Close-up magic known as “sleight of hand” uses distractions to pull the eye away from something that winds up being an unexplainable surprise.
What actually happened was there all along, but the eye was “tricked” not to see it. It’s very entertaining.
This image has come to mind while watching, hearing and reading the public conversation about the pandemic that has overwhelmed us on so many levels.
Many voices are present in that conversation: the studied observations of the medical experts, the strained voices of the “front line” practitioners of clinical care, the anxious concerns of those who are drastically affected economically, and, of course, the grieving hearts of family members and friends of the victims of the disease.
Then there are the “spinners,” the conspiracy theorists and the misinformation spreaders – there is no lack of reinforcement for whatever attitude and perspective one might choose to hold.
Choose your cable network or other news outlet – you are bound to find one that fits what you want to think.
We have become accustomed to the prevalence of “spin” in our public life – the portrayal of a circumstance or event in a way to favor a particular perception of it.
Much of the time it provides a range of perspectives that helps discern between facts and “alternative facts” – more helpful than harmful when there is open debate and discussion.
One practice that is appearing at this point of our response to the pandemic virus is a subtle presentation of legitimate information which has the effect of distracting from the seriousness of the problem.
This is what I have come to think of as “sleight of mind.” Let me try to describe by way of an example.
It has recently been noted that there is a complexity in the reporting process of cases and deaths from the virus. This can lead to some lack of precision in the data due to other complicating factors that contribute to deaths.
If a person, for example, dies while infected by the virus but has a precondition of asthma, how can we know what the “real” cause of death was?
This line of thinking leads some to ask, “With such uncertainties in the data, how can we be sure that the pandemic is not seriously overblown?”
Blame is placed on the “media” for not reporting these limitations thoroughly enough, as well as on the political party who is seen to benefit from reports focused on the seriousness of the problem and the flaws and shortcomings of the national response.
Another example is the frequent comparison of the COVID-19 deaths to those of the annual flu, with the suggestion that there is nothing extraordinarily unique about this “newbie” virus, in spite of the fact of its explosive contagiousness and the lack of a proven treatment.
It takes a good magician to pull off sleight of hand effectively, and it often is someone with sophisticated credentials (in other words, someone in the medical community) who offers this exercise in “sleight of mind.”
While we’re not watching, the magician makes what we thought was the “real” location of the card or coin turn out not to be.
While we’re not thinking, what we thought was a serious problem threatening our very lives turns out to be overblown – it isn’t as bad as the “media” or a political party want us to think.
Sleight of hand is entertaining and harmless, while sleight of mind can have serious consequences.
If enough people can be distracted enough not to notice how our attention can be drawn away from the seriousness of choices we are called upon to make – whether in support of a common challenge like a pandemic, or in such collective decisions as elections –outcomes other than the ones our better judgment would have preferred can occur.
I have learned that sleight of hand can be “figured out” with repeated watching, looking not at what was the center of attention the first time, but at what was happening off to the side in the other hand.
Perhaps a way to avoid being victimized by sleight of mind is not to let ourselves be distracted by a clever presentation of data that is designed to pull our attention away from the central problem.
Keep looking – and be sure to watch the other hand.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.