Rage Against the Machinery

In light of IDAPB, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and feelings about the intersection of people and systemic oppression.

They are somewhat complicated.

I myself have been an “instrument of the machine” (and still unavoidably play some part within it), as we have each likely been in big and small ways. In recent years I have become much more conscious of the world around me, not the least of which including a burgeoning understanding of human psychology and social systems. I simultaneously feel culpable for supporting oppression as I have prior to this awareness (and do not simply absolve myself ethically), yet fully understand the deterministic nature of the universe and its impact on me.

This is to say that in a quantum mechanics kind of sense, I am merely a product of my life situation and experiences (and other “random” events). Yet, I take on the onus, not because I believe that myself or anyone else can exist outside of cause and effect by sheer will or completely self-determined moral character, but because it is practical to do so from the perspective of human experience.

It’s a practical matter.

It is practical in that it guides my thoughts and actions toward ethical self-improvement and self-awareness: a mindset of ethical responsibility. If I’m not invested in the experience of others with respect to my actions, but only the defense of my own character, then by definition defense of my character is all I will accomplish. I will not change my character, nor the experience of the other person.

It is also practical in that it offers the greatest possibility of communication and restoration. The process doesn’t need to be about figuring out who’s to blame, explaining away and justifying (rationalizing), in an effort of returning to status quo. Instead, I can take responsibility for my actions (even if I feel that there was no way I could have done differently given what I knew at that moment), have empathy for the other person’s experience with respect to my actions (regardless of my experience or good intentions), and cooperatively strategize ways of avoiding unnecessary hurt. If needed, you can explain what you’re doing and ask for reciprocation. The best way to ask for it is by simultaneously showing that you’re willing to do it. Focus your efforts on those who are willing to reciprocate because it needs to become reciprocal in the long term for progress to be sustained; It’s also part of maintaining healthy boundaries.

UR doing eet wrong!!1!

This stands in stark contrast to the now typical, violent defensiveness exemplified by people trying to externalize responsibility, defend their character (ego) and avoid any resolutions which require personal effort, self-evaluation or change. I’ve seen many people (including myself in many past and even recent occasions) react to another’s expressions of experience and feelings, with anger and dismissal. The argument is often that they could not have done any differently (which as a matter of determinism may actually be true). “I couldn’t have known that my actions would hurt you, therefore it’s not my fault, therefore I’m not a bad person, therefore you should not be feeling that way towards me” (so stop feeling that way or you’ll be to blame for this continued conflict). It is a desperate act of self-preservation driven by the conscious or subconscious idea that others are out to destroy your character. You might want to investigate your own life experience to see where this pattern has come from.

Not just for lovebirds.

It should be obvious that this relates to interpersonal relationships. These words probably conjure up thoughts of happy (or not so happy) romantically involved partners, but I want to stretch that definition a bit. As I’ve alluded to above, I view relatively simple human interactions expanding into complex social systems. The product of this effect is called an emergence. To affect the complex system you need to somehow affect the individuals and their basic interactions. I believe that this failure to resolve rather than blame is one of the basic units of interaction that create or at least support structures of oppression within society.

Fallacy? How Humerous

There is a kind of is-ought fallacy that says, “Because I will not always be able to avoid offending or hurting you, I can not be held to such a standard of behaviour. Therefore your expectations are unreasonable”. Or in other terms, “I am this way, so you ought not to ask for me to change.

Now, taking this idea of deterministic social behaviour and applying it to other people I see the enactors of oppressive behaviour in a similar light. They are absolutely the products of their situation and experiences as much as I am. That is to say that in a given snap-shot in time, they could not have been anything other than exactly what they were at that moment, given their collective experiences and situation. This is not an ideological justification that it ought to be this way, but a mechanical explanation of why it is this way. In this light I simultaneously have a kind of empathy (though more like sadness and frustration at the unfortunate reality), and yet unwaveringly denounce their actions given not only the immediate emotional pain they cause, but also for their part in the social mechanism at large.

A wrench in the gears.

I do this because I perceive myself as a potential cause that may be able to affect them. Sometimes do this by holding their feet to the fire. Other times I try to be a friend and gradually influence them. It depends an their apparent willingness to self-evaluate.

I don’t wholly demonize anyone, since it doesn’t make sense from my perspective. However, there are limits to the personal effort I’m willing to put into specific scenarios, or with specific individuals. My emotional resources are limited, as is my ability to carry out my own philosophy in this regard (though I continue to work at growing that capacity). I have very little patience when I perceive that someone is hurting someone else, either directly with words and actions, or with harmful ideologies that they are presenting as ideal or as normal (and therefore ideal: another is-ought). I am far from perfect (I hope that my ability to see this is not a surprise to anyone). More often than is likely obvious, my anger is motivated by empathy for others, though this doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for all of these actions. Let me not commit my own fallacy.

Hey, I’m a pass-a-fist!

As an aside, in a broader political sense I am also not necessarily advocating for pacifism since the collective mentality borne out of situation and experience (including systemic dogma) may be so fixed and on such a large scale as to be untouchable by any practical means of persuasion. Sometimes there are creative strategies that can be attempted beyond this point, but if the system becomes tyrannical enough, sometimes it is the only way. We who have comfortable lives can be easily prodded into gasps, jaw drops, and “oh dear”s when told about things like the Black Panthers or riots in the street and totally miss the oppression that instigated it. It wasn’t just buses and drinking fountains, nor was it MLK and his cheek-turning philosophy that did all the work (though he certainly had an impact). That’s another topic for another day.

The burden of love.

It seems to me that the most meaningful and practical understanding of reality sometimes takes a mental flexibility that stretches us beyond our original programming. I look at it as the joy of figuring things out. Actively seek out accurate observations. Be determined to build ideology that’s congruent with those observations regardless of personal cost and effort, up to your capacity. Be willing to un-learn your assumptions about your own motivations and those of the people around you. Strive to be aware of your own psychology: your automated emotional reaction to people and ideas. This can be simultaneously very difficult, but also very rewarding. Not only for you personally, but for the kind of world you will be fostering around you.

I leave you with this brilliant quip by Tim Widowfield over on Vrider:

Empathy is about seeing things from another person’s perspective, not imagining yourself in somebody else’s situation. The former is the first step to understanding others; the latter is a kind of naive narcissism that does more harm than good.

Cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics

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Posted on March 15, 2012, in Personal, Science and Skepticism, Social. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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