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.”
[First posted on The Mahablog, August 25, 2014]