A tail tale

31Oct10

We were late to our tutorial today because we were distracted by a bizarre spectacle whilst wandering from the car to the campus. We were walking along the lake (or river if you must), admiring the scenery, birds, and other such natural manifestations of beauty. A bunch of seagulls and ducks were clustered in a manner most strange around a section of the riverbank, doing nothing in particular, collectively. This happened to be one of our favourite pastimes, so we decided to explore the reason behind their congregation. As we neared them, they parted to reveal the focus of their interest – a small, brown, furry creature nestled in the bank. We exclaimed joy over the prospect of seeing a little beaver, hamster, or other miscellaneous little critter, and approached it enthusiastically to better examine the mystery. The little guy looked up as we neared, revealing a cute little whiskered face, which could identify him as either a hamster, guinea pig or gerbil. The imagined friendly cuteness of our discovery propelled us closer still, until our proximity threatened the creature and forced him to emerge in full view as he slowly backed away from our large, menacing selves.
As soon as we witnessed the object of our joy & attention in full, it became apparent that we were mistaken in our expectations of cuteness, for the creature was, in fact, a huge rat. Our adoration faded immediately, and we stopped advancing towards him, instead standing frozen in disbelief. We had processed the new information and judged that pursuing closer contact with the rat would be unwise. The only visible distinction between the rat and the “miscellaneous, cute, furry critter” we had anticipated was its long, tentacle-like tail. This singular body part was capable of shattering all of our warm feelings and reversing our attitude and intentions towards him. We now saw a filthy, massive wet rat, and associated with it disease, filth, danger and threat (mostly subconsciously). How quickly and unjustifiably our attitudes and associations change with the sight of something so minuscule. The enormous revision came because the new information placed the creature into a distinct category – “rat”, and attached to the term came a swarm pre-learned attitudes and expectations.
Judgements we had made previously about the general nature of rats now applied to this creature, and in an instant, he transformed from friendly to filthy, from little to huge; cute to disgusting, etc. This happened as soon as we detected the species of the being and applied our prior conceptions of his class to him. How quickly our perceptions can warp with the introduction of a mere morsel of new empirical data! The incident demonstrated the immense capacity for our preconceptions of reality to influence our everyday experiences. The rat itself had not committed anything to warrant such judgment: he was as little, furry, and cute-faced as he had ever been. And yet his tail forced him to undergo judgment based on our questionable stereotype of rats.
Luckily, the rat was blissfully unaware of the injustice and misapprehension to which his tail had doomed him. He proceeded to plonk himself into the river and used said tail to propel himself under the water and swim away. The birds reformed their voyeuristic ensemble in the water and continued to stalk the rat in awe and interest, unable to comprehend this strange creature, yet seemingly eager to do so. We humans, having barged in and promptly established the nature of things, left the scene. Yet perhaps we are ill equipped in making judgments, for although our associative, categorical approach is a quicker method of understanding our surroundings, it is not always as accurate as we hold it to be.
Though perhaps our judgement was justified, for not only did the rat cause me to be tardy, the thought of the rat incident made me inattentive throughout the lesson as I focused on the creation of this speculative babble.

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