There's an old joke about inkblot tests:
A psychiatrist shows his patient three amorphous inkblots and asks the patient what he sees.
"A topless woman, a naked man and orgy," the patient responds.
The doctor says he's noticing a disturbing trend — to which the patient responds: "Well, you're the one showing me all the dirty pictures."
The message is that people often see what they want to see. Which brings us to the George Zimmerman trial — this month's trial of the century … and our nation's current inkblot test.
Here, too, many people see only what they want. The only lessons learned are the ones they're convinced they already know.
If you were already convinced the world is full of young black thugs, well, there's a good chance that's what you saw in this case, too.
If you were convinced that minorities are unfairly profiled and unable to get equal justice, well, that's the story you see playing out again.
The perception divide goes well beyond race.
Take guns, for instance.
Gun-rights supporters hailed the case as proof that guns save lives. If Zimmerman hadn't carried a gun, they say, he wouldn't have been able to defend himself.
Yet gun-control proponents say the case proves that guns lead to unnecessary death and violence: If Zimmerman hadn't been carry a gun and feeling emboldened, no one would have died that night.
The exact same case supposedly proved the need for both more — and fewer — firearms.
It all depends on how you look at the inkblot — and what you are looking for.
USA Today recently compiled a roundup of pundits that was all over the map in lessons we were supposed to have learned. The headline read: "Zimmerman case divides those already decided." In other words: Everyone who already had a strong opinion was able to find something in this case to reinforce his or her beliefs.
As the trial has played out, witnesses have become the inkblots.
Nowhere was that more evident than in reaction to Martin's friend, Rachel Jeantel, the teenager who was the last person to speak with Trayvon Martin.
To some, Jeantel was an impudent schemer — a target ripe for scorn about her testimony and deserving of mockery about appearance, speech and mannerisms.
To others, she was a kid who had tough life, who grew up speaking another language and deserved a break.
I understood the impulse to dissect Jeantel's testimony. But through my lens, I was also taken aback by how comfortable people were in savaging this teenager about everything from her English to her weight.
Sure, I can admit I have a lens, too. And I've always looked at this case through the lens of a kid who grew up in a no-excuses house.
From Day One — when I first learned that Zimmerman was pursuing Martin, even as a 911 dispatcher urged him not to — I could hear my father's voice in my head.
He wouldn't have given a flip about who confronted whom afterward. "The bottom line," he would have said, "is that none of this would have happened if you had just done what you were told to do."
But you know what? Even through my lens, Zimmerman may not be guilty — because he isn't on trial for how well he listened to the dispatcher.
He's being tried for killing Martin. And, under Florida law, that may come down to what happened in the final seconds before the gun went off.
Certainly there are big-picture lessons worth learning from this case and others. But so much of what we hear isn't informed analysis. It's just noise.
We have individuals with existing biases who look at this case and see justification for their prejudice.
And we have interest groups cherry-picking facts to bolster the cases they were making long before anyone ever heard of Trayvon Martin.
The key is to be aware of your lens — and the lenses through which others fervently lobby you to look at this case.
Also for us to challenge our conceptions, maybe even thinking about different ways to view the inkblot.
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