What do you look like? In the age of forward facing cameras we can answer this question pretty easily and often instantaneously. While the answer the selfie gives us is often less comforting than the image we’d like to see, any adequately kind friend will tell you the double chinned low-angle isn’t what you really look like.
The mirror can give another answer, but only from a certain, head-on point of view, and only if we stand directly in front of it. If we took away these tools we could get a rough idea by feeling the contours of our countenance and then try to represent those fleshy undulations mentally, but the picture is probably going to be dismally inaccurate.
Interestingly, that our conception was inaccurate probably wouldn’t stop us from being pretty confident that we had it right. This is the typical state of things. With no help from the outside we become entombed in, and by, our own opinions. Forge the chains of our own bondage, sort of thing.
A few weeks ago, because I have a thoughtful and intelligent following (yes, that means you) I received a variety of responses detailing what I saw as essentially three different schools of thought. I wrote about how different people can have different ideas of the same thing in a blog post here.
More recently, I wrote about the concept of common ground, the part of the Venn diagram where different opinions and beliefs overlap. This week I’d like to offer one more argument for the value of different points of view: a selfish justification of the value of the opinions of others, and how we can interact with them in a way that enriches us.Frankly, I find the egocentrism of this argument distasteful. However, I understand how it can be persuasive to a certain kind of person, so here it is.
In 1996, American philosopher Christine Korsgaard published her Sources of Normativity. While I remain skeptical of Kantian conceptions of morality, I found her presentation of reflective endorsement ( as well as like, everything else in the book) compelling.
Essentially, Korsgaard argues that because the reasons, beliefs and opinions of other people are the same type of thing as our own reasons, beliefs and opinions, we should give them the same status that we give our own.
While we tend to value or prioritize our own beliefs, and denigrate the beliefs of others (especially when the two conflict), solely on the basis that the one belief is ours and the other belief is not, Korsgaard points out that this is badly mistaken. The belief held by the Other and the belief held by the Self are the same thing, just a belief. Whatever value a belief has is found equally in both.
I take the argument a step further. Not only do I see the perspectives of others as equal to my own, I see them as enriching my perspective in a way that would be impossible in isolation. The perspective of the other person allows us to see ourselves in a way that we can’t otherwise, and without that added point of view, we are prone to error in the way we understand ourselves.
Beliefs often tell us more about the believer than they do facts about the world.
Consider an analogy. In the 1500s, the official state-sanctioned stance was that the earth was the center of the universe. While the faults in this viewpoint have been variously attributed to hubris, egocentrism or ignorance, I see it as a lack of perspective. People of the day were not ignorant to mathematical concepts or the physics of heavenly bodies, but their point of view made it difficult to see how these concepts were properly applied. Quite literally from the viewpoint of the common earthling it looked like everything was moving around the earth.
In the introduction I spoke of the challenge of literally seeing yourself, and that’s just the body at rest. To conceive of our body in motion is even more challenging, to say nothing of the self.
As any dancer, gymnast or weightlifter can attest, when you look in the mirror while you move, you will be shocked by how different what you feel like you’re doing is from what you’re actually doing.
The “Self” in motion is even more tenebrous. As one of my favorite gurus, G.I Gurdjieff famously said, “it is easy to decide to change, sitting alone in your room, but as soon as you meet someone, the horse kicks!”Views from the Real World, 1973 Once that horse starts kicking, we are so caught up in its movements (I’m talking about flashes of anger and impatience, the spacey glee that comes from being complimented or praised, the psychic pain of seeing another being suffering) that we can’t really tell what’s going on. We are just “along for the ride,” emotionally speaking.
If you aren’t much concerned with self-improvement, or you think you’re just perfect the way you are, the fact that you don’t have a great perspective on yourself (and that other people can help with that perspective) probably isn’t something you’ll care about. In that case, I’m almost, but not quite, jealous.
Assuming you are interested in getting some idea of what you are “actually” like, other people are a great stand-in for mirrors and cameras. Equally you provide a valuable, prescient perspective to the Other. This is why humans are social animals. If we want to improve ourselves, we can do it best together. If the other wants to improve themselves, they can do it best with us. That idea that individuation is a solitary processes is a misconception of the term.
Like the people who have come to rely on the vague translations of an alternative sense, continued reliance on just one perspective will make you quite certain of the opinions you have on your motivations, faults, and virtues. Of course, that you are sure something is right does not mean it is actually right; Beliefs often tell us more about the believer than they do facts about the world.
One of my (probably many) personality flaws is that I can be kind of a dick. I usually justify this behavior by saying something like, “I’m just being honest.” When I justify my behavior I eliminate the possibility of changing it. Instead of acknowledging that I am doing something, I instead insist I’m doing something else, in this case being honest instead of being a dick. I am, essentially, denying that I have a problem.
Of course, I would not want to stop telling the truth just because it’s hard to hear, but if my goal is to bring some value into the world by telling the truth it would be worthwhile to consider how and when I present that information.
When someone says to me, “you’re being a dick” I need to force myself to reconcile the fact that I am telling the truth and being a dick. The I can ask myself if the two are mutually exclusive, or if the former necessitates the later. When I can accept both as true I can work to eliminate the one that I don’t like. Even if I’m not interested in change, I can have a clearer and more comprehensive picture of who and what I am in the world: Nicholas Novak – Truth Sayer and Real Jerk.
If we want to improve ourselves, we can do it best together.
In a way, none of us can be faulted for justifying our actions. That is just what human brains do. They come up with explanations and insist whatever explanation they have is right, so that they can move on to the next thing. To stop and ask yourself if you do in fact have it right is unnatural and sometimes counterproductive. And this is the trap. The more you listen to just the voice in your head the more sure of yourself you will be, and the less likely you will be to identify appropriate areas for improvement and instances of bad behavior.
In fact, I did not first notice that justifying prevents changing from observing myself, but by observing other people. I noticed that when people gave reasons for why they were doing something, they weren’t saying “and I shouldn’t,” they were rationalizing what they did. Once they rationalized it, they were pretty much guaranteed to do it again. While most therapists would probably disagree with me, why you do something “bad” isn’t really important, just that you stop doing it. If understanding the “why” helps you stop, it has a tertiary value. If understanding “why” helps you accept, it is without value and even harmful.
So, how can we do this work?
My personal practice when receiving criticism is to say it back, out loud. If someone says to me, “You’re being a dick,” I will say back “I am being a dick.” If someone writes to me, “Your writing is at once insipid and pedantic,” I will say to myself “my writing is at once insipid and pedantic.” It’s not that I take everything said to me to be true, but by saying it out loud I force myself to at least consider the possibility that it is true. If I am not able to consider that there might be truth to it, I will never be able to make use of the criticism I receive.
Hopefully the previous points already gestures towards this, but I am not arguing that every perspective from every one is equally useful, or even of use at all. Having spent roughly the same number of years in the metropolitan northeast as the rural south, one of my favorite ways to describe the difference between the two, in a thick Carolina drawl, is that “it’s not better, it’s just different.” The same can be said of the opinions of others. They are not “better” (because they’re exactly the same type of thing as your opinion) they’re just a different opinion.
If you are the kind of person who folds like a fourth grade love note anytime someone says something remotely critical to you this practice might also be a good anti-fragility practice.
Considering the opinions of others is not an easy thing to do. Much of the socialization that shaped the personality of Millennials and Gen-X’ers has taught us to reject alternative opinions and react poorly to criticisms. However, with a little bit of effort I believe we can all make practical use of the criticisms that are going to be leveled against us no matter how arduously we struggle to cocoon ourselves in ideological homogeny.
I don’t ask you to take something as true just because I’ve said it. Instead, I ask you to try it yourself and tell me if you find it to be true. Next time someone criticizes you, allow yourself to consider the criticism. If you find some value in it, let me know. If you find yourself more resilient in the face of criticism, all the better. Here’s to the day.