Scott Rasmussen: Pixar can help us understand Ferguson

Scott Rasmussen

Scott Rasmussen

“Creativity, Inc.,” a book by Pixar and Disney Animation President Ed Catmull, is aimed at teaching leaders how to foster collective creativity. Perhaps more precisely, it’s about how to remove the structural blockages that prevent creativity from expressing itself.

Reading that book amidst news from Ferguson, Missouri, I was struck by how many of the insights from the Pixar experience helped explain the public response to the shooting of Michael Brown.

Catmull spoke of how “only about 40 percent of what we think we ‘see’ comes in through our eyes.” Our brain fills in the rest — 60 percent — from memories or patterns that we remember or recognize.

So when a story like the shooting of Michael Brown enters the public consciousness, we all tend to “see” what we expect to see. Some believe the teen was shot with his hands in the air saying “Don’t Shoot.” Others reject that allegation as dangerous and disproven nonsense.

Some see racism at the core of the story and view both the police and our system of justice as the villain. Others see law enforcement officers doing a difficult and thankless job to the best of their ability. In that view, the poor choices made by Brown and riotous looters are at fault.

At Pixar, success was driven by a culture recognizing that no one person can “understand every facet of a complex environment.” So, as Catmull relates, they focused “on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints.” It required creating an environment to encourage candor without accusation.

That approach is desperately needed in the discussion over Ferguson. The only way to start down this path is for individuals to try and “see” what happened from multiple perspectives before letting pattern recognition fill in the blanks.

As a first step, consider this. In the midst of their fatal encounter, neither Michael Brown nor Darren Wilson “saw” more than 40 percent of what happened with their own eyes. Most of what they perceived came from learned patterns and expectations. It is a useful exercise to consider how that encounter might have “looked” to each of the men involved. What patterns were they drawing upon?

For those who believe the grand jury was right not to indict Officer Wilson, take some time to consider why many in the black community saw the decision as just one more time when the rules of the game were rigged against them. It is quite possible to agree with the outcome while recognizing the legitimate anger and frustration of many Ferguson residents.

Making a greater effort to “see” what really happened and “combining different viewpoints” will lead to a healthier political dialogue. It will also lead to another lesson discovered at Pixar: The trouble you see is often not the real problem. Many times, their creative community would meet and discover something wrong in a particular movie scene. However, the real problem typically occurred at a deeper level earlier in the film. Once they fixed the deeper problem, the troubling scene fixed itself.

The deeper problem of the Ferguson saga is that many — perhaps most — Americans do not trust our legal and political system to treat them fairly. Sadly, there is ample justification for such skepticism.


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