Thursday, December 25, 2014

Post No. 193: Exist with Caution – You May Not Be Who You Think You Are (or Be Seen the Way You Want Others to View You)



© 2014, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

This is Christmas Day, 2014. According to Dickens, on Christmas Eve in 1812, a young orphan by the name of Pip encountered an escaped convict. That meeting changed Pip’s life, but more importantly, his appreciation of the event evolved over the years which followed. We’re at that point where many reflect on what the year has brought us.

I considered naming this piece, “Everything is in the Eye of the Beholder.” I am often fascinated by the contortions we humans go through trying to understand other human conduct, and our seeming inability to understand why we as individuals are so frequently misunderstood.

Back in my legal days, when I interviewed and deposed hundreds, if not thousands, of witnesses under oath (who seemingly had no dog in the fight), I was struck by how honest people who witnessed the same event could testify so differently about what they saw.

To some extent, I think I may have gained a better understanding of this phenomenon when I saw a PBS program on eyesight and the brain. What I came away with was that instead of the eye and brain working together to take a snapshot or picture of an event, the brain functions more like a hard disk in a computer. Once the eyes (really the senses) transmit the image (or a message in the case of the other senses) to the brain or hard disk, the question is posed, “Where have I encountered this before?"

If it is something familiar, or that we encounter with some regularity, then we go with what we know, or as close to it as we have the time and energy to process it. For that which we don't recognize at all, we come up with an interpretation which we think ensures our continued survival.

Numerous news analysts who have ruminated about this year claim that it has been one dominated by conflict and tension at every imaginable level, and in virtually every geographic area.

Back in the early 1980s, when I used to hang out with a group of 5 fascinating and extraordinary women who called themselves the “Slut Sisters,” several of them maintained that all conflict was due to testosterone.

This year, we’ve had numerous events featured in the news, where the typical citizen was emotionally forced to take a position on one side, or the other, often without even a paltry appreciation of the facts. Reporters sought out friends of those individuals who died at the hands of police, or fugitives from justice who the authorities were pursuing. In almost every instance, the friends and neighbors related diametrically opposed perceptions of the people involved. “He is the most generous person you’d ever want to meet, and he wouldn’t harm a fly,” or “He was vile, scum who should be put to death.”

And this was during the first 2 hours of the coverage of the event, and before Nancy Grace had an opportunity to render a guilty verdict.

It causes one to wonder whether the side we choose is really not by choice, analysis, or even about our participation in the event, but rather about which group to which we can relate the most.

I previously shared my thoughts about race, which I believe is primarily driven by DNA and genetics. In my reality, it’s not a delayed conversation, or one which we keep trying to avoid, as much as it is one which we cannot have (and never will), because it is so deep within us that we cannot explain it.

Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer for both Miss Havisham and Pip’s benefactor in the 1946 film version of Great Expectations, suggests to Pip, "Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There is no better rule."

One would think that this would suffice for making decent and fair judgment calls, assuming once again that one has the time, interest, and motivation to pursue the evidence. But two other events threw a monkey wrench in my quest to understand this year’s conflict.

I started thinking about the issue of fear, and how important a factor it might be. In an earlier post, I questioned why fear was not characterized as the Eighty Deadly Sin. There is a television network by the name of TVOne. An African-American journalist and syndicated columnist, Roland S. Martin, who appears regularly on CNN, also anchors a news show on TVOne. During the frequently aired trailer for his show, he asks, “Why is America so afraid of black people?”

Then a couple of years ago, while watching C-Span2, Book TV, I heard a book discussion involving author Michael Shermer, a columnist for Scientific American, and the publisher of Skeptic Magazine. The title of the book says it all, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts to Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.”

So, what’s the take away from all of this? I must confess that I don’t know with any degree of certainty, but suggest that neither should you. However, we need to consider something different. Perhaps we could focus on the restructuring of those systems or modifying those environments where there are higher probabilities of conflict, and not focus as much on explaining conflict on an individual or even a group level. Maybe we should accept conflict on an individual or group level, as a given.

Martin Wolf is the Associate Editor and Chief Economics Commentator for the Financial Times, who recently appeared on the Charlie Rose show. He suggests that we need to urgently address some global economic issues which were also extant during the years leading up to World War II. His concern is that if we do not, we may find ourselves in another major, global conflict. In an environment where intense competition and paranoia rule, that more animal, survival-oriented part of our brain takes over.

I’m not sure if he is right. However, I’m not looking forward to another year of conflict like we had this year. And neither is Pip.

Merry Christmas to all, and remember what the O.J. trial may have revealed about us….

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