Archive for June 13th, 2008

A matter of perspective

The problem of perspective is everywhere, yet often not noticed. It is a fact of life that none of us perceive the world objectively. We interpret reality through our senses and, when it comes to things like political issues, we view things through a prism of pre-existing beliefs and attitudes, causing each of us to see every issue a little differently. Yet most of the time we forget that, and are convinced that our interpretations of reality are obvious and correct, and thus others who disagree are either ignorant, dishonest, or somehow misguided.

That’s obvious if you travel the blogosphere. For example, You can find websites where Hillary Clinton supporters rail about the ‘obvious injustice’ of the DNC in “selecting” Barack Obama, and how the campaign was defined by a misogynistic media and Democratic party, all conspiring to deny Clinton her rightful spot. I’ve encountered an Ayn Rand inspired anarchist, who would treat any effort to engage about why he thinks the way he does as a kind of attack, and snap back with a barrage of insults. I’ve encountered ex-military people who are otherwise libertarian, and get very upset when challenged to explain why they don’t extend their distrust of government programs and spending to the military, and why they accept an expansive foreign policy. I also remember getting someone very angry at me back in 2000 because I suggested that people should not feel pressured to vote for Gore if they didn’t like Gore and really thought Nader was a better choice.

In reflecting on all this, I think that there are some traps out there that make people forget that they are fallible, and become unable to truly entertain other perspectives. For some, like the Hillary die hards, they’ve locked into an emotional experience of the campaign, becoming convinced they were fighting some kind of crusade for justice by trying to work to bring Hillary the nomination, and they just can’t accept defeat. It has to be a conspiracy, blatantly unfair. That emotion becomes cemented to a narrative, and if you call it in question, you are dismissed or insulted.

For others, it’s steeped in experience. One of the pro-military libertarians had fought in Vietnam, and it is clearly still a powerful part of his identity. He does not want to see the veterans in this war have the same kind of experience, he wants them to have a clear success. It’s an honorable and understandable emotion, but leads to a complete lack of understanding of those who question the war — those folk are attacked, villianized (every Democratic leader gets ridiculed, as well as those of us who would question the war), and it is never acknowledged how wrong he and others were earlier in the war. It becomes very personal.

For some it’s cognitive. The person who was angry at me for defending Nadar voters had a clear rationale: there are only two possible outcomes of the election, either Gore wins or Bush wins. Voting for Nader clearly makes the latter more likely, and that must be avoided because of the impact it could have on the Supreme Court. Since my position was based on a very different logic than looking at the consequences, he could not understand how my position could be rational. The logic was so clear cut to him that I’m sure he considered me an obstinate fool for not agreeing with him.

Finally for people like the anarchist, who has never paid federal income taxes and essentially has lived a kind of alternate life style, it’s probably a mix of a cognitive and emotional bias. He has learned to interpret reality through an ideology that he is convinced of — so much that those who disagree are obviously either stupid sheep or dishonest — and at this point in his life how could he bring into question how he’s lived until now? That would call into question sacrifices made over decades to live according to his principles, so there’s a strong motivation to defend the truth of his perspective.

But perhaps the most dangerous error is simply one of ignoring perspectives not given voice. For me the Iraq war is most tragic in the high cost of civilian life in Iraq, and the numerous stories of people killed by American military power, either as collateral damage from bombing raids, or by mistake at check points. When I first read of a three year old girl orphaned because her parents were shot by American soldiers for not following procedures at a check point, my son was also three. I suddenly could imagine if it were him orphaned. When I read of children killed, I imagine what if it were my kids. When I think of how I worry about possible dangers facing my children in every day life, I think of how horrible it would be if this were a war zone.

Americans tend not to consider that. Even anti-war arguments focus on how the Iraq war has damaged American interests, killed American soldiers, caused skyrocketing suicide and divorce rates, PTSD, and other hardships for American families. We read about the painful third and fourth tours of duty for American soldiers, and how the war has done little for the US but will cost ultimately well over a trillion dollars. But do we really comprehend the horror this has unleashed on the Iraqi people? Do we think about how our actions unleashed a civil war in 2006 that was causing over a hundred deaths a day? Do we think of the long term impact of this on Iraqi society?

No. That perspective is dismissed, either by pretending it would have been as bad under Saddam, or that we have to somehow fix what we broke — as if continued military action can somehow set things right. Once we leave Iraq, we’ll create narratives that will either justify the war for the pro-war side, or see it as a fiasco for the anti-war side, and each perspective will focus on our own experience as the template. It will be very difficult to get people to really comprehend or appreciate the full extent of what this war has meant for the Iraqis themselves.

Perhaps the most important and most difficult lesson in life to learn is to recognize bias not just in others, but also in oneself, and then seek out other perspectives, learning to understand them and not demonizing those that challenge what we hold dear. To me that’s the key for ethical living: to always try my hardest to respect and understand different perspectives, and to try not to ignore marginalized perspectives, like those of the Iraqi people. Right now, that’s something we as a society are not very good at.