Monday, April 16, 2007

Stepping outside the story you live in

I'm trying to stop myself from turning into an radical; one-sided rants, no matter how much passion they are delivered with, don't do much towards promoting understanding between different sides. I'm trying - often with great difficulty - to seek out, understand, and appreciate perspectives disagreeing with my personal beliefs without making it a token "here, I've heard them out" act, a secret opportunity to convert people to "my side," or a wishy-washy they're-all-right-in-their-own-way fence-sitting that saves me from having to consider the issue any further or take a stance regarding it.

Other people think differently than I do. This does not mean their perspectives are misguided, irrational, misinformed, or necessarily "less" in any way, or that all choices are equal and therefore it does not matter which perspective you happen to have. (There I go implying the prevalence of numeracy in my world view again by implying that all things can have a greater-than, equal-to, or less-than relationship).

I'm trying to gain the ability to step out of the orthogonal, comparative, and numerical world view of engineering and the hard sciences, which has become so ingrained in my way of life and thinking that it's difficult for me to notice it. I'm trying to do this by stepping into the perspectives of other disciplines first; the social sciences, the arts, various facets of nonacademia. Hopefully eventually the ability to step "out of" a discipline's viewpoints will not require me to step into the premade viewpoint of another one; I want to build and understand my own way of thinking and understanding the world wherein I am conscious of what I am accepting as fact, what I am questioning, what I am proving to myself. I don't need to build my thought structure from scratch, but I need to understand what I've got.

The above paragraph is a good example of how you can never really escape the space that surrounds you. The notion that an individual can have her own viewpoint is cultural; I am a person, not just a member of a group. The notion that ways of thinking are "built," or that there are such things as "fact," and that things can (or should) be "questioned" or "proved" - as I speak of avoiding bias and assumptions, I expose my own. (Even the notion of bias itself is a bias.) The statement that I am seeking to understand thing, and the implication that understanding gives me some level of control, and that this is a positive result, is a sort of lens. The refusal of blind acceptance is in part a rejection of attempts to understand that point of view.

These kinds of questions are important because when we strive for a goal, we must recognize that this goal is one of many possible goals we could be striving for, one of thousands of places we could be standing. If I'm to work towards my variant of educational reform, or for a certain usage of my language, or a spread of certain media, or the tenets of a certain religion, I need to understand that the reason I'm working towards it is because I think it is best, and that this does not necessarily make it the best one. Cinderella's sisters all thought their foot would be the best fit for the slipper. But unlike the fairy tale situation, we have no absolute "slipper" metric, no absolute judge of what is "best" or "good," unless we make or believe in such a metric or Creator of metrics ourselves.

It does not mean, either, that no such metrics or Creators exist, or that they do, or that we can or can not prove or disprove their existence. We believe in what we cannot prove, but the notion of proof - and of belief, for that matter - are themselves cultural constructs (at least that is how they are defined within the culture that I am speaking from at present).

The meta-level of this post is jumping through the roof.

To make things a little more concrete, here are some notes I took from Clotaire Rapaille's book The Culture Code which I'll briefly describe as "the cultural ethnography of purchasing perceptions of individuals from various countries, written for the layperson." The subtitle declares it to be "an ingenious way to understand why people around the world live and buy as they do." In the chapters I took these notes from, Rapaille is describing his perceptions of the "codes" of American culture (he's originally French but moved to America).

Americans associate themselves with adolescence and impulsiveness, health with movement, home with returning to a circle of belonging, jobs with self-identity and money as proof and gauge of their self-made efforts, quality with functionality (rather than polish or bells and whistles - the 80/20 point) and perfection with stasis and subsequently death.

Great service is more important to Americans than great quality. People have stronger bonds to companies they receive good service for broken products from than to companies whose products never break down at all.

This matches up with what I've noticed in schools; students who interact frequently with the teacher in a positive manner (even if they're struggling but trying very hard and making some progress) tend to be more highly regarded by that teacher than a student who is perfect but unobtrusive. But I digress.

What Rapaille describes are cultural constructs, viewpoints, unconscious stories we've been given by Mother Culture (to use the syntax of Daniel Quinn's book Ishmael - which I admire the craftsmanship of but don't always agree with, by the way). These are examples of the kinds of things I am trying to become aware of so that I may make a choice regarding my conduct within, around, and using them.

Finally, because I am becoming far too verbose in an attempt to precisely articulate that which I mean to comment on (and there are many subtleties that I feel are important for me to set out now as I build up the basis of my attempts - I'm well aware that I'm falling into the conventions of mathematics and Western philosophy as I do so -), I'll let someone else speak for me in part, and describe the cultural code and story which, in bothering me for much of the past 13 years, has eventually led me to write this post (if your culture believes in both such causality and in free will). The paradox of the preservation of change.

...when human beings find they enjoy or appreciate some aspect of life, they "institutionalize" it and protect it from further change. What was once a rational response to social need becomes a ritual, performed without regard to its origins. This leads to a puzzling contradiction when a society learns that it can benefit from technological change: scientific discovery becomes a kind of ritual. In this view, scientific research laboratories are the institutionalization of change; they are the facilities set up so that "tomorrow can be better than today." --Richard Burke (paraphrased)

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