Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Broadening perception

How broad is your outlook? Do you, for example, consider a football field as a large playing field, a small patch of grass that comprises part of a much larger landscape, or both?

People generally seem to prefer to function with a narrow view on life. I reached that conclusion experientially, observing that most people who attended the same meetings I did, whether in civilian organizations or the military, usually focused on details, small issues, or narrow slices of large problems. Discussion of the large issues, issues of considerable breadth and depth, invariably seemed to gravitate around a subset of details that, from the larger perspective, were actually incidental or trivial.

Consultation with a variety of mentors forced me to accept the proposition that most people found large issues so complex, challenging, or overwhelming in scope that they preserved face and remained in their comfort zones by limiting their comments and opinions to particular facets and avoiding proffering an opinion on the larger issue.

Votes on broad issues by members of groups with more than a dozen people appear to follow a similar, predictable pattern. Having remained silent or voiced an opinion on some aspect of the larger issue, a majority of people present typically vote in support of either their perception of how the majority will vote or their leader(s) of choice's position.

Big, complex issues – for example, how to avoid the impending fiscal cliff in the U.S. or how to restructure a non-profit organization – admittedly require a breadth of knowledge that nobody is likely to have. People also often lack the courage to take risks and to make decisions with admittedly incomplete information in ambiguous situations.

One consequence of this widespread proclivity for disliking and thus avoiding grappling with big questions is that it cedes power to the relative handful of individuals who are willing, indeed, who perhaps relish, the opportunity to deal with such questions. This popular bias against big questions becomes apparent in how candidates for public office conduct their campaigns: they focus on sound bites and image rather than offering careful, substantive analysis of the principle issues. Few people read, much less thoroughly digest, the point papers prepared by presidential campaigns.

Carol Gilligan, an American psychologist and feminist, showed spider webs to men and women. Men generally saw a threat, while women saw interconnectedness. In other words, a variety of sociological, psychological, and physiological factors that can include gender, age, race, emotional state, employment, class, etc. shape human perceptions.

The majority preferring to abdicate direct responsibility for large decisions can therefore skew those decisions in favor of the people willing to make those decisions. I think that this happens many times at the intersection of politics and economics, as evidenced by policies that benefit elites rather than the broader populace. Even decisions nominally made for the benefit of non-elites may, in fact, benefit elites by allowing the elites to remain in power. The Roman Empire's grain subsidies for Roman residents illustrate this.

Psychological egoism is the theory that humans act in ways that the individual perceives to be in her or his best interest. Psychological egoism coheres well with my observation that most people focus on smaller issues, ignoring the larger ones. A person's world, in very many respects, consists of those people, things, and ideas that impinge directly and recognizably upon one's existence. Shifting focus from the narrow (self) to the broadly inclusive (all people, the entire planet) is difficult, even when presented with reasonable evidence that what is good for the larger picture will most often be best for self.

For example, I want to travel safely and minimum inconvenience. Therefore, I reasonably want rules that target others because I know that I do not pose a threat to anyone's safety. However, rules that target others may have the unintended consequences of ignoring people with salient characteristics similar to me but who do pose a threat to my safety; these rules may also have ramifications that ripple beyond transportation safety, such as creating or exacerbating societal divisions by using stereotypes or profiles.

Important values of a liberal arts education, which hopefully begins in elementary school and then continues through high school and college or vocational school even for people whose studies are concentrated in the scientists or learning a trade, are learning to think, to frame questions, to be comfortable with ambiguity. Exploring great literature, art, history, philosophy, and religion push people to expand their horizons and to struggle with ambiguity and problems for which no simple solutions exist. Travel can similarly expand one's ability and comfort in dealing with large issues.

The best of religion promotes ethical living through facilitating abundant living, aiding us to love our neighbors more fully, or assisting us to struggle with life's big issues. Advent and Christmas especially call attention to questions about the future of all creation (cf. Ethical Musings Advent: Looking to the future) or experiencing God's presence in our midst (e.g., Ethical Musings The Christmas Myth).

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