Thursday, August 10, 2017

Outside Looking In

My friend, Jeff Miller, made this comment during a discussion last year: 
"If you find yourself thinking that the only possible explanation for someone else's perception that differs from your own is based on their having a negative framework (ie, "racist", "sexist", "hateful", etc.), you have more than likely inadvertently absorbed a piece of perceptual framework that someone else has planted in you in order to manipulate you.

As a general proposition, start with the assumption that everyone is operating from a perspective of positive intentions, even if doing so violates your framework. Even if you are wrong (and you very well may be), the result is positive". -Jeff Miller

I found it apt and I think about it often as social media constantly offers up propositions I don't think I agree with. It's very hard (as Jeff suggests) to afford the alien point of view the benefit of the doubt that they are wishing for the same or better outcome as I wish for -- instead of retreating to a safe zone of demonizing them so I don't have to listen.

I try to ask myself if I can find ANY way that I might find points of agreement with the alternative pov. Said another way -- am I absolutely sure I even know what they are saying? Do I fully understand their pov? Could I describe it back to them accurately and without prejudice?

And I try to ask myself if it is really logical to believe in demons? -- That is, I try to ask myself if this (for instance) social media meme presenting me with a demon is as likely to be a true characterization of its target...

... as it might be to instead assume better of that person/target and, from there, figure out what that person/target is really saying?


  1. I have paid some attention to writing advice for story tellers, and one thing they all say is that no person (or story character) thinks of themselves as being the 'bad guy'. We are all heroes in our own minds and of our own stories. And if what we do seems 'bad' or 'evil' looked at from the outside it is only because some things that outsiders value are being sacrificed in favor of heroically defending a different set of values. The person themselves always finds the justification for what they are doing, even if it conflicts with what others assume to be moral and right.

    So the 'intentions' are never simply to do 'bad and only bad'. The intentions may simply not embrace the fullness of consequences that fall out from picking this one battle to fight.

    So yes, every racist is not someone who thinks of themselves as 'evil'. They simply see the rights of people different from themselves as NOT worth defending. Maybe these others are not really even human, so they are defending the 'real' humans from whatever harm is caused by these alien others. Racists are always the heroes of their own cause. That much is clear.

    But the question remains, the cause some people think worth fighting for, the values they uphold and the values of others that they tear down are each birthed in a world that includes these other things. Racists will always defend racism with honest and sincere intentions. Are they 'good' people? Maybe yes in most respects in their daily lives. But is being a racist worthy of a seat at the table in a world that starts from square one as a diverse and multicultural motley? Is their own heroism a deciding factor in whether racism has positive value to the community at large, to society as a whole?

    In the end, we must consider that even some heroes are the real villains of the story, no matter how kindly they think of themselves. Hitler kissed babies and fed poor Aryans and lifted the 'Germanic' people onto their feet in the aftermath of the depression, but he was also a mass murderer.

    So yes, understand that people often imagine what they do in the best possible light. It is good to know what those intentions are. But it is also important to have a clear picture of when those specific intentions are not as virtuous as assumed. We ALL can be deluded and shortsighted.

    If we can admit to measures outside our own we necessarily admit that our own heroism is sometimes misplaced. If we have that humility we may begin to forge a way forward that doesn't leave a charred planet in its wake...... The world has too many heroes and not enough worthy causes, perhaps.....

    Last thought: This metaphor occurred to me the other day in a different context. Sometimes we are like people playing chess in a burning building. We are so intent on winning the chess game that we ignore the flames engulfing us. We somehow think it more important to 'win the game' on the board than that anyone makes it out alive. That is how we operate, unfortunately. So every hero can also be seen as a potential chess player in a burning building. Lesson: If we focus our energies in the wrong cause we can make a mess of things. We need to ask if it is more important to win at chess or to leave the burning building or put out the fire. The people who would rather play chess may have more serious issues than protecting their rook.

    Sorry I rambled, but as always you ask interesting questions :)

  2. Rambling is good.

    And sometimes we're correct in our prejudices. Some of the people referred to as "racists" are, in fact, racists.

    That, of course, is an alternative view to that expressed by Mr Miller and by me.

    What Mr Miller is asking is if we have the ability to be introspective enough to discern whether we are pigeonholing people for the sake of a convenient side-step to the frightful possibility of accepting that they might not be who we think they are, or who the sources of information we rely on tell us they are.

    You're comfortable with your categories. Miller and I aren't.

  3. other words. Neither I nor Jeff Miller are asking anyone to accept racism or racists, sexism or sexists, hate or haters. What we are suggesting is that we live in a information age wherein such accusations are often not only inaccurate, but purposely so.

  4. What I'm suggesting is that if we want to have a fruitful argument -- that is, we want to have a fruitful discussion with somebody with whom we disagree -- we might have to consider the possibility that the reason we disagree with them is because we don't understand what they are saying in the first place.

    And the reason we might not understand what they are saying in the first place might just be because we have categorized thoughts and ideologies in such a concrete, black and white, binary manner that we long ago stopped listening to what the other person was saying.

    And maybe we categorize generally. And maybe those generalizations are useful. But they can also block our ability to listen specifically.

    We can get so vested in an issue that, rather than become more informed about it, we actually become intractably attached to whatever it takes to continue that clinging. We stop listening. We are so sure we know and every new encounter with yet another individual that challenges the safety of our generalities we now see as a threat instead of an individual.

    Discernment tells me not to believe everything I hear.
    Humility tells me I don't know everything.

  5. Agreed, agreed, agreed! This is all very good discussion :)

    But before I get pigeonholed (categorized) into the idea that I am somehow "comfortable" with the idea that my own categories are all that matter, if you will notice, my whole point was that from our own perspective we always seem to be *heroes*. Did you get that? That there is always a point of view outside us in which things make a particular sense?

    So of course calling other people "racist" is a sort of injustice to their own heroism. I was never saying we need to be "comfortable" with calling out other people's offensive behavior, only that we have as much right to be offended as they in being offensive. One does not automatically trump the other. Being somehow 'inoffensive' has never been an adequate aim of universal human conduct or a model for human morality.....

    What Miller said was right: "As a general proposition, start with the assumption that everyone is operating from a perspective of positive intentions, even if doing so violates your framework." The question is whether some things matter more than either someone doing what offends other people and other people being offended by it. That is a huge question, and as you note it requires extreme humility.

    If that made me sound "comfortable" I'm not sure where you got that. As you say, "we might have to consider the possibility that the reason we disagree with them is because we don't understand what they are saying in the first place." I pretty much thought I was AGREEING with both you and Miller, simply providing some context and nuance, enlarging the story to fit more facts. If you thought I was *disagreeing*, well, maybe take another look.

    I like how you ended your post: "to instead assume better of that person/target and, from there, figure out what that person/target is really saying". I'd like to think I wasn't wearing a bull's eye :)