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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Clarity

We see the world through our damage.


This is an idea expressed powerfully in Will Storr's book The Science of Storytelling. He cites some fascinating research: people viewed a film of a school hallway during break time. The researchers tracked the eye movements of those watching the video. Those who had suffered childhood trauma, attachment disorders, depression and the like 'saw' the negative and unfriendly interactions; those who had a secure attachment focused on the friendly interactions. It's what they unconsciously attended to. Effectively, the two groups saw entirely different films, though they were watching the same video.


Ramp that up to a social level. To a worldview. To a judgment of historical events or of another culture. To the reading of a book or article. Anything. We see what we expect to see and judge accordingly.


Of course, this is just one of many experiments showing similar results (though I don't know how many have come through psychology's replication crisis unscathed). But I think that, anecdotally, we can see this in evidence among our friends and family. How one person construes a social interaction, the tone of an email or whatever may be quite different from the interpretation favoured by their partner. More critically, both parties will feel that what they witnessed is the 'objective fact' of the situation. No argument will be persuasive. 'I saw it with my own eyes.'


This brings back to me an excellent podcast that I listened to years ago featuring some now forgotten writer or thinker... I remember where I was when I heard the podcast - I was walking or running in the fields north of my home, up a particularly unpretty hill on a grey autumn day. Shame I can't remember who said this. But basically, he explained that we all see the world through our own distorting lenses. Culture, personality, upbringing, political bias and so on. We can't take those lenses off. Any claim to real objectivity is just so much hot air. Instead, he advocated an entirely opposing policy: put on as many other lenses as you can. Inhabit as many different perspectives as possible. Gain knowledge, practice empathy, ask questions, use imagination, read history, consider the force of different interests and assumptions. Just as the full spectrum of colours makes up white light, so the closer you come to taking on all perspectives the more likely you'll be to verge toward objectivity. A lovely paradox: only radical subjectivity takes us closer to objectivity.


Notice too that this does not make any claim for relativism - he's not suggesting that every perspective is 'true' in its own way. He's saying that all perspectives shield and expose different aspects of truth. Nor is he suggesting that we can fully know the other, the objective thing out there, we can only seek to be less limited in our knowledge of it.


This view is similar to one expressed by Nietzsche, though I am struggling to understand exactly what Nietzsche really meant. But, from what I did glean, he did raise some critical objections to any possibility of attaining pure knowledge. And one of them strikes me as deeply important - though also potentially dangerous.


He seems to say that only those who have experienced great things are positioned to comprehend them. So, we cannot judge Genghis Khan, I suppose, or Napoleon. They are too big for us to comprehend. Now, this idea has many implications and I have some sympathy with certain aspects.


Let me try to explain.


One relates to L. A. Paul's conception of transformative experiences. She claims that after a life-changing event, we are no longer the same person. We have different values and interests. A woman expecting a baby and the same woman once she has had that baby will not share the same worldview. The expectant mother is only guessing when she makes decisions for the person she is to become. There seems to me to be much validity in this. I might decide today that next year I will never fly in a plane again, for environmental reasons; but if tomorrow I find that I have a terminal disease and one year to live, I might not be able to return to the mindset of the person who was focused on the planet and might instead wish to see Kyoto before I die. It would not be fair to hold the new me to a decision made by the old me. Well, maybe it would, for environmental reasons, but you get the point I'm making: the new salience of seeing Kyoto would be a new aspect of my now terminal self.


Another example: I think it is impossible for a middle-class white woman to fully inhabit what it might feel like to be a black youth in Tottenham, and vice versa. Similarly, it is impossible for me to fully imagine what a head of state is undergoing when they have to make decisions during an emergency, the quantity of information, attempts to work out the quality of that information, to prioritise it, to juggle different interests, to look ahead, to take advice, to reject advice, to know that you will stand or fall on the back of your decision, more importantly to know that others in the near and distant future will die and suffer, live and thrive, depending on what decision you make. Perhaps the hubris of Donald Trump might make this situation attractive or at least unaffecting, but frankly I imagine I'd be paralyzed, but then I don't know: had I been 'the type of person' to go for public office, no doubt I'd have entirely different interests, competences and personality traits.


In all cases, I can read the accounts of others and develop some understanding. I can exercise my capacities of imagination and empathy, but could I really claim to have any knowledge of what these cases really would be like? And even, in the remotest chance that I could, could I fully imagine being 'them' in that situation rather than being 'me' in that situation? Or perhaps I'd be a 'them that I have imagined' - which could be very distant from the 'them that they are'.


One of the exquisite benefits of great literature is that through reading it we are enabled to expand our conception of what it might mean to be a 'them as they are'. Reading Anna Karenina or Emma, Madame Bovary or Americanah, Flowers for Algernon or The Curious Incident of the Dog Night-time, Black Beauty or Uncle Tom's Cabin broaden our conceptual horizons and the circle of our empathy.


A little extra boon here: such scope increases our potential for the kind of free will that matters - as we have more possible frames of reference to work from, more models, more options at our conscious or unconscious disposal.


I've rather lost the plot. Ah yes, the dangers. There seem to me two dangers arising from this view that we cannot judge what we have not experienced. Firstly, this does seem to instantiate a worrying moral relativism. That we have not been, say, Ted Bundy, does not mean we cannot condemn Ted Bundy's actions. It is fair that we should have some humility when making judgments, that we should be duty bound to understand what we can. This seems to me to be why Martha Nussbaum exhorts us to judge the deed not the person. Who someone is may be far from their own creation; but what they have done they must still account for.


The second danger is a kind of pervasive exceptionalism. The teenager's anguished cry, 'You don't know what it's like to be me!' Indeed, none of us do. But just grow up a bit and realise that however you feel, your actions have consequences and, like it or not, other people matter too. And you don't know what it's like to be them. Even less so if all you have ever focused on is what it's like to be you.


In The Science of Storytelling, Storr writes that the course of a compelling story is that the hero is challenged to progress, more specifically, the hero's 'worldview' is challenged. The story is a tragedy if the hero cannot modify his inevitably limited worldview, a romance if he can evolve. Story is about the need to change and the success or failure of that demand. This too is the story of our lives, acted out prejudice by prejudice, damaged conception by damaged conception. We cannot reach a state of pure objectivity - that is the realm of God, or, as Kant put it, the Unconditional - but we can attempt to move ever closer to clarity.


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