In the past few months I’ve spent some time looking for trouble on Twitter. I’ve found some (mild and polite), which translated into plenty food for thought, and eventually allowed me to put some order in my thoughts. The matter stems from the urgency of finding ways of having a positive (no matter how small!) effect on the political landscape, but inevitably extends far and wide, touching philosophy, psychology and more generally, how (one may try) not to be a jerk. The gist: nobody can ever fully grasp someone else’s point of view, that’s why dialogues are useful, but also the reason why getting it wrong is so easy.
To get started, I’ll draw from two twitter episodes that didn’t actually involve yours truly. The first went globally viral at a serendipitous time, you can read it here. It reports an all too common history of sexism and implicit bias. For my current purpose, the relevant observation is that Martin R. Schneider (the author of the twitter thread) clearly isn’t (and wasn’t, at the time) your typical douchebag, he most likely was already well aware of widespread sexism and the problems it creates. Nevertheless, he was taken by surprise when he finally got to experience sexism in first person. I suspect the thread got shared so widely because the story did surprise many (including, I confess, myself). Question is: why? Personally, I try hard to be aware of these issues, I work in an environment that is perhaps among the best places to rise awareness, and yet, my reaction was disappointing, all I could think was: “D’oh, I shouldn’t be surprised”.
To get closer to an explanation, another (related) Twitter thread might help: Eve Forster tried a similar experiment (summary here, while this is a Twitter search encompassing the length of the experiment), and guess what? She managed to surprise herself. Pretending to be a male made her self-image and attitude change in ways she didn’t expect. [Update, May 13 2017: Eve has now written a thoughtful piece about her experiment on Vox, well worth your time!]
Finally, here is an important report (HT Zara Bain) by the late Harriet McBryde Johnson on her encounters with Peter Singer. [Side Note: when I wrote this article I was willing to give Singer the benefit of doubt, reading Johnson’s article convinced me that he is indeed culpable of epistemic arrogance.] Why is this relevant? Because it makes the crucial point obvious: we can try to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, but our consequent understanding will usually be miles away from the real thing.
Obvious? Yes. Important? Obviously. Neglected? You bet! It’s the neglect that interests me.
We can only reason by leveraging the cognitive resources we already possess; when trying to understand what it’s like to be someone else, we may amplify the weight of some experiences, transpose some others to a different context, suppress a given family of feelings and so on. But no matter how we try, whatever happens to be qualitatively different from our past experience will be forever out of reach (echoes of Mary). However, try we must, and because we do, our exercise will usually produce some results. The trouble happens when one remembers that, to say it with Kahneman (2011), our brains easily produce the impression that what you get is all there is. In other words, if the imaginative exercise produces an impression that feels coherent, we are inclined to believe it – what else could we do? Thus, Singer is inherently unable to grasp why and how Johnson’s life feels unquestionably worthwhile from within (including why this feeling matters!), and Johnson has her own trouble in understanding how could Singer be so blind. Similarly, merely acting on the pretence of being someone else produces experiences that, being qualitatively new, Forster herself could not predict. In Schneider’s case, knowing that sexism is vicious and ubiquitous wasn’t an adequate substitute of experiencing it first hand.
This whole picture chimes extremely well with the growing interest in the idea that our brains are best understood as prediction engines, especially when modelled as Bayesian engines (for a gentle, very broad introduction, see here). Clark (2015, footnote #1, Chapter 10, p328), makes the point perfectly:
[A]t the very heart of human experience, PP [Predictive Processing] suggests, lie the massed strata of our own (mostly unconscious) expectations. This means that we must carefully consider the shape of the worlds to which we (and our children) are exposed. If PP is correct, our percepts may be deeply informed by non-conscious expectations acquired through the statistical lens of our own past experience. So if […] the world that tunes those expectations is thoroughly sexist or racist, that will structure the subterranean prediction machinery that actively constructs our own future perceptions – a potent recipe for tainted ‘evidence’, unjust reactions, and self-fulfilling, negative prophecies.
I took the liberty of transcribing the note almost in full because it highlights the core intuition that I’m wishing to put in writing. What we experience, and importantly, how we interpret it, is necessarily shaped by what we have and haven’t experienced already (this is tautological, that’s why it matters). Thus, it is not sufficient to realise that we are blind to our own systematic mistakes, doing so is just the first step. What is important is to realise that different world-views are mutually blind to each other’s differences and then blind to their own blindness. Thus, we finally reach my own misdeeds.
I have been exploring this train of thought for quite a while; in my efforts, I try to do as I preach, and actively sought criticism on Twitter. I was not surprised to find it easily, but on calmer reflection, it is surprising that I did manage to enact the kind of mistake I was trying to uncover. Surprising and ironically beautiful. The first conversation happened here, the second (sub)thread is this (apologies for the length). In both cases, I failed miserably (I’ve selected two sub-threads, picking the ones that showed my failings clearly). In the first case, I failed to deliver my main message (I’m trying to explain it better in this post), in the second, I got it wrong in more complex (and somewhat sinister) ways. Why? My conclusion is once more the same: I failed to fully grasp how my blabbing would be perceived, and I concurrently failed to spot the first failure. Failure and Meta-failure, hurray!
Hopefully, the direct and indirect experiences I’ve summarised here all point in the same direction. Bridging different points of views is hard, especially because each point of view would (usually) feel both complete and coherent from within – even when we are imagining someone else’s perspective. These differences are typically the direct consequence of different life experiences (cfr. Clark’s quote above), as such, they are in and of themselves entirely justified. Moreover, because two people can never share the same experiential trajectory, imagining someone else’s point of view is hard and frequently misleading. That’s why dialogue is important, but also why it is always dangerous to assume the other is simply mistaken. Reason does not help in bridging the gap, because it usually can’t: what is needed is an experiential bridge.
Why does this matter? Because politics. It’s no mystery that Western societies are dangerously veering to the right. What is less visible is that right-wing propaganda is exceptionally good at building and exploiting experiential bridges. Conversely, the progressive side is spectacularly bad at winning hearts, and unsurprisingly, mostly blind to its own failure (do I need to mention Corbyn?). Thus, trying to understand what we’re doing wrong isn’t simply important, it’s an existential matter. Right now, we should all try to help people realise how profoundly they are being misled. Our game should not be about winning arguments, much less sneering at the gullibility of the masses. We should be busy changing minds, and to do so, we must begin by erasing our false sense of superiority.
Bibliography and further reading.
Kahneman, D (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN: 978-0374275631
Clark, A (2016). Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind Oxford Scholarship DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190217013.003.0011
Abeba Birhane recently published a relevant article: Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’, which explores, from a very different point of view (!), some of the themes I’m developing here. Highly recommended.
For those interested in my own trajectory, one of my earliest articles here also discusses a connected mechanism, which I’ve called ‘cognitive attractors‘.