What We Don’t See

Of all the conceits common to humankind possibly the most insidious is that any of us are entirely rational. And often the most irrational people are those who brag about how rational they are.

Even if a person’s basic reasoning skills are sound, the outcome of his reasoning nearly always will be imperfect. That’s because nearly all of us “live” within limited conceptual frameworks that filter and sort information in artificial ways. The way we conceptually interface with reality is based partly on our own experience and partly on how we are culturally conditioned to understand things.  And most of us are blind to this, because if we and everyone we know is artificially filtering and sorting information in pretty much the same way, we assume our understanding of reality is the only possible one.

(I wrote quite a lot about this in my book, by the way, explaining the way our limited conceptual frameworks have impacted religion and have largely rendered it ridiculous, but it doesn’t have to be that way.)

Breaking out of the conceptual box we live in usually takes some extraordinary experience — and often a shocking one — to see that we’re living in an artificial world and that the “real” one outside the limits of our awareness is largely alien to us. And most of us amble through life without ever having that experience.

Even though few of us ever perceive that we’re living inside a conceptual box, if we run into people whose conceptual boxes are very different from ours we think those people just don’t understand the real world (meaning our “real world”). I could define maturity, even wisdom, as the ability to appreciate  and respect that other people’s “worlds” are just as valid as ours even if they are wildly different. I wrote a few years ago,

My view is that everything we think comes from a complex of psychological discriminations and impulses, little of which have anything to do with “logic.” The way we understand ourselves and the world begins to be shaped from the moment we’re born and continues to be shaped by the culture we grow up and live in. In other words, all of our understandings are biased. This is pervasive and inescapable. Often the difference between “logical” and “empathic” people is that an “empathic” person has at least a dim appreciation of his own biases, whereas a “logical” person is utterly oblivious to them. …

… Our conscious, cognitive understandings of things are based on internalized models of what we’ve been conditioned to believe is “normal.” We may be able to articulate our ideas and perceptions in a coolly logical way, but the process by which we arrive at our ideas and perception is “complex, unconscious and emotional.” This is always true, whether we want to admit it or not. …

… Generally being “fair” is not losing one’s biases, but perceiving one’s biases as biases. If you recognize your biases as biases, you are in a position to overrule them as the facts dictate. But if you are so unconscious of yourself that you don’t recognize your biases as biases, then your “thinking” generally amounts to casting around for support for your biases. Then you put the biases and the cobbled-together “support” together and call it “reason.”

And this takes me to what we don’t see. I’ve written before about the “default norm” syndrome, also called the invisible baseline fallacy, which in our culture means white maledom is the default norm, and perspectives and experiences that deviate from those common to white men are not respected as legitimate. If you are a woman or racial minority in this country you have bumped into this iron wall of assumption many times, but the iron wall is invisible to a lot of white men. Not all, thank goodness.

This is basically the same thing that people are calling “male privilege” or “white privilege,” although I don’t like those terms. The degree to which one’s assumptions, biases and experiences are “privileged” depends on a complex of factors that include health or physical condition, class, and wealth. A white male lower-income paraplegic is considerably less “privileged” than the Koch brothers, for example. As wealth inequality becomes more extreme a whole lot of white people are being left behind to a degree I believe is unprecedented in American history, and I assure you most of these people don’t feel all that “privileged.”

Money is privilege. People who have always been financially comfortable have no idea how much lack of money can be an obstacle to basic functionality in our society. The poor are taxed in myriad ways, from paying higher bank account fees on their meager balances — causing the very poor to not use banks at all, but then one must use check cashing services that also take a bite. Without a car you take public transportation, which eats a lot more time out of your day. And if you don’t have money for a bus you simply don’t go anywhere out of walking distance, which puts a huge limit on your job opportunities. Those left out of Medicaid expansion still have limited access to health care, and chronic, debilitating conditions often go untreated. Poor parents often are caught in the day care trap — they aren’t paid enough to afford reliable day care, but without that it’s hard to hold a job at all. So one is perpetually making seat-of-the-pants arrangements with people to watch the children, and then worrying if the kids are safe. Etc. etc. Many conveniences people with money take for granted are not available to the poor, and the inconveniences pile up and make day-to-day life an exhausting exercise in barely coping.

And then it is assumed the poor can’t get ahead because they are lazy. And it is just about impossible to explain the problem to someone who has been cocooned from it. It’s not part of his, or her, experience; therefore, it isn’t “real.”

As a woman I am sometimes surprised at how much even liberal men are oblivious to the extreme misogyny that still lingers in our culture. I wrote earlier this year,

Even those of us who have never experienced physical assault have experienced sexual intimidation, belittling and humiliation, aimed at us only because of our gender. And most of the time we put up with it, because what else can we do? Confronting some sexist bozo could turn an unpleasant situation into something genuinely dangerous. So how has the political Right responded to #YesAllWomen? Mostly with more belittling. Charles Cooke at NRO, for example, dismisses the social media phenomenon as “groupthink.” We women can’t possibly know our own experiences, apparently, and simply imagine misogyny because we’ve read about it.

Especially to conservatives, problems that middle- and upper-income white men rarely if ever encounter are not “real” issues worthy of being addressed by society or government, but are exceptions that the individuals affected must take care of on their own. The fact that these issues may impact all of us, directly or indirectly, and that the cause may be widespread cultural and institutional bias that upper-income whites feed on a daily basis, is invisible to them.  And you can’t explain it to them. No amount of real-world data or well-constructed logic makes dent in the iron wall. If it doesn’t conform to the conceptual box they live in, it can’t be true.

This is why it is good to have diversity of experience represented in decision-making bodies such as governments, for example. White men like to tell themselves they can make decisions that affect everybody else just fine because they will apply reason. But their reason is based on biased perspectives that fail to take many things into account. Publius provides a good example here — many rape laws used to require a woman to show she had resisted an assault to prove she had not consented. But this is a male-centric view. A woman understands that if she is being assaulted by a violent man much stronger than she is, her only hope of surviving may be in not resisting. (I remember a bitter joke from many years ago that the only woman almost certain to win a rape case is a dead nun.)

And don’t get me started on reproductive issues. Just a few days ago I was told I was too emotional because I passionately disagreed that abortion must be criminalized. Naturally it was a man, who will never be pregnant, who said this. Yes it’s easier to be emotionally detached from a issue when it’s not personal, and when the real-world experiences and consequences of that issue are merely hypothetical. It’s easier to be emotionally detached when you’re behind the iron wall.

Michael Brown is being buried today. If his killing, and what we’ve learned about Ferguson, hasn’t given us a clear picture of the evils and pervasiveness of institutional racism I don’t know what else will. Yet just last week I encountered a forum populated largely by white men who couldn’t understand why people are always going on about race. Why is race such a big deal? Isn’t it  all about making white men feel guilty?

But I certainly don’t give a rodent’s posterior whether anybody feels guilty. Guilt doesn’t so much as butter toast. Our country is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, in part because our institutions, especially government, increasingly reflect the views of only the most sheltered and privileged among us. And it is increasingly unresponsive to everyone else. And, weirdly, a big chunk of the population being left behind still clings to the cognitive biases that support policies that are hurting them.  Their collective conceptual frameworks are not adjusting; they still can’t see past the iron wall.

See also: Andrew O’Hehir, “White Privilege: An Insidious Virus That’s Eating America from Within.”

26 thoughts on “What We Don’t See

  1. Wow, great job.

    Regarding one of your points:

    We’ve been watching the new “Cosmos” series on netflix. Last night we watched, “Sisters of the Sun,” which touched on the overt sexism that held back women and scientific progress at the same time. Examples occur in other episodes as well. I can see why the right wing is so upset about this series. Sadly, in my readings, etc about the history of science, I find that I am woefully ignorant of so many of the women who made remarkably important contributions to our understanding of the world, but who were glossed over, or more commonly, purposively buried, either because of misogyny or so that their discoveries and insights could be appropriated to benefit the career of a male scientist.

    If someday a great scientist discovers a way to zap all men in their sleep and carry on the species without them (us), I don’t think I would blame her a bit.

  2. This may seem OT – but stick with me here.

    I write right-handed now.
    But when I was a kid, I remember being a leftie (no commie jokes, please – because I still AM a political leftie).
    I was forced to write with my right hand because the nun’s at our Russian Orthodox Church Saturday school used to smack the hands of us left-handers with a ruler. Being left-handed was a sign of the Devil – the word “sinister” means, or is derived from, left-handedness.

    Left-handers are a minority in our right-handed world.
    Their accident and mortality rates are higher, because tools, and other objects are designed for ease-of-use by right-handers.
    Not many people care, because they are right-handed, and have no concept of how difficult the world can be for left-handed people.

    Every right-handed person should spend a month with his/her right hand tied behind the back, so that they can understand what it’s like to be left-handed, and use tools, doors, cars, appliances, etc., that are designed with right-handers in mind.

    But, then, every rich person should spend at least a month trying to live on Temporary Assistance (Welfare) and SNAP (food stamps), to gain and understanding of what it’s like to eat, pay for rent, get around without car – let alone limo – and live life in general, when you’re poor.

    But, then neither of those will ever happen.

    Oh, btw – I’m now ambidextrous at many tasks.
    I had an eye doctor confirm that I was probably ambidextrous from birth. I asked how he could tell that. He said, by certain eye activities. He could tell in a few seconds, he said, what the patients predominant hand was.

    There, I think I did what I set out to do with this comment.

  3. Excellent post, Maha.

    OT.. I’m not criticizing or trying to come off as anything superior, but I caught this mistake on the Salon link and thought maybe some Mahablogians might find it interesting.

    and if those young men and a distressing number of others met death in the street under unsettling circumstances, that can only have been their just deserts.

  4. I sometimes can’t stop at just dessert and want still more dessert’s.
    But I can leave just deserts to the people who know how to travel in deserts – just, or unjust.

  5. I gotcha c u n d – the analogy I read once is that someone who isn’t in a wheelchair probably isn’t going to know which subway stations have elevators, or which ones are working at any given moment. And it’s not because they’re bad people, but it’s not because they worked for their ability to walk either.

    It’s not a perfect analogy, because being black isn’t like suffering a disabling injury, but there’s something to it.

  6. Sometime in 1972 or so, the National Lampoon had a special “White” issue, in which whiteness was described in a journalistic manner, with illustrations of such phenomena as the “white handshake.” (This entails extending the open hand, thumb up, and grasping the similarly extended hand of the other person, moving both hands up and down several times, then releasing both hands.)

    The reader was informed that Jews are, technically speaking, White people. Sundry achievements of white people are described—did you know that Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, was an uncolored person? And that the philosopher Spinoza was, technically speaking, a white man? It may have been the issue whose cover had a number of men sitting on a Harlem stoop with a small statue of a white man in a business suit holding a lantern. Regrettably, I tossed it out years ago, but it was the National Lampoon at the peak of its powers.

  7. I grew up in poverty in the state of Florida, my mom and dad moved us here from Canada in 1959. My dad was fired from his first job here for the unspeakable crime of talking to a blackl aborer.
    Many years later, I moved to southern California, where I enjoyed the benefits of civilization, including a fair wage and health care. Then I was prompted by some malicious force to move back to Florida. A hotdog and a coke from a chevron station near ” the happiest place on earth” was a treat beyond any expectation.
    I understand what it is to be poor. In some strange and twisted way, perhaps moving back to Florida was my path to understanding.

  8. Speaking of white people and their ways, did you know that one of their favorite foods is a casserole consisting of noodles, tuna fish, mushroom soup, and green peas? They boil the noodles, mix in the peas and mushroom soup, add a can of tuna over that, and top it with bread crumbs. Then they put it in the oven set at 350 degrees for 45 minutes and they have a delightful dinner.

    Somewhere I have a heartwarming photo of a family of contented Caucasians enjoying a meal of tuna casserole, eagerly looking forward to a dessert of strawberry Jell-O. I will have to try and dig it up.

  9. Fine job maha and I have reached many of the same conclusions. I appreciate reading something that goes a little deeper sometimes. Thanks.

  10. Of all the conceits common to humankind possibly the most insidious is that any of us are entirely rational. The Enlightenment is to blame for this, followed by extreme economists like von Mises and Hayek.

    • The Enlightenment is to blame for this, followed by extreme economists like von Mises and Hayek.

      And isn’t it interesting that allegedly “rational” economic theories tend to quickly fall apart in the real world? Our “rational” minds and judgments are only a tiny part of how we behave and think as we do, and it’s usually a post hoc sort of part. Human irrationality must be taken into account. And people who continue to cling to von Mises and Hayek do not do so because their arguments are rational — a rational person would have noticed that economies simply don’t behave as von Mises and Hayek proposed they do — but rather because something about those theories are emotionally satisfying to some people.

  11. The wheelchair comparison is quite accurate. Until you have to get someone in a wheelchair into a place, you don’t pay much attention to the accessibility of the place. I have dealt with that issue enough times to know that one to be true. Getting people to recognize the truth of something they cannot see is difficut. My son’s latex allergy is at the level of fatality by anaphylactic shock on exposure. Demanding to see the box restaurant worker get their gloves from seems crazy, I can tell, from the looks I get. But I do it. People often say “Well, I never heard of such a thing.” I doubt they have ever seen anyone die from exposure to a popped balloon, either. I suppose we all think our own experience defines reality. I try to step beyond that. It can be uncomfortable, and there are those who will NOT allow themselves to be discomfited.
    How many times have we all heard, “Well, I just don’t believe that” as a retort?

  12. @Ed: bread crumbs??? Puh-leez! Even this aged (uh, make that “senior citizen”) white, Jewish, east coast female knows that.

    @Maha: thanks for a thought-provoking post. My son-in-law uses a wheelchair, and I’ve learned so much in the last 20 years about his world and how the rest of the world does not accommodate to him:

    “Yes, our restaurant is fully accessible.”
    “But it has two steps.”
    “Oh, but you can lift him over the two steps.”
    “But that’s demeaning.”
    “Then you can use the back entrance.”
    “But that’s demeaning, too. He should be able to come in the same entrance as the rest of the family.”
    [silence: no context for this reality]

  13. @ Ed: drat my rotten proofreading skills. I left out the crucial element: it’s crushed potato chips.

  14. Ed…Google “Norman Rockwell – contented Caucasians”. I think the picture you’re looking for might be in the Rockwell collection. If not there, try Flickr, use the search tags: vintage, Jello, or Americana.

  15. Good point, BlueLoom. Wouldn’t want to imply that all white people are the same. I am sure that some of them do use crushed potato chips and some of them even put the green peas on the side of the main casserole. If you were to ask a cultural anthropologist, you could probably learn even more about their quaint and curious food customs.

    Swami may be right; perhaps it was a Norman Rockwell painting rather than a photograph; it has been so many years since I saw it that my memory could be fooling me.

    BTW, did you know that John Randolph of Roanoke, who was Minister to Russia under President Andrew Jackson, could trace his ancestry to fair-skinned people from England and Europe? These people have made many contributions to our country’s history and it was not my intention to put them down.

  16. I’ve been thinking about the conceptual box theory and wondering about Clarence Thomas’ claim that the worst treatment he’s ever suffered pertaining to his race was inflicted upon him by “northern liberal elites”. I don’t know what those northern liberal elites did to Clarence, but it must have been pretty severe if it could overcome the sting of segregation and discrimination that was wide spread throughout the south in the form of Jim Crow laws and public attitudes.
    Maybe it’s me, but if I were to be raised in an environment where it was obviously clear that I was less than equal and found to be unacceptable by a society at large, and than have that inequality and discrimination sanctioned by government, than I would think that my psyche would be impacted in such a negative and damaging way that whatever some northern liberal elite said to me would pale in comparison to that experience. And yet Clarence somehow manages to negate those childhood experiences and view them as nothing more than a common slight.

    • Clarence Thomas and other people oppressed by conservatives who align with conservatives — right-wing homosexuals, women who support the “men’s rights” misogynistic subculture, for example — IMO have some kind of pathology going in on which their desire to be accepted by and conform to dominant culture utterly overrides their personal experience. It’s some kind of personality or character disorder, in other words. My opinion; I don’t know what the psychologists say about it.

  17. Well, I guess having a white hen who can rake in almost a million bucks in Heritage Foundation dollars might have some bearing on how Clarence perceives his existence. It’s not exactly a golden goose, but for Clarence it’s probably damn near close.

  18. Pingback: Ferguson: Same Old Trajectory | The Mahablog

  19. “some kind of pathology going on in which their desire to be accepted by and conform to dominant culture utterly overrides their personal experience.” I’ve long thought this was a prime motivator of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. However, the good ole boys he hoped to impress with his vigilantism were NEVER going to accept some half Jewish and half hispanic.

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