This summer I did an online course with the Wesleyan University on Social Psychology through coursera.com. On the first weeks there were some lectures on how people construct reality and the first question was if we all saw reality the same way. The answer was no, we don’t see it the same way because we don’t see it all. In fact, our brain tends to focus on useful information and it deletes the rest.
One of the focuses of our perception is defined by the Confirmation Bias theory: “a preference for information that is consistent with the preconception, rather than information that challenges it”. In other words, we only see what we can expect to see.
[The color changing card trick:
Just ike in the linked video, which shows the color changing card trick, the character of Captain Delano ignores all the evidence of what’s happening because he can’t believe it possible. A person’s perception isn’t neutral, and if it is focused on one thing, it can’t be aware of others.
Even at the very ending, when Benito Cereno desperately jumps onto his ship, Delano can’t come to any other conclusion but that don Benito wants to kill him, and that Babo is a good servant that wants to help his master.
“The dismayed officer of the boat eagerly asked what this meant. To which, Captain Delano, turning a disdainful smile upon the unaccountable Benito Cereno, answered that, for his part, he neither knew nor cared; but it seemed as if the Spaniard had taken it into his head to produce the impression among his people that the boat wanted to kidnap him. “Or else- give way for your lives,” he wildly added, starting at a clattering hubbub in the ship, above which rang the tocsin of the hatchet-polishers; and seizing Don Benito by the throat he added, “this plotting pirate means murder!” Here, in apparent verification of the words, the servant, a dagger in his hand, was seen on the rail overhead, poised, in the act of leaping, as if with desperate fidelity to befriend his master to the last; while, seemingly to aid the black, the three Spanish sailors were trying to clamber into the hampered bow. Meantime, the whole host of Negroes, as if inflamed at the sight of their jeopardized captain, impended in one sooty avalanche over the bulwarks.”
Actually, this is one of the consequences of the confirmation bias theory: that our selective perception can serve to preserve and strengthen our social expectations and stereotypes, especially when we aren’t motivated to question our beliefs.
But Delano is not the only one biased: Melville is too. This is evidenced in the characterization and also in the main plot of Benito Cereno. In the end, who is presented as the villain of the story? It is the black slave who seems to embody all the evil characteristics. He doesn’t only lead the mutiny, he is also responsible for the death of Aranda and the exhibition of his skeleton, he is the one who threatens Cereno, the one who is frightening and has the wicked plans. Melville doesn’t write about the reasons that lead to the rebellion of the slaves, doesn’t say anything bad about Aranda, the slave trader, or about don Benito. Even when Babo is killed, it is presented as the rescue of a good man, don Benito, from the rebels.
“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”
Presenting the black as the villains, Melville is offering the reader the conception he expects, even if he subtly indicates the motivations that lead to the rebellion.