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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Violence and the Illusion of Certainty

Today in the Ukraine, in Gaza and Israel, in Syria, in South Sudan, and in far too many other places around the world, deadly violence ruins lives and sickens the heart. I don’t know how to rid the world of the hatred that treats people as disposable objects. But I think I know of one place to begin looking.

Fear, anger, and hatred have a common origin: Aversion to that which we feel disconnected from and don’t understand. In particular, it’s normal to push away persons, things, and ideas that we find offensive or threatening to our sense of self. We want to distance ourselves from such things and in so doing we typically make them objects of distrust and often of contempt.

Perceptions change radically in a world of ignorance

But consider this: How many of us have felt the rising heat of anger after being bumped from behind, only to discover that the “aggressor” is a friend or relative and then feel the anger instantly disappear, perhaps turning into relief and a smile? In our minds the threat to our comfort zone is suddenly transformed into a person we feel we know. Or, If you’re like me, you feel slightly uncomfortable and self-conscious in an elevator when a stranger enters. Perhaps you try not to look or you struggle to find something to say. So try this next time you’re in a similar situation: Imagine that the person you’re standing next to is a close friend. Do you feel nervous now? Do you struggle to make conversation? Do you even care if nothing is said? Silence between friends feels okay.

Fear issues from ignorance, and knowing someone better lessens that fear. That goes for libertarians or for leftists. And the less you have to fear from them the more likely you’ll treat them as people you have a lot in common with—compassion and ambition, wisdom and ignorance, truth-seeking and opportunism—and the less likely you will treat them as things.

Of course, there are sometimes people and things in our lives that are a danger to us that we need to keep safely away. But if we completely shut them out, we won’t be able to learn whether they have become less dangerous or that perhaps we were wrong about them. (See my last column that talked about errors of overpessimism.) And if we get to know them better, the natural response tends not to be fear but a sense of command over the situation or, more precisely, command over ourselves. Similarly, there are harmful ideas and doctrines, but that doesn’t mean that we have to hate them, to blindly reject them. Instead, I think the grown-up response is to be curious. Otherwise we won’t have a chance to understand them, but only to treat them as objects of disgust, just as those who regard our ideas that same way treat ours. Add a bit of envy or vengeance and in no time you’ve got blind rage—and eventually violence.

That’s why it would be good if our default attitude toward those with whom we strongly disagree wasn’t that they’re all stupid or evil or both.

Nothing is what you think it is

For what it’s worth, in my religious tradition there’s a saying:  Nothing is what you think it is. Because of the narrowness and limits of our perceptions, there’s an inevitable disconnect between what we think we know about the world and the way things actually are, between what we see and what is actually the case. That, of course, causes problems. But it gets much worse if we refuse even to acknowledge that the disjunction exists, and if we cling to the belief that in at least some part of our belief system we are absolutely, unshakably right. The more certain we feel about what we know, and the more we think we’re certain about, the worse it gets.

The way out of this trap begins with recognizing that certainty and perfect knowledge about the real world is denied to us and then getting comfortable with that fact (about which, of course, there is no certainty, either). Clearly, that’s really, really hard.

The good news is that, evidently, the closer we can come to accepting our ignorance and appreciating its implications, no matter how far away at the moment we are from doing so, the easier it becomes and perhaps the happier we and those we touch could be. The ups and downs of life are easier to take if you can surf over and around them than if you try to ignore them or plow your way through them.

What’s the social implication of all this?

In a world in which knowledge is imperfect, in which we don’t know all that is happening around us now or anything at all about what will happen in the future, mistakes are unavoidable. I believe then that in our personal ethics it would be good to be as understanding and forgiving of errors as we can—both for ourselves and others. But self-improvement is one thing; perfectionism on a social scale is a whole different ball game.

In a social context it would be good to live according to a set of rules and norms that tries to take into account the absence of certainty and the inevitability of error, in order to minimize their harmful consequences—the rules of the game that are the most likely to do the least harm. But, again, because our knowledge is imperfect, it’s impossible to know for certain exactly what those rules might be. Although political power—the initiation of physical violence—might be an effective way to solve some social problems if we had certain and perfect knowledge (assuming benevolent intent), political power has demonstrably been the most monstrous and inhuman form of social interaction when used by imperfect people acting under the presumption of certainty.

An imperfect world disappoints, but violence in the pursuit of perfection brings tragedy.

(For further thoughts on the significance of imperfection and perfection, see this earlier column of mine.)

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.