Musings on Politics & Policy

An attempt to take an open minded view of current topics,
strip away excess detail and arguments,
and get at underlying issues —

Monday, December 06, 2004

Understanding Others

Understanding others is an age old issue. It is far too easy to become closed in with one's own thoughts and beliefs and to listen only to those who agree, and it is often difficult to understand those who are different or have had different experiences. However, any true leader should recognize the issue and make the effort. Bush's strength in speaking for his beliefs is also his weakness. He divides because he does not acknowledge or accept the legitimacy of alternative beliefs. How many different religions are there in the United States? How many non-religions? What then, other than short term political expediency, is gained by endorsing one set of beliefs above all the others? While his attitude is notable with respect to religion, it appears throughout his secular agenda as well, in his inability to relate to or compromise with those who have different points of view on environmental issues, tax policies, and the war on terrorism for example.

We should expect more from our leaders, but the difficulty of understanding others is highlighted by its repeated mention throughout history by prophets, philosophers and writers. This very difficulty is reason for acknowledgment and emphasis, because failure to understand others or to be open to understanding others is a significant source of major conflicts.

And yet, saying "understanding others" simply does not convey it. This is inherent in the nature of the problem. How a person sees the world is shaped by that person's belief system. This applies to religion. It applies to science. It applies to culture. In the most systematic sense, Thomas Kuhn [The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962] defined a paradigm shift as when one scientific theory is replaced by another, and documented how scientists see the world differently before and after. Understanding someone who is different might be likened to experiencing a paradigm shift. This is embodied in the admonition not to judge another until you have walked a mile in their shoes — clearly a metaphorical statement for stepping into and experiencing someone else's life.

It is neither possible nor necessary to understand everyone, but spanning that gulf just a few times lends an appreciation that the gulf exists and lends legitimacy to differences. That experience and appreciation in itself can facilitate a more general understanding of others. In Matthew 7:6 [King James Version], Jesus says, "neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again to rend you." Some might take this literally and read it as justifying the exclusivity of their own "revealed truths," an interpretation that would seem to stray from the usual nature of Jesus' teachings. However, I heard a street preacher who interpreted that verse as follows: "what you perceive to be pearls may not be what another person needs or wants." In particular, if a person is poor and homeless, then their needs are best met by food and shelter. If you deny their needs, and focus instead on your own, then you aren't likely to connect with them and may indeed alienate them. We may be doing this on a world wide scale, and this may say something about why so many people in the world today "hate America," even aside from any effects of the current war on terrorism.

One could write a book on this topic. It has been done. For here, further examples will be relegated to the comments section.



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