What my histogram has taught me about our political problems

Yosemite Valley, in all its splendor, a beautiful landscape.


OK, this will be a stretch, but watch as I connect two seemingly random topics, my camera’s histogram and our country’s political landscape, into one post.

The other day I was explaining how a camera’s histogram works to a student, when I realized I could have also been describing the ways we view the world. Go figure.

For this idea to have any possible chance of making any sense, you first have to understand how a camera’s histogram works. A histogram is a statistical graph that illustrates the frequency that something occurs. In the case of a camera’s histogram, it maps out the number of pixels across a scale of brightness ranges from 0 to 255. Imagine you are the camera looking at an image. You examine the first pixel and give it a grayscale brightness value, with 0 representing total black and 255 representing total white. Every value in between is some sort of gray level, with a gradation from black to white. Very dark pixels would be scored a very low number, middle gray pixels would score somewhere in the middle (e.g. 128) and very light pixels would score a higher number, approaching 255. After scoring every pixel in an image, the histogram shows how they all scored. Each image has its own unique histogram. The histogram is a great tool to help a photographer accurately evaluate the exposure of images.

So what does this have to do with politics? Well, hang with me here a little longer.

A histogram has one value for black (0) and one value for white (255). The other 254 values represent some form of gray. If we convert the gray pixels into only black or white pixels, we get very little of the whole picture.

I think our country’s biggest political problem is the massively divisive ways that issues and problems are described and debated in purely black and white terms. It’s like looking at a photo without any gray areas.

Without any gray areas, the landscape looks pretty stark. No details, no beauty.

Realistically, most of our country’s issues have lots of gray areas. Economic and social problems don’t start and stop with each presidency. These problems are highly complex and cannot be understood or solved if we oversimplify them and say they are caused by one person or one policy. For example, some of the California budget problems today can be traced back to decisions that were made several decades ago, along with many more made since then.

But here’s the point: if these problems have lots of gray areas, then the solutions must exist in those gray areas, too. In order to find those solutions, we have to leave the safety of our polar opposites and be willing to wander around the middle areas together with some curiosity and flexibility. If we describe the problem in black and white terms, we aren’t seeing the whole picture.

So if we could map out a histogram of our political views, how much gray area would show up? Or would it look as bad as the photo of Yosemite without much gray in it?

I realize this curiosity and flexibility is not easy to do. Much of our political identity is wrapped up in absolutes. But if we try it, I believe something else can happen along the way. As we begin to explore and accept the gray areas along with others, we may get to know each other a little better. We may find out that we all have a lot more in common than we think. But most importantly, I think our focus would shift away from yelling and name-calling and blaming each other, and without all that, we can get smarter. Because right now, I think our country looks pretty stupid. It takes gray matter to see the gray areas.

It all begins with each of us. We might even begin to treat each other with a little more respect. I can only begin to imagine the power of treating each other with a little more respect. Now there’s a concept.

But if we want to really solve these problems in our own lifetimes, we will need to let go of some of the hyperbole and get down to the real work of sorting it out and setting things straight.

And we can’t set things straight if we can’t see things straight.

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One thought on “What my histogram has taught me about our political problems

  1. Your analogy touches the heart of the problem. We need to get past the “reason he/she is in office” and do something for the whole community in spite of affiliation.


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