Exoneration

In the United States we love labels. We fully embrace the part of our brain that wants to categorize and classify everything around us, and when it comes to people we search for the right label to apply to every person to help us understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are likely to do or think. Our brains are constantly looking for patters, and labels are a type of heuristic to make people easier to understand.

A label that has been used more and more over the last several years, but has only become more complicated, is the word racist. Most people do not think seriously about race, though unavoidably race does influence our behaviors. Race triggers tribal instincts deep in our brain, encouraging us to look at others and decide whether they are like us or not like us, and associate and act accordingly. Where we live, who we hang out with, the jokes we tell, and where we go out for dinner are all areas where our tribal brain shapes our behavior based on perceptions of race, which is to say perceptions of sameness and otherness. Without self-awareness these implicit biases are hard to observe, understand, and counteract in ourselves, but they can be observed and criticized by other people or within a larger society.

It is this conflict, the challenge of seeing how implicit bias impacts our individual decisions and the ways in which implicit bias manifests in racial injustice, that has made the label racist so charged and so difficult to understand. We want to group social injustice, white people who make jokes about minorities, and our segregated society into the racist label, but the people who are tied up in everything described by the label are unable to see how they could be described by such a term.

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book Between the World and Me describes this problem and how white people in our country have reacted to the charge of racist. “My experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” In a sense, those who are grouped under the umbrella of racist become singularly focused with making excuses to show that they do not fit within the label. They demonstrate ways in which their behaviors are inconsistent with the most obvious forms of racism, and argue that their individual actions could not contribute to the system which has been oppressive for minorities and contributes the segregation that our society sees today.

Those charged with the label racist view racism as being overt actions, demonstrable discrimination, and unabashed ill-will toward minorities. The type of implicit racism that is rampant throughout society is somehow shielded (by hiding behind economic excuses) from the understanding of what racism is for those who are criticized as being racist. Society however, can see the way that individual decisions and historical injustice have piled on to create a society that is deeply affected by racist politics. Somehow we need a new label and new description to accurately explain society and individuals without forcing an exonerative reaction form those at fault.
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Always Asking Questions

Questioning the world around us is part of what makes us human. Our search for answers and a better understanding of the universe is the story of human progress on Earth, and we must constantly ask questions and to find new answers to propel us forward. Often we never reach the answer we were hoping for, but we still ask questions and we still do our best to continue to understand what is taking place in the world around us.

 

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats discusses how he learned to question the world, to truly strive to better understand the universe, by observing what took place around him and asking why.

 

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious” —as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as a ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

 

Recently I have been more aware of the answers people have to the frequent questions our world asks: Who should we elect, what is the nature of religion, how should we organize society to maximize human progress? Listening to the responses people have, it is clear to me that most people do not have answers, but instead have partial secondhand responses that they think they should defend. Most people do not live their lives in a constant state of questioning, and if they do, they seek out certainty to place themselves and their actions on the correct side of any given issue. Rather than inquiry and a deeper understanding, people pursue comfort and reaffirmation. This is clear in the simplistic shallow answers people offer to complex questions.

 

What Coats learned from his parents was to find his own answers. His parents pushed him to learn, to be aware of the world around him, to ask why, and to not accept the simple answers that people offered. His story shows why it is important to be constantly questioning what we know, why we know what we know, and whether our model of the universe is operating with the best information available. It is likely that we won’t find perfect answers, but that does not mean we should stop questioning or that we are on the wrong path because our knowledge is in one way or another incomplete. Recycling answers from someone else, especially secondhand answers that were never formed as complete thoughts, is dangerous and misleading. We fall into cycles where we fail to actually look for answers and build more complete understanding, and instead look past the answer given and find the response that seems to support our identity and the belief we want to hold about ourselves.

 

Our understanding of the universe should be nuanced because the universe, human interaction, and the organization of everything from atoms to people is complex. When we fall back on absolute answers and simple solutions, we are avoiding the nuanced and the challenging investigation of our planet. Easy and assuring answers are nice, but they do not aid human progress and they do not allow us to live in a state where we improve upon our knowledge and beliefs.

How We Argue – Talking Past Each Other

Senator Cory Booker discusses the state of national debate in politics in his book United and I think accurately describes an unfortunate reality of today’s political discourse. The arguments that we make today often don’t seem to be in alignment. Each side is arguing in a way that does not seem to actually address the point being made by the other side, and does not seem to be operating with the same set of facts, values, or baseline understandings. Booker writes,

“We often end up in national conversations that are akin to arguing about what  the temperature is in a room without looking at the thermostat. What we need is a collective call to the common good based upon indisputable facts and the broader aspirational ideals to which we all ascribe.”

Booker’s point is well intentioned and falls in a recent theme among books that I am currently reading and podcasts that I listen to regarding language, reason, argument, and understanding. Booker is absolutely correct that we are arguing without a baseline and without a common set of facts, but the challenge is that his final point rests on political decision making, and even for an individual, deciding what aspirational ideals should be ascribed to is a struggle.

Author Colin Wright’s new book, Becoming Who We Need to Be, looks at one of the problems with arguments today and how we end up talking past each other. We fail to develop a shared understanding of the world and issue at hand because we use language differently depending on our viewpoints. We apply labels (acronyms, descriptions, names) to elements of an issue or argument, and if those labels are not well defined or shared, we end up at a point where our argument is in some way unintelligible to someone who sees things differently.

I have also recently listened to a couple of podcasts on Julia Galef’s show, Rationally Speaking, where the ideas of self-interest, rationality, and decision making have been challenged and examined from very nuanced perspectives. It turns out that we are not so good at determining what is in our own best interest, and much worse at understanding how other people determine what is in their best interest.

Julia Galef was also interviewed herself on a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show, and in the podcast Ezra and Julia discuss the problems that arise in our arguments. We are not open to the other side, and often shut out ideas that seem to be oppositional to ourselves or come from people we find disagreeable. This means that before we even begin an argument or debate, we are judging how aligned we are with the other person, and determining how much we should agree with them on any issue before we have even begun talking or listening.

I think Booker is correct that we are arguing without understanding what we are arguing about or what the baseline is, but trouble with how we use language, how we determine what is politically best for us or others, and how we rationalize what we and others believe make it politically challenging to ever decide what we should all ascribe to and how we could reach that goal. One solution would be an increased validity in political and knowledge institutions. A greater sense of support and acceptance of reports from academic institutions and politically neutral government agencies can help us be more aligned in our debates and discussions. This would require serious effort and commitment on the part of the agency or academic report to be seen as non-partisan, and it would also require the public to accept reports and findings that did not align with political ideals.

A Poverty of Understanding

Author Corey Booker reflected on a conversation he had with a mentor of his, Frank Hutchins, in his book United. He goes into detail explaining some of the lessons Frank taught him and some of Frank’s views of the world. One big focus was on a lack of empathy, or shared understanding of each other’s circumstances, and how that impacts the way that we treat each other and approach the world. Describing Frank’s views, Booker wrote,

“What made … negative conditions persist, he believed, was an insidious poverty of understanding, a poverty of empathy. People’s inability to see what is going on in the lives of their fellow citizens, to understand what so many American’s endure, creates an atmosphere that allows injustice to fester and proliferate.”

Our American culture encourages us to think about ourselves before others and to focus on what the things and opportunities of our own before we think about how our choices impact the lives of others. We do not spend a lot of time thinking about the experiences of others and we hold up our own success as evidence of our greatness, proof that we are good people, and as an excuse to ignore those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Frank Hutchins would have argued that we need to listen and spend more time with those around us, in our neighborhood, at our children’s schools, and in our community and those communities near us to better understand the experiences and realities of other people. If we focus only on ourselves, the things we have, and the things we want, then we will never be able to develop a sense of empathy focused on other people and their well being. We will turn away from those in society who truly need help as we explore ways to have and achieve more for ourselves.

A major struggle of our politics today is determining how large a role personal responsibility should play in our success and how much assistance and aid we should receive from other people. When we fail to understand the experiences of others and generalize our experience to the rest of the world we can never reach an honest starting point to sort out the details of the personal responsibility discussion. Our success and our material desires drive us to seek more and seek what other people have, and it becomes tempting to believe that we achieved based on our own merit, and that those who do not enjoy our same comforts somehow lack personal responsibility or an industrious mind. This is the heart of the lack of understanding and empathy that Hutchins described.

Stepping beyond ourselves, our experiences, and our narrow perspectives requires truly interacting with other people and other communities that we often would not see. By putting our material desires and drive for success aside, we can look at other people and actually see them, and begin to think about the advantages we experience, the smart decisions we were able to make as a result, and how other people perhaps never had those advantages. Individually we won’t solve the question of how much personal responsibility plays into each person’s situation, but we will be better able to empathize and understand the realities of the lives of our fellow American’s.

Context

Chris Kraus wrote a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice. In her letter Kraus writes about being called “an obsessive” and she shares the story of a French poet Antonin Artuad whose poetry was rejected by a revered French magazine editor. She sets up his story to explain what it means to be obsessed by something, and how writing helps us build our dialog and communication skills.  One section of her writing that I particularly liked was a short sentence that brought back my focus of awareness and exploration, “Nothing exists without a source.” Writes Kraus, “It is important to Contextualize everything.”

 

I do believe that sometimes in our lives we can become too caught up in trying to understand the deeper meaning, the hidden thoughts that lead to action, or any ulterior motive behind another persons words or actions, but in general, I think we often view the world through a superficial lens. In our romantic relationships we evaluate every word, text message, phone call, and winky face sent to us as if we were hired crime scene detectives, at least when we first start dating, but we quickly begin to make assumptions about our loved one and return to a comfortable place where we quit looking for the deeper meaning that influenced our actions and those of our companion.

 

In her letter, Kraus used Artuad’s life story to show that we can find deeper meaning in the world when we work to better understand the context of the world around that which we focus on. In order to truly understand something we must know where it came from, what influenced its origin, and what purpose it was supposed to serve.  By taking a microscope to a situation we can make better judgements and begin to see the multiple perspectives surrounding a single event. The better we become at this the more we will be able to connect with others, and the more patience and compassion we can develop for those who deserve it.

World Views

Throughout the book Considerations author Colin Wright focuses on the importance of gaining perspective and building new perspectives into your personal philosophy.  Across every area of life that Wright addresses he highlights the importance of your perspective and awareness, and what benefits come from greater perspectives.

 

When addressing world views and our influences, Wright expands the importance of perspective to consider how we should think about the ideas of others.  He explains that our own thoughts and ideas are not completely independent of the thoughts and ideas of others since we are shaped from the time we are born by media, society, our parents, and experiences.  Each of these factors impacts the way we interpret the world, shaping our thoughts and feelings.  Wright continues to explain that as we get older and take in more media or gain experiences, these ideas become more independent of others, and become more unique.  He pulls in the idea of perspective by explaining that we cannot judge the decisions of others based on our perspective and world views for no one else can be expected to share our ideas, thoughts, and experiences.

 

Wright argues that once we understand the influence of our own ideas we can better relate and connect with others.  In his mind it is important to give up the idea that we are solely in control of our thoughts, actions, and perspectives, “we need to be aware that our view of the world is filtered through overlapping lenses made up of different influences. These lenses are so effective that you and I could see the exact same car accident and perceive it in different ways.”  All of the experiences we have and everything that shapes our thoughts and expectations become the lenses through which we see the world. We cannot always perceive what is shaping our perception, but it is important to know that we are driven in certain directions for reasons we cannot always control. Being aware of this helps us to make better decisions.

 

When Wright expands this idea beyond ourselves toward others, he shows how important it is not to judge others or think less of them for their thoughts or actions.  It is very difficult, especially with people we do not like, to pause and consider their background and what may be shaping their decisions and ideas.  However, if we can pause and think about why others have adopted their worldview, we can better understand their decisions and have meaningful conversation with them which will help us adopt new perspectives.

Spend Time Listening

At  the end of his letter of advice written for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Larry Niven writes, “Everybody talks first draft. Don’t react till you know what he meant.”  In this quote he is talking about the importance of taking time to understand other people and to have enough self control to not react instantly to everything you hear.  Niven would argue that it is important to give people a chance to explain what they mean or repeat what they said in a second way before we judge them. When people are speaking about something for the first time, as apposed to speaking about a routine topic, it is likely that they will not immediately have the words and language dialed in to explain themselves succinctly.

I really enjoy the self control aspect of Niven’s quote.  His idea is all about being less reactionary in general, and being patient enough to try and understand other people.  We often are in a rush, and it is easy to judge other people for their actions, appearances, and speech without trying to take a moment to understand them.  Listening to others and giving them an opportunity to repeat wheat they said in a new way encourages us to think about how the other person has reached the point they are at, and why they think and speak the way they do.  Our backgrounds all differ and we have many different experiences in our life that shape the way we view the world.  Listening to someone and not judging their views on face value requires that we understand their background.  To reach this level we must understand that what another says is never a complete summary of what they think and believe. Asking that person to explain and expand on what they are saying will help us dive deeper into their thoughts and ideas. Giving them more time to explain themselves helps us connect with others in a new way, and it helps us have a more well rounded approach to the world.

In addition, to fully engage in this quote we must see that we approach any conversation with our own background and expectations.  The way we interpret the other person or the topic will influence the way we think about what the other person is saying.  To allow ourselves to understand another person’s ideas, we must first make sure out understandings of that topic are out of the way. If we cannot reach that point we will be forced into a box where we only think about the things that do or do not align with what we already think.  Instead, we should listen for the overall meaning of what the other person is saying, so that we can expand our vision and thoughts.