Three baby turtles swimming in a tub of sandy water
Practical Philosophy

All Problems Come from Ignorant Non-alignment

I believe in two things: the value of love and the danger of ignorance. I believe, as I explained recently, that those two things are related pretty profoundly.

I believe something else too: different people want different things. But I think wanting different things doesn’t have to be an obstacle to compromise and everyone feeling like their needs and wants are understood, accepted, and accommodated in a solution to a problem that isn’t specifically what they would have chosen.

I think all of the most sticky problems in the world are fundamentally solvable. After all, we humans made the messes, we humans can solve them.

People can align their conflicting needs and wants and create compromise. Compromise is reached through a two-step process. First we have to be clear about where everyone is on a particular topic — what they understand, how they feel about it, and what they’d like to do about it — then we have to align our vision and find a solution that meets everyones needs.

This process of finding compromise by building a mutual understanding and an alignment on vision is not easy. When facing long histories of misunderstanding, it’s probably the hardest communication task that anyone has ever undertaken. But it’s both possible and valuable.

When we see other’s views clearly, fully, and with a will to help, we’ll naturally become aligned with them. We’ll find a way we can work together to make us all happy. Ignorance is tenacious, and alignment takes work. But it’s always possible to use those two as the levers by which we solve even the hardest problems.

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Practical Philosophy

What If Ignorance is Love’s Only Obstacle?

I’ve got a short enemies list. If I whittle it down as far as it can go, I think it contains one item: ignorance.

But it wasn’t until today that it struck me directly that this relates very specifically to the one thing I could whittle my list of unimpeachably good things down to: love.

Because, for the first time, with the aid of Shantideva, it was clear to me that the only reasons I find it hard to love people is that I have mistaken and out-of-whack understandings of what they want,  what they can do, or what’s really driving their behavior.

If someone cannot be nice to me — be the proximate reason for that political, personal, or something else — shouldn’t I feel nothing but sympathy for that block they have?

If someone is cruel to me, shouldn’t I feel nothing but sorrow that they are in a place where they feel it is necessary or appropriate to be cruel?

And if someone is nice to me, shouldn’t I just appreciate the fact that they loved themself, and me, enough to be nice? What a beautiful thing that is!

We find it hard to love because we don’t understand the complex web of causes that leads people to be who they are and act in ways that we don’t like. But if we really understood all the causes that led another driver to cut us off, or a family member yell at us, or a stranger to run at us with a knife, wouldn’t our only reasonable response be to accept it? To understand that causes just came together such that they felt compelled to act in these ways?

There is a certain baked-in belief in the fated, rational, causal understanding of the world here. That is, if you believe that we are all rational agents making completely rational atomic choices at all times, as the only forces in the system, what I’m saying will make no sense to you. When you understand the world as consisting of completely isolated people acting in independent ways, a cruelty to another is a clear sign that a person is cruel. A nice action is a clear sign that that atomic person is nice.

But I don’t believe that people work like that. I believe all the way down to the core of my being that people are frequently ignorant agents playing out past conditioning. Some of that past conditioning points us in the direction of rational independent thought and action, but hardly a majority of it.

We do not walk, run, or drive cars with careful consideration of every muscle flex and yield. We don’t make decisions to eat a snack or go for a walk via careful, meticulously rational weighing of the costs and benefits of that act in our conscious mind. We simply are not nearly as rational as our rational mind would like us to believe.

We find it hard to love because we fail to believe in our own, or the world’s, lawful and understandable way of working. When we reject the idea that we live in a lawful world, we choose ignorance. When we choose ignorance, we’ll find it hard to accept and love as much as we should. As much as the world needs.

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Practical Philosophy

Never Assume You Know Their Reason

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in my life was to stop assuming that I understood a person’s motivations for doing something. I used to think that the obvious (and usually malicious) motivation that I first came up with to explain another person’s behavior was probably theirs. That is, if someone was driving in a manner that frustrated me, it was because they were specifically trying to be a jerk to me. They wanted to make my life hard.

But I’m increasingly sure that that category of explanation is not just wrong, but never right. There are uncountable explanations for most behaviors we see people demonstrating. The frustrating driver may be distracted by their child in the back seat, or on the other end of the phone. Maybe they’re in a panicked mind state for one of more than a dozen reasons we could speculate about. Maybe they’re uncomfortable behind the wheel of their vehicle, or don’t really know all the relevant traffic laws and customs. Maybe they’re struggling mightily just to keep their vehicle operating in the manner it should and are unable to focus on their actual driving behaviors. Maybe they’re just really preoccupied with an appointment they’re driving from or to. And there are certainly more stories we could come up with.

The point isn’t that any of those specific stories are true, but that any of them are at least as likely as the story that they’re intentionally trying to sit in my blindspot, block me from passing, or swerving in a way I find disconcerting. In fact, most of the latter stories seem to be more likely than the one that they’ve intentionally chosen to make a special effort to ruin my day.

Assuming you completely understand the behaviors of another person is almost always stupid. People are complicated. They live rich, complete, independent lives totally divorced from the small fractions of time that their world collides with ours. How frequently do you intentionally act to thwart someone’s goals, to make their life harder or less pleasant? Do you think others do that more or less than you do? Why?

I’ve learned in the years since I first noticed this strange impulse to misunderstand, that most of the times that I came up with an explanation of why someone was doing something and checked my understanding with them, their reason was never the malice I’d assumed. Even allowing for the fact that people might hide actual malice in retrospect (either for the reason of further malice or self-delusion), people’s reasons for their actions aren’t usually malicious.

On the other hand, a gap in understanding is a common explanation of places where I mistakenly saw malice. It’s common that someone’s behavior was different than I wanted because they had knowledge I didn’t. To come back to our driver example, that she urgently needed to stop her child from putting something in his mouth that he shouldn’t might be the reason she changed lanes without as much care as she should have. Another possibility is that she was ignorant of something I knew that was relevant and true. In many states the law or custom is that you drive in the right lane on the highway, except to pass. Not all drivers know this.

The benefits of not assuming you understand someone’s motivations are many. The primary one is this: you see and understand the world with more accuracy and clarity when you don’t make up and treat as true things that aren’t verified. Ignorance papered over by a thin film of plausible explanations isn’t knowledge. It’s a delusion you’ve constructed.

Another big benefit to refraining from seeing malice you don’t know to be there is that it makes you a more patient, friendly, and kind person. How’s that? When you assume you understand someone’s reasons, and especially if you think them malicious, you’re short with them, and prone to lashing out at (what you perceive as) their malicious behavior toward you. When you assume nothing, you’re able to come to them with a patient, questioning curiosity. You’re also more likely to greet them as a friend, rather than an enemy. And to state the blindingly obvious, we’re nicer to our friends than our enemies.

It’s not easy to really internalize and operationalize this new way of relating to people. If you’re experienced with the art of finding a motivation to explain every action you see, you’ll need to allow yourself a lot of time and space to retrain in patience and allowing for the possibility that you don’t understand why someone is doing something. But you can learn to do it. I did.

When you know the value of assuming that you don’t understand someone’s reasons, it’s just a matter of time until you’re able to relate in a new way. Be patient; allow for possibilities you’ve never even considered. Slowly, you’ll see a shift. And your life will be better, and the world friendlier, as a result.

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"Ignorance is the worst form of violence" - E. G.
Life

The Depths of Our Ignorance

When you stop to think about it, it’s shocking how little we actually understand about anything. We know only the edges of things, and use them to guide our reasoning about them. Neuroscientists and psychologist are increasingly aware how few of our decisions and thoughts are a result of careful consideration. We constantly make inferences and jump to conclusions without a lot of evidence. This is what makes it possible for us to do as many things as we do, but it’s also a big source for the growth and stability of ignorance.

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american society, politics, world

Of Teddy Bears and Ignorance

By now you’ve probably heard something about a teddy bear in the news. But it seems to me that the way people understood the story had a lot to do with where they heard about it. So in the tradition of this piece, I’ve created two very different interpretations pared down from different news sources.

First we have, edited from Andrew Heavens’s story of last Friday, what I like to call “Crazy Muslims At it Again”:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Hundreds of Sudanese Muslims, waving green Islamic flags, took to the streets of Khartoum on Friday demanding death for the British teacher convicted of insulting Islam after her class named a teddy bear Mohammad.

“No one lives who insults the Prophet,” the protesters chanted, a day after school teacher Gillian Gibbons, 54, was sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation from Sudan.

At least 1,000 protesters shook their fists or waved banners or ceremonial swords and chanted religious and nationalist slogans after leaving Muslim Friday prayers. Banners called for “punishment” for Gibbons, and some protesters burned newspapers that contained pictures of the teacher.

Several hundred protesters made a brief stop at the closed but heavily guarded Unity High School, where Gibbons worked, but did not attempt to go inside. The school was guarded by five truckloads of police in riot gear.

The protesters marched from there to the British embassy where several hundred surrounded the ambassador’s residence, chanting religious slogans. There were no reports of violence.

Gibbons was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs because the class toy had been given the same name as the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

Under Sudan’s penal code, she could have faced 40 lashes, a fine or up to a year in jail. But Gibbons was convicted only of insulting religion.

This is how most people I’ve heard talking about the story see it. This is terribly unfortunate because even Heavens’s piece contains some insight into the role the Darfur crisis may have had in the actions of the government in Khartoum and the loyalist protesters.

The second version of the story is stolen from The Economist’s coverage, and I’ll (verbosely) call it “West Misunderstands Khartoum’s Feeble Attempt to Exploit Religious Row”:

FOR anyone who is labouring to improve Christian-Muslim relations, or stop civilisations clashing, it is a painful setback: a well-intentioned Western woman who has volunteered her services as a teacher in a land stricken by conflict and poverty, only to find herself denounced by a local colleague and incarcerated in horrible conditions.

Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old teacher from Liverpool, was sentenced on Thursday November 29th to 15 days in prison for “insulting religion”, after allowing her pupils at a school in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

When the story broke in the British press this week, it was widely reported that she might face up to 40 lashes, or six months in jail, if she were found guilty on all three of the charges laid against her. The incident happened in September and caused no protest among parents at the time. At one point the affair seemed to be spinning out of control as groups of angry men gathered outside the police station where she was held.

For Muslims in Britain and other democracies, the story was a deeply depressing one: so many of its features, including the fact that it happened in the run-up to Christmas, seemed almost calculated to resonate with British tabloid readers, who may not know much about Sudan or Islam (or any other faith) but have strong feelings about teddies, tiny tots and motherly teachers.

In more elevated western circles, it is becoming commoner to hear the view that Islam itself (rather than any extremist interpretations of the faith) is posing a challenge to western values that must be resisted. And if that view becomes more respectable, so too does a defensive Muslim reaction, which is often tinged with geopolitical grievance.

To observers who know Sudan, the whole affair seems to have become entangled with the broader stand-off between the government in Khartoum and the Western countries, including Britain, that have pushed for the United Nations to intervene in the appalling humanitarian crisis in Darfur. All diplomatic exchanges between the Sudanese government and Western ones, whether they concern refugees or teddy bears, take place against that background.

The Economist’s admirable piece goes on to discuss the role of capital punishment in Islam–worth reading if you’re interested. I should also point to another responsible (if almost as tardy as my own) perspective on this event form Anne Applebaum’s “The absurd Sudanese teddy bear controversy” at Slate.

What the difference between the two stories above makes clear is the painfully high cost the world pays for ignorance. The gap between seeing the “teddy bear row” as another example of Muslims doing crazy anti-Western things and seeing it as a desperate attempt by Khartoum to get as much leverage as it can to prevent outside intervention in Darfur is a big one.

Those who read the story the first way go away more convinced than ever about the massive threat posed to Britain or America by what many like to call “Islamofacism.” Those who read it the second way are essentially aware that the event, though ugly, is a product of the wishes of a fearful government and a few loyal supporters–nothing more.

I do think reporter for the major news agencies–Reuters, AFP, the AP–could do a much better job moderating the coverage of events like this, since their articles are read by the vast majority of laypeople. But I think it would be both unfair and short-sighted to castigate them for their occasional failings.

Mostly, I just wish that everyone–myself included–were more willing to withhold judgments on the things we don’t understand. And the complex geopolitics of Sudan and the diversity of Muslims are two things I certainly don’t understand. Perhaps hoping we can accept before judging is a lost cause, but I’m pretty sure lost causes are the only ones worth hoping for.

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