The Importance Of The Other
Bob Wright is saying goodbye to his Atlantic blog, and offers some final thoughts, in the form of beliefs of his about which he now thinks he didn’t write enough. I thought this one was especially interesting:
 The world’s biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups–i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of “the other.” I’m not talking about empathy in the sense of literally sharing people’s emotions–feeling their pain, etc. I’m just talking about the ability to comprehend and appreciate the perspective of the other. So, for Americans, that might mean grasping that if you lived in a country occupied by American troops, or visited by American drone strikes, you might not share the assumption of many Americans that these deployments of force are well-intentioned and for the greater good. You might even get bitterly resentful. You might even start hating America.
Note well that Bob is talking about foreign policy here. I think he’s right. I also think this wouldn’t hurt to do in terms of domestic issues. So let me propose to you readers that you (that we) engage in a little self-criticism here and come up with an Other whose perspective that we, personally, ought to spend time trying to comprehend. Whom would you choose? And why?
Two parameters on this exercise:
1) Don’t tell the rest of us which Others we ought to pay attention to. Focus on yourself, and an Other whose perspective you recognize you have not fairly tried to consider, but which deserves from you more thoughtful consideration.
2) In your explanation of why you have chosen this particular Other, there’s no need to assume that by considering the point of view of the Other, that you will come to share it. For example, regarding the same-sex marriage dispute, I have spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to see things from the point of view of gays who want to marry. I have not changed my views, but I am much more aware of the costs those views would impose on gays, and I am much more aware of both the good and the bad reasons why people disagree with me. This thinking about the issue from the point of view of the Other has led me, I think, to a deeper understanding of the deeper philosophical and moral issues behind same-sex marriage, and has, for good or for ill, led me to conclude that this really is a fight conservatives have lost, for reasons that have very little to do with homosexuals. And, I think and I hope, it has helped me keep a healthy perspective on the humanity of those people, straight or gay, who disagree with my point of view.
OK, with that said, here is my personal nomination for the Other whose perspective I should spend more time trying to understand: the Poor.
I am constantly puzzled, frustrated, and even at times made angry by the self-sabotage of the poor and the working poor in America. It seems so clear to me what the right things to do are — not in every case, of course, but in most cases — to keep yourself from falling into a ditch from which you can’t easily climb out. Don’t bear children out of wedlock. Stick with your education. Live an orderly life. Save your money, and don’t get yourself into unreasonable debt. Choose your friends carefully. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, but work to improve yourself. Etc.
Then again, I was raised in a family, by parents who had been born into serious rural poverty, who made it into the middle, or lower middle, class, by virtue of living by these values. My father, in particular, was such a strong avatar of these values that my sister and I never really thought that there was any other way to live. They were in the air that we breathed. Their obviousness was plain to us, and reinforced by the culture — in our home and in our community — in which we were raised.
I’ve come to realize, though, that this was not a universal experience. I mean, I always knew that not every family was like ours in that way, but as I’ve gotten older, and thought more deeply about culture, and the power of culture to shape a worldview, and the power of worldview to inform and guide behavior, I’ve begun to think about what it must be like for children and adults who live inside a worldview in which the things that I was raised believing were obvious truths are not true at all — and in fact, in which the opposite may be true, in their experience.
I’ve written before about a white friend of mine who used to teach at a public school in a Louisiana school district in which all her students were poor and black. My friend is young and idealistic, and has known hardship in her own life. She wanted to help these high school kids. After years of working there, she finally gave up, though, and left in discouragement. She explained to me that it was such a beatdown to work your butt off trying to find ways to reach these kids, but only to discover that the culture they carried around in their heads cut them off from the beginning. The fatalism these kids lived with was the worst, she said. They were almost all willing to accept that their lot in life was to live on and off welfare benefits, to have or to father children outside of wedlock, and to just get by. This is what they had been shown by their culture, and this is what the teachers could not, in most cases, dispel or even challenge. I was reminded of what the inner-city Dallas activist Trey Hill once told me about the worst thing holding back the minority kids he lives among and works with is the mind-forged manacles of their own self-defeating culture.
I need to spend more time trying to understand what the world looks like from within that culture — black, white, whatever — so I can understand why it persists, and so I can understand what it takes to break the generational cycle. It’s part of my training and my character to approach issues critically, and enter into them from a critical point of view. That’s not necessarily a bad approach in every case, but it is a limiting one. It limits understanding. My wife tells me sometimes when we’re talking about a difficulty she’s facing that I need to stop trying to fix it, and just listen to her talk about it. I think that’s more of what I need when I consider the problems of the poor and the role culture plays in exacerbating them.
Again, I don’t mean that on this issue, or on any issue, to consider what life looks like from the point of view of the Other is to necessarily say in advance that one might agree with them. But to do it fairly, and to hope to learn from it, one has to at least be open enough to their experience and point of view that one considers that one might come to share it … or at least enough of it to have one’s opinions altered by the exercise.
That’s my Other. What’s yours? Why?