Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Disparagements of Perspective or Lies of Malice? Be Free Indeed!

Totalist religion affords us a very tidy view of the world where little if any ambiguity exists. Some enlightened other came before and figured out all that people would need to know to guide themselves with great ease through the rough edges of life. That's how things were sold to me in my group of record as an adult. Critical thinking gets handed over to a religious overseer of souls, creating the illusion of moral blamelessness for members – a process dubbed 'moral disengagement'. 

But there are no pat answers to life's complex problems, and we complex and conflicted human beings make things all the murkier. If you live under a totalist religion, you can skip over the murkiness into a view of black and white, and life becomes a zero-sum game. If someone 'wins' an argument, it means that 100% of the spoils of merit go to one sole survivor, and there can be no merit spared for the other contenders. That all-or-nothingness bleeds over into other areas, too, like power and love and care. If a contender gets some of those valuable commodities, it means that there is less comfort and accomplishment left for everyone else. 

I see it so clearly in the misunderstandings between individuals and groups. If my perspective differs from another, totalism demands that only one view can be valid. Every battle becomes scripted in advance, and all else is tailored to fit around the mandatory outcome. People, memories, facts, history, emotions... They are all malleable when the process demands a certain endpoint. People who follow a totalist ideal bury the competing ideas to avoid the trouble of the dissonance that they bring (along with the messengers). Discount them. Minimize them. Vilify them. Rewrite them in a more suitable narrative. How convenient that we are already hardwired to do such things. 

The Conflict of Perspective

If our own perspective shifts from moment to moment, how is it that we so often expect that others will share our perspective? The sun rises and sets, changing the way light falls on an object. A face of a statue is half lit, fully lit, then half lit again each day as our position on earth turns toward the sun and away again. All three perceptions of the lighting are authentic and valid at any given time of the day, though all three are different. The reality of darkness is also true for those on the opposite side of the world while we are in the light. All are true and real in their moment in time. 

Some researchers who sought to understand conflict resolution asked sixty-three people to each describe an incident where they were a victim of someone's action as well as one where they understood from others that they were an offender in a different interpersonal conflict. The researchers allowed people to pick their own descriptors and language. It revealed some very telling information with self-justification at the heart of it, and it can inform us about how we can keep our own in check when we face new situations in real life. 

When recounting the role of the offender (what I have chosen to call them in this venue), people offer a self-justifying, meaningful narrative of events – much how I have done in the wake of the Botkin letter. What the offender did might have been regrettable, but it made sense to them at the time, as they speculate that all reasonable people would have done under the circumstances. Their arguments work to drop their moral responsibility and reduce their own agency as much as possible. Two-thirds of them argue that mitigating circumstances made their viable choices too limited, or they describe what they did as an irresistible impulse. They offer a justification that everything resolved nicely, so no real harm occurred. Their meaningful narratives from the offender side all offer no insight into the feelings of the victim – across the board. 

When recounting the role of victim, these very same people deliberately establish their own moral blamelessness in another recalled circumstance from their own past as they baulk at the idea that the offender had reduced agency. They place their primary focus on the long-lasting and far-reaching consequences of the event that resulted in their injury. The offense is not a transient thing for them, and they feel current pain most acutely for past events, perceiving that contention still exists between them and the offender. Most notably, they cannot construct a meaningful narrative of what happened and seem bewildered at the idea that their offender can remotely justify what they did. Some attribute maliciousness to the offender to provide some meaning to an otherwise confounding tragic event which spares them responsibility for it.

The innate need to defend the integrity of the self overrides almost all other considerations for both parties, and past experiences do not seem to have any effect that might reduce it. It all becomes a zero-sum game, and no one shows much empathy to the people on the other side of the conflict. There is no desire to understand that it all might be a matter that owes to a misunderstanding that perspective could explain. Each ventures out to win the conflict, making their offender or their victim the greater villain. All of it is motivated by a drive to reduce that individual's cognitive dissonance. 

Unavoidable Dissonance

Well, to the victor goes the spoils. Victors write the history books, and those who lost the war write memoirs that lament their loss. But what of situations where, just like all human beings know, matters all boil down to a disparagement of perspective?

We feel the same way when we learn that another has lied to us.
Both people can be correct about the interpretation of events, given their presuppositions – and taking perspective into account. Most of us seem to lose the ability to do so when we are faced with the dissonance of discordant vantages and the meanings that we give them. I might experience pain from the very same object, action, or experience that brings another person relief of pain, and both responses can be valid at the same time. But this cannot exist in a black and white worldview.

Researchers who are concerned with the nature of conflict and how it may be resolved suggest that tolerating our own dissonance and the terrible discomfort that it brings will help move each contender to a new place of maturity. With awareness of just how readily our minds and our natures rush to self-defense, if we can manage to step back from the pain of it for just a little while, we can broaden our view. Doing so humanizes our adversaries and allows us to examine those things about our own circumstances that bother us so much. If we can trust that truth is transcendent and can remember that patience comes through standing strongly through life's trials, we can allow truths that are painful to perform their work in us.

For the Christian, tribulations and trials work patience in us – long-suffering compassion for those of whom we lack understanding. Love stretches us and expands our borders to challenge us to extend it even to those we see as our enemies. We may not like them or what they have to say, but if we stay grounded in love, we can find respect for others. Can't we? Love gives us the courage to stand up under scrutiny and inspires us to persevere for it, reminding us that it is our primary cause and mission anyway. Were we not called to know the truth, and doesn't the truth bring freedom? Aren't the Botkins called to see and know the truth? 

If even the framework of our carnal brain which houses our mind speaks to just how much we share with Adam when God questioned him about the Tree of Knowledge, shouldn't we linger awhile in our dissonance in faith? What if we do it out of love? What if God brought us to that place to reveal our own hearts and minds to us as he introduces a new but challenging truth? What if our self-justification is hiding the fact that it is a place of grace for us and an opportunity to be made more like Him?

Cognitive biases and informal logical fallacy offer a treasure trove of mechanisms that we human beings can draw upon to reduce our dissonance in the face of ambiguity. Maturity demands that we live with and make peace with that dissonance, building meaningful lives despite if not because of our discomfort. We can ask for love's courage to resist the pain of a misunderstanding or a disparagement of perspective – to keep us from poisoning the well of those we deem as our adversaries. We can choose to call them liars and ascribe villainy and malice to them in order to feel a bit better for a time. We can call them all manner of moniker as we paint them either black or white. 

Spin doctors can dispute whatever facts they want, but in the sum of all things, they're left with hard facts to reconcile. They and those who bound themselves to them eventually face two alternatives. They can shift their view to accommodate the facts, or they can rail at the facts and their messengers. Too often, our railing against the facts speaks louder than our primary message and purpose.

In the sum of things, do we want to be known for railing against people whom we cast as adversaries in a black and white, 'us' versus 'them' world? Or would we rather be known for contending for tried and true ideas which are supported by evidence because we dared to withstand them? The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” 

I hope that the young women have unfettered access to modes of communication like a phone or email that goes unmonitored. If they are good Bereans as claimed, they shouldn't need much help. If they read carefully, they can find much here.

Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. 
I did not come to bring peace but a sword. 

For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, 
a daughter against her mother, 
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘
a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ 

He who loves father or mother 
more than Me is not worthy of Me. 
And he who loves son or daughter 
more than Me is not worthy of Me. 

And he who does not take his cross 
and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 

~Matthew 10:34-39

Further Reading: