warren Harding didn’t really have the intellectual makings of a world leader; they just took one look at his lantern-jawed face and swooned. Somehow his good looks blinded people from seeing below the surface and realizing that he did not have the political acumen to run the country. He was a good looking president, but he wasn’t a good president.
I find myself making Warren Harding errors in my own life. Last weekend I was riding the subway and at Landsdowne Station a lanky, gaunt fellow boarded the train and he was wearing tight leather pants, high top sneakers, and a fake fur coat. I immediately thought, “This guy looks like a supreme douchebag.” But then I had to give my head a shake. I don’t know so much his first name and here I am presuming to make such a harsh character assessment of him based on what I saw in that two second window. He could really be a very thoughtful, intelligent and creative individual. Maybe if I got to know him we might even become great friends and I could learn a thing or two from him. Of course, my initial judgement might even be accurate and he could turn out to be a vapid, obnoxious asshole. But I don’t know that. I’ll never know unless I talk to him; unless I “slip inside his skin and walk around in it.”
I’m always being subjected to other people’s Warren Harding errors too. I’m a short man, and there are all sorts of negative stigmas attached to short men. I’ve heard all kinds of nonsense like short men are overly aggressive, or they’re always trying to compensate for something, or they’re jealous and angry. People might look at me and think any of these things and make harsh judgements on my character without even knowing the most basic facts about me, just like I did with the guy on the subway. If they perhaps learned that I’m bilingual, that I’m a successful writer, and that I’m a pretty good guitar player, they might think differently. It’s wrong to make these snap judgements based on something so petty and superficial as one’s height, but we’re all only human and we all make these errors.
It’s no one’s fault for thinking this way, but we should all recognize that what we see on the surface is never the whole story and people can surprise you when you get to know them. “Never judge a book by its cover,” as the old saying goes. I endeavor to correct myself whenever I make Warren Harding errors, and to remind myself that the man in shabby clothing and a shaggy beard could be a fountain of wisdom, and the man in a tailored suit and slick haircut could be a mindless dickhead. I just don’t know until making the connection.
Likewise, if I notice anyone else making their own Warren Harding errors towards me or someone else, I’ll bring this knowledge to their attention. It’s just one more thing I can do to make humanity a little kinder, and a lot less judgemental.