A story in today’s New York Times illustrates an issue which has always been endemic to human culture—an inability to recognize our bias, not only those who we have conveniently dumped into the category of “them.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/us/debate-on-a-jewish-student-at-ucla.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0)
A young Jewish student, being interviewed for placement on the judicial board of the student council at UCLA, suddenly found her self facing this question from a fellow student council member, “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” This is a stunning and vivid illustration of what lies at the roots our human drama—a complete failure to recognize that not only we seei the world through biases given them to us by background, just as it is with those who we see as biased. Yes, this young woman would be at least subtly influence by dimensions of her faith and the rest of her life experiences. But the interrogator revealed his naivety, failing to realize that the very question he posed revealed his bias toward Jews.
Each of us sees the world through a template formulated by our life experiences, all of which are also influenced by a neurophysiological substrate. Poet Conrad Aiken offered my favorite p grasp of this truth when he wrote, “We only see the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the dark.” But some of us are in positions of power in that our background teaches us that our way of seeing the world is the “proper” way while other’s will fail to see things “right.” And the power I refer to here is the power that comes from being in the majority, being entrenched in the “consensually validated” view of the world. Nietzsche understood this, noting, “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”
Real power in any group lies in the agreed upon “truths,” the assumptions that are not questioned by anyone entrenched spiritually in this consensually validated prism (or “prison”!!!) W. H. Auden noted the courage required to face one’s basic assumptions and be subject to the existential solitude that will follow, writing in “New Year Letter”:
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate databases
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie?
Someone once noted that it is impossible to have a perspective on one’s perspective without somehow escaping it.” But asking anyone to “escape” and enter the realm of meta-cognition is like asking a fish to see water. Auden recognized that this experience is disconcerting at least, and probably terrifying. The following selection from his poem, “For the Time Being,” has the Star of the Nativity speaking to its followers:
Beware. All those who follow me are led Onto that Glassy Mountain where are
No footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread
Where knowledge but increases vertigo:
Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
To find themselves immediately alone
With savage water and unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.
Auden understood the need of getting out of one’s self to the point that the legitimacy of other view points could be appreciated or at least tolerated. But his wisdom also reflects what Alan Watts described as “The Wisdom of Insecurity.” Vulnerability always ensues when we get to the point where we own our existential plight, that we are but a finite creature with a finite grasp of our world, a world also being composed of other vulnerable creatures with the same tendency to absolutize his/her world view.
(NOTE: Can any of you who are familiar with WP tell me why I could not get the poetry to copy to single-space???? Thanks.)