Repost from July 7, 2015 with minor editorial changes – it seemed a good time to dust this one off
“Be careful how you interpret the world: it is like that” — Erich Heller
Erich Heller was an essayist, and German scholar, who was best known for his writings on the literature of Nietzsche, Thomas Mann and Kafka. He was Bohemian by birth, British by choice, and ultimately was a resident of the US. He died in 1990 at the age of 79, eleven years after retiring from academia. He seemed to be particularly struck by Heidegger, and his writings on the nature of Being. This particular quote is one of several that I had kept pinned to the wall of my cubicle at work – perhaps the single best reminder of the importance of perception that I have. When Heller wrote this he could never have imagined the world that we live in now.
In recent years, as the information that we are bombarded with (true, false, good, bad) has continued to grow exponentially, that advice has become increasingly valuable to me. Rather than fostering ‘one world’, as was perhaps the hope, I often feel that this flood of information has, instead, deepened the divide. Rumors and false information now spread at the speed of light, yet corrections and retractions rarely seem to make that same leap (similar to the paper news of yore, but now with a wider audience). We humans seem to have developed remarkably short attention spans in the age of the ‘sound bite’, and we have always had a particular fondness for news that gets our dander up. I check before I share things, or get riled up, because even some of those heartwarming stories – like that heroic 9/11 rescue dog – are simply not true, and there are many, many negative stories (from all views) that are either exaggerated or completely untrue. And we are hard-wired to prefer things that are like us, and/or that fit our worldview.
Partial disclosure – I’m a married, heterosexual, female, past middle-age, a parent, love the law, love science, love to write, and am analytic by nature. Each of those things, plus the rest of what makes me ‘me’, as well as a multitude of experiences and life choices along the way, have all combined to not only make me unique, but to make my perceptions of things unique. Just as is trues for all of us. Who I am reflects back in what I see. But I have the (dis)advantage of seeing multiple sides to an argument at once – the curse of an analytic mind. Great for chess, but it complicates formulating an opinion – yet even at that I need to be wary of my own biases. In order to live among other unique humans, what we must do is push ourselves so that we can begin to see what others see.
We tend to get so caught up in our own bubbles that we only truly see that which supports our own biases. We close ranks with those that think as we do, and we lose the willingness to seriously consider an opposing view. At our worst, we go into attack mode at the slightest provocation, and insults replace reason. Most times we try to engage constructively, but what we really seem to want is the opportunity to lay out our counter-argument. Not a bad thing in itself, since debate is a wonderful thing, but when our debating becomes pedantic, and when we focus more on our sparring partner’s word choice than the general intent, then we are closing ourselves off. And even that can be okay, too, when values or facts, and not opinions, are being debated (is it ever okay steal? is the earth really flat?). But – rational beings can, and do, change their opinions, and decisions, based on new input – it isn’t a sign of weakness or a betrayal of our core values. Right now we are living in a society where we are being led to believe that we are deeply divided – by religion, by race, by gender – and where our fears of loss of our rights and our values are being stoked by a media that rests in the hands of a very few, very wealthy, corporations. I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist, yet I sometimes think I sound like one now.
All of that fear nurturing is distracting us from the larger issues that really do confront us as a nation. We undeniably have a Congress that is beholden to their large corporate and private donors. Polls over the past few years have repeatedly shown that our gerrymandered Congressional representatives are not voting in line with what their constituents want. The political system in this country is broken. This isn’t a Liberal vs Conservative thing. It is a systemic problem. And sadly, it is our very natural tendency to see primarily what we want to see that is being used to keep us from seeing what we need to see. Unfettered capitalism is giving rise to corporatization, and the concentration of power into the hands of the very few. And given our current political climate, this looks like it will only get worse for the foreseeable future.
Where we are now is coming alarmingly close to where the country was prior to the Great Depression. And that alone, should be a wake-up call that something has gone very wrong. All is not lost – we need to take ourselves out of our bubbles & be aware that our perception of the world is impacted by who we are – and we have the innate ability to see beyond if we wish to. And if we do, we can work on fixing the system rather than on fighting with each other. And, to close with a somewhat related thought, I leave you with the following quote from Aldous Huxley:
“To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.”