Our Limited Perspective of Others

I was flicking through the Review section of the Weekend Australian the other day and I came across an article by Stan Grant titled World of Difference. The article was a critique by Grant of Tom Keneally’s novel, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. I was most intrigued by the byline to the article which read:

Thomas Keneally wrote The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith from the perspective of an indigenous man he could not hope to understand.

Grant asserted that his indigenous background gave him greater insights than Keneally might have in writing such a story. It is possible that Grant might have some such insights, but even if he has it will likely be less than he believes.

To understand my point of view we need to go back and examine the fundamentals of what it means to be human.

The essential quality that human beings possess that underpins our humanity is our consciousness. Our consciousness means that not only are we aware but we are aware of our awareness. Consequently we develop what might be called a “theatre of mind”, wherein we can observe our thoughts, construct pictures of our past we call memories, and anticipate vistas of future experiences.

In essence, we learn to deal with two worlds; the “world out there” that we construct through sensory perceptions of our environment and a “world in here” that is fashioned by our thoughts, our imagination, our hopes and dreams.

You don’t have to be particularly insightful to come to the understanding that our sense of well-being is largely determined by how well we have learned to accommodate this “internal” world rather than how successful we have been in negotiating our “external” world.

But for the sake of this essay let me just reiterate that much of significance in terms of who we are emanates from this all-important “internal” world. However this is a very subjective world. It can only be experienced by the individual that gets to witness their own, unique, internal world. Nobody else can access it except through imperfect, indirect methods.

Some would protest that an individual can relate this “internal” experience in a way other people can share it. This is true only in a very restricted way. We cannot form more than a schematic, peripheral conception of what it is like to be another being. Our subjective experience of our own “inner” world is not readily accessible to anyone else.

How is it possible for someone with normal faculties to understand, for example, what it is like to be deaf or blind? Or even at a less dramatic level what is it like to be colour blind? Or indeed what is it like to be dyslexic?

Although we make gross generalisations about such things as gender, race, and nationality, our ability to share these subjective (but important) aspects of our humanity are quite limited. No man can properly understand the experience of being a woman, or vice versa. [The tragic experiments that modern transgender activists (who think they understand what is in the minds of young people) carry out on young non-conforming youth reflect the dilemma created by the ambiguity of straying from one’s birth determined gender. These unfortunate young people are led to believe that the physicality of their bodies somehow determines their well-being.]

Now our inner subjective world is uniquely private and is not easily accessible to others. You can never know what smoked salmon tastes like to me, or what roses smell like to me or the visual effect of the colour purple for me.

Our emotions are even more difficult to share. I listened the other evening to Puccini’s fabulous opera La Boheme. At the end, as I invariably do, after Mimi dies of consumption I shed a few tears. This amuses my wife. Sensibly she asks, “How can you get so emotional about a few people squawking at each other in a language you don’t even understand. They’re not real people you know”.

I know all that of course. She thinks I am weeping as an emotional response to Mimi’s death. But that is not really true. I weep because the sad story reminds me of the human condition, not only of our vulnerability, our susceptibility to injustice but also of the beauty and consolation that love provides.

Now how can I explain to you in words what this is like as I simultaneously feel both sadness and a comfort in my heart as a result of my humanity?

But all is not entirely lost. There are two limited ways I can share with you what it is like to be me (not that I think many of you would be particularly interested), and I can learn what it is like to be you.

The first is the least satisfactory. It is through discourse. I can try to tell you about my subjective experience (just as I attempted to do above). But this process is fraught with a myriad of difficulties.

To begin with we don’t have the words to accurately describe our subjective experience. To give you a trivial example it is hard to go past wine tasting. You have heard such descriptions as “the wine was angular, big, with a hint of chocolate and lime.” How do you think it tasted? Such a description for most of us is as clear as mud!

Sometimes we can aid our descriptions by using metaphors (as the wine connoisseur above attempted) and sometimes this is helpful. As I have noted many times in the past, often the truth can be more productively approached indirectly.

However we need to be cognisant when others try to tell us what it is like to be them the ego often distorts the message and the message they provide us can be coloured by how they might want to be viewed rather than how they actually are. For example we all know how easy it is for those who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions to resort to the narrative of victimhood.

The other way of trying to understand what it is like to be another is a form of projection. I know that because you are a human being that you and I both have some similar experiences. Our humanity predisposes most of us (I add the qualifier because it is quite clear that there are exceptions) to feel pain, love, disappointment, elation, exuberance, sorrow and so on. And surely it is reasonable assumption that as a first approximation you might have similar experiences with similar visceral responses. Whilst that seems a reasonable assumption it is important to point out that we can never be sure this is the case.

So what it is like to be you is inherently unknowable by me and the best I can do is to assume that in some ways your experiences are likely to be somewhat like my own. When I extend empathy to you this is the underlying basis.

And what about race? Does being of the same race, as Stan has suggested, somehow extend my capability to know more accurately what it is like to be you?

I would contend that this can only be so in a very limited way. This limitation is part and parcel of identity politics.

Let’s examine this a little more closely.

When it suits them the black culture warriors tell us how special it is to be indigenous. But then when it suits them they tell us it’s not being indigenous but belonging to a particular tribe or clan. So would Stan be able to link his so called understanding to a particular genetic linkage?

But then many would argue that common cultural understanding and perhaps the similar circumstances of our lives is what fuels our particular empathy. Does Stan share this with Keneally’s character? Probably not, I would expect.

Now let’s indulge in a little thought experiment. What if the chief protagonist in Keneally’s story had been a woman? Would Stan still maintain his superior understanding of the fictional character?

And of course this highlights the inherent shortcomings of identity politics. Identity politics focusses on the peripheral issues of what it means to be human. As researcher Anthony Dillon wisely writes the things that differentiate us, like race, gender, sexuality, nationality and so on are of minor concern compared with the commonality we share as human beings. Ralph Waldo Emerson, reflecting the importance of inner world (and thus supporting Dillon’s point of view) wrote that:

What lies behind us, and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. 

In the political correctness that has emanated from identity politics, activists are now protesting that only coloured people should be permitted to write fiction involving coloured characters or only women should be allowed to write fiction about female characters. And yet the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare, wrote plays about women, people of colour and people of diverse nationalities. Shakespeare’s huge success as a writer did not stem from his conformance to identity politics but because of his wonderful understanding of the human condition and the psychological underpinnings and human foibles that we all share as human beings.

The world is infinitely poorer by the attempts of identity politics to convince us that our sense of self is largely dependent on race, gender, sexuality and so on. Our lives would be far richer if we could all come to understand the commonality of our humanity.

Stan Grants’ assertion about how well he understands indigenous people is somewhat attenuated by how well he might understand Tom Keneally.