Discover more from The Medicine of Understanding
The Absurdity of Being Right.
Why we have conflict.
To argue to be the most right is to cross a desert to be the most alone; once you get there, there is no one left to validate your claim.
We are, in a time of madness.
I am sitting in a coffee shop on a busy street in my leafy suburb in Western Australia. We are in the southern hemisphere and by this, heading steadily towards what promises to be a very hot summer, perhaps even the hottest ever on record. But for now, green trees line the street and the fruit trees in the gardens are in full bloom. A biting cold front has blown in from the Antarctic adding a nagging bluster and chill to the wind. All these signs make it easy to forget I live in a desert.
I am reminded how one simply cannot trust the absolute veracity of one’s own immediate and self-confirming reality.
Outside the birds are singing, steady traffic is milling by and people are walking their dogs. Inside the small café, my neighbours are sipping their cappuccinos, making the very smallest of small talk, and the body language of the barista mirrors the laid-back R&B track playing over the sound system. None of these signs give any credence to the growing reality that we are fiddling to, as our world continues to burn.
The absurdity is not lost on me.
I am forced to reflect that truth is a localised approximation of reality relative to our perspective, our access to a wider context and our degree of applied discernment.
Super Trump Cards.
I am reminded of a game we used to play as kids; we called them “Super Trump Cards”. We would get packs of trading cards—about racing cars, or fighter jets, baseball players or superheroes—and we would engage in un-orchestrated games of comparison, ‘trumping’ each other with the stats and merits of the real-world objects the cards we held were supposed to represent. There was no end to this game per se, there were no precise rules; the entire premise was absurd. We never cared overly for fighter jets or racing cars, but the game became a sort of meta-game about vicariously flexing power abstracted through the apparent objective values printed on the cards. Often, as youngsters, we did not even remotely understand what some of the technical stats even meant.
Through this abstract prism, players would be able to edify a form of social standing among their peers for having been able to win a round, against a known social heavyweight in the group or one of the said social heavyweights would be able to underscore their status to the group.
The game often involved some arbitrary shootout between two categories belonging to two abstract things which had little or no bearing on our lives and which were often not actually fairly comparable to each other. It was a showcase of absurdity.
Absurdity is not just when something irrational is occurring, but rather when those engaged in the premise of the irrational framing are partially or fully aware of the incongruities and remain both complicit and invested.
To provide some context to the absurdity, consider the case of the pack depicting military aircraft, where the cards were American and the stats of each aircraft tabled in imperial values. This meant that as children growing up with the metric system with no military or engineering knowledge between us, we had no ability to objectively quantify or appreciate the enumerated metrics per card about range, top speed, wing span, armaments and engine capacities. In addition, the manufacturers of the cards were not faithful custodians of the subject matter or specialists themselves, and the cards would carelessly span aircraft manufactured over decades for completely different applications in combat, surveillance, and support. In our ignorance we construed lines of correlation, reason and comparison that had nothing to do with anything.
To further confuse matters, there was rarely consensus, among players or the onlookers. What added to the absurdity, was that in the event of a contested outcome, the kids watching would devolve into groups of support and dissent that had no bearing on the objective metrics of the cards played, and everything to do with implications of social dynamics and group loyalty. We had no idea how much our estimation of certain cards was informed by how cool the nickname of the aircraft was or how visually appealing it seemed to a nine-year-old. No self-respecting player is going to hold their ground against cards with names like “Viper” and “Phantom” when holding a card that reads “Liberty Beechcraft” or “Otter”.
Another aspect of the cards which the players were never directly aware of, but which the manufacturers undoubtedly counted on, was the ‘rock-paper-scissors’ nature of the cards. There was never an unequivocal winning card and there never could be an absolute winner. Rock can beat scissors, scissors can beat paper, but paper can beat rock. This, plus the orthogonal metrics and asymmetric details of the race cars or military aircraft ensured dozens of permutations and lent itself to the subjective and selective nature of arbitration and challenge during the games and disagreements.
The irony is of course that this very dynamic was in fact what made the game perennially compelling. Somehow we were able to play mock status games, subtly construing what was supposed to be objective facts into arguments of convenience.
This is not unlike how I feel about Academic philosophy and social media politics—vicarious to the second or third degree—complete abstraction in one sense and completely emotionally personal in another, and almost never in the order that might actually matter.
Consider for a moment your own intuitions and emotions about the conflict in Gaza, or in Ukraine, or in the run-up to the US Elections, or to any emotionally or politically charged issue such as COVID, over which people felt drawn into camps of sentiment and common value. And then notice how naturally you perceive the other group in the other camp, including their arguments, their actions, prior and current, and their assumed motives. They invariably seem disingenuous, ignorant and morally bankrupt. And then remind yourself that as sane and humanistic as your view is, someone who considers themselves at least as moral and reasonable as you, has the exact opposite view, to the same level of conviction.
All of human tragedy is due to this peculiarity of psychology whereby we are built to care too much and not enough at the same time and very rarely the right way around, and how we are ever so certain our perspective is both right and complete or at the very least justified. We miraculously remain intransigent about what would matter if we knew better and if we could be more honest with ourselves. Intransigence is not when you do not know something, but when you remain ignorant of something because to do so aligns with your interests.
With this absurdity in mind, I reflect on the integrity of the insulated bubble of my direct experience, sitting here in the café, with a nervous system that is free to be calm, sipping a coffee, particularly how it is compromised by the juxtaposition of this banal reality with the one going on just outside my immediate frame of experience.
Here, now, by all observable account, it is as cold as any winter’s day, the street is as verdant as the sub-tropical climes I grew up in, the world is at peace, and people are free to utterly ignore each other, fearing no threat or risk. Here everyone is free to invest or squander their Maslowian bandwidth as they please.
My adjacent, virtual world of social media, is equally compartmentalised—a woman with pink hair, in combat fatigues and a rifle sobbing into a camera, somewhere in Ukraine. Her raw emotion saying what her words cannot, as she finds some form of catharsis in the arms of unrestrained lamentation. My social feeds from strangers and friends alike, awash with firm opinions and strident condemnations of this group or that, of this stance or that, of this injustice or that, interspersed by sponsored ads for gut health, mobile games, and a montage of dogs walking humorously set to the music of the 1979 pop hit “Funky Town”—This is a faithful account of my social media feeds as I write this—Fiction could not be this absurd.
The inanity of a packet of bright shiny content sitting (in a way that no longer triggers our sense of irony), right alongside a politically charged piece about Israel and Gaza. Invariably any content touching on grievous conflict or human tragedy is almost without exception, focussed more on which side of the American political divide carries the scapegoat’s share of moral culpability, than on the actual impact on human beings suffering lives we could not imagine enduring for a day. Hell is not an endless unavoidable suffering. Hell is a meaningless suffering that could be lessened, happening comically adjacent to idle leisure and emotional capture by comparatively trivial concerns.
On the one hand, we care too much about things that have trivial consequences and on the other too little about things that compromise the liberties and human rights of others, things we would want if we stood in their shoes, and which we take for granted. And all of politics is the game of proclaiming with utter conviction, which is which. Not unlike the game of trading cards, in which we convince ourselves and the audience of the relative merits of ‘this over that’, or ‘these over those’. These are all decisions that are made entirely on a basis of evaluation which is selective, subjective and convenient to our desired feeling or status.
This is not meant as a judgement or criticism. We are human and we didn’t get ourselves here. But we need to get ourselves out of it.
The fact is that the alternative is also inconceivable.
We are so overwhelmed with the amount of chaos, animus, dysfunction and injustice, the scale of which far exceeds our means to address and the complexity of which far exceeds our ability to make wise decisions on, even if we had the means.
In simplest terms, we don’t know how to cope with overwhelm, because overwhelm by definition implies that which is beyond our means to process or manage.
Let us take a look at how we develop our strategies to cope with powerlessness as children.
Coping with Powerlessness.
There was a student of Sigmund Freud, a German woman called Karen Horney. To help us take Horney more seriously it helps to know that Horney later distanced herself from Freud, and questioned and challenged some of his theories, especially around his assertion that psychoanalysis was always sexually orientated.
Of particular interest to us however, and arguably among the most valuable of Horney's contributions to psychology was her theory of neurosis, which was very different from Freud and her other contemporaries: which included a categorisation of needs, and coping strategies.
At the risk of grossly over-simplifying Horney’s work, the premise is that infants, as they grow up, have three coping mechanisms or strategies by which they manage power dynamics in relationships, to get their needs met. This includes how they cope with the prospects of powerlessness that they encounter.
According to Horney, the three strategies are: Comply, Express Power, or Withdraw—in that order. That is to say, the child, as a strategy to achieve its needs will be compliant towards the parents or carer, failing which they express power through tantrum or other assertive means, or finally, they will withdraw. physically or emotionally.
I have sat with the implications of these strategies and noticed a few interesting things:
Firstly I think Horney had too narrow a notion and got part of her own insight in the wrong order. My argument is that children cannot resort to the first coping strategy of complying first, nor do they. Children first express themselves through crying, screaming, and kicking. I believe this is the case because they cannot comply because they lack the psychological development which would allow them to do so, which we call Theory of Mind.
Secondly, I don’t believe these three strategies ever give way to others as we grow up, they simply evolve into more complex forms of the same thing.
Thirdly I don’t believe the anxieties for which these strategies are applicable have only to do with having or needs met. They seem equally evident in all ways in which we are confronted with a sense of powerlessness.
If we map this onto the way we behave towards each other and on social media, it tracks. Here is an example of how we employ these strategies in no particular order:
Strategy 1: For some, their default reaction is a form of pseudo-expression of Compliance or alignment: Thoughts and Prayers, acclaiming which side they comply with.
Strategy 2: For others the default reaction is a form of pseudo Expression of Power by posting their condemnation, and their opinions and by earmarking the virtual object of their outrage. An escalation of this is verbal violence and aggression online, to outright acts of violence and aggression in the world.
The third strategy is Withdrawal, the general state of apathy or distraction we default to when we do not believe we can authentically invest in strategy 1 or 2.
When issues are binary, as most contentious political issues are, strategies 1 and 2 are employed respectively; we empathise with this side while condemning that, or vice versa.
Here are some observations of conflict which is binary in nature.
Number One: The ones most quick to pick a side and weigh in with solidarity or condemnation or any upscaled version of that, who are always the most vocal and active on social media, are always the ones least aware of their lack of context and their respective ignorance of the asymmetry of their perspective and all its seemingly obvious moral weight and prudence.
Number Two: It is entirely possible for two sides in a conflict to both be guilty of separate and irreconcilable transgressions that do not justify either nor balance each other out.
Number Three: Two groups can both have well-founded cases for grievance, and the two grievances can be completely asymmetrical and orthogonal to each other. Trying to split the baby down the middle with our wisdom of Solomon, always harms the baby and one of the plaintiffs, whereas the second plaintiff is less concerned about this form of loss and may even derive some pleasure from the other’s injury.
Number Four: Each act of violence and oppression done out of ignorance and self-righteousness simply lays the foundation for future suffering and feeds the appetite for retribution and redress. This includes the indelicate way we apportion blanket innocence and guilt on any two sides respectively in any conflict: in politics, in relationships or in Gaza.
Number Five: In the same way, each indelicate volley of opinion and moral judgement we pass which lacks deeper understanding and compassion simply adds fuel to a fire that is already out of control. That is not to say we are insane to hold our sense of what we care about, only that without understanding the related complexity and nuance, we risk saying something incendiary and uninformed, regardless of how simple the issue seems to us.
and those that ran to help with their placards and pitchforks did not understand that what they brought, was only more fuel for the hungry flames, or kindling for new fires.
Number Six: Furthermore no two groups in conflict ever contemplate the harms their choices have on either their own cause or on the ‘other’, choices that they would find unforgivable if the shoe was on the other foot.
Number Seven: And then, it remains perennially true that no two ardent camps of public sentiment ever arrive at their mistrusts dishonestly, nor ever comprehend that the moral weight of their claim might be completely orthogonal to the other.
Number Eight: Almost always when good people harm other good people it is inadvertent. We are oblivious both to what we are doing and that we are doing it.
Critical reasoning is a skill as much as it is a discipline.
The Wisdom of Being Less Certain.
Through all of this observation lies a common thread.
Unwittingly, we are all participants in a complex 'game,' one that reaches beyond the cards on the table or the unwritten moral codes we cite as justifications for our righteousness, our compromises and our apathies. This 'game' rarely plays out on merits we can easily quantify or rationalise. Instead, just like the trading cards, it serves as a conduit for our unexamined biases, alliances, and social dynamics, often masking the deeper, more troubling issues at hand, not the least of which is our lack of awareness that we are doing it.
Danny Kahneman said, “Not only are we blind to the obvious, but we are also blind to our blindness.”
As I sip my coffee in my privileged perspective of insulated bandwidth and security, it strikes me: We may think we are engaging with these different realities on their own terms, but in truth, we are so often merely projecting our own preconceptions onto a world that is far more interconnected—and consequential—than we are willing or ready to acknowledge.
Discernment is as much a choice to curiosity and temperance, an unwillingness to leap for confirmation and certainty as it is a capacity for perceiving more clearly. It is as much a reluctance to make rapid judgements as it is the ability to make better ones.
LETTER TO THE RIGHTEOUS Hatred towards an enemy is easy. Being clear on why you hate them, less so. Learning what they truly love, and still hating them is impossible.
I have been both remiss and reluctant in speaking into the conflict in Gaza, between Israel and Hamas. We desperately need wisdom and context to parse all of this and tease apart the asymmetry. I will be writing about this soon, to better explain not only what is going on from my perspective but also why the conflict is unresolvable given the asymmetry I keep referring to. The two human factions want completely different things and are motivated completely differently, and the media, and armchair opinion mongers, are as always oversimplifying the matter, reducing it into the classic and tragically outdated “Right-Wrong”, “Good-Bad” dichotomy. Media are responsible but not entirely to blame since they only feed us what they know we will eat.
I will write more on this soon; it is delicate and it deserves my most coherent effort.
Suffice it to say, that any form of political or religious ideology that subscribes to, or condones the attacking of civilians, be that a Western nation committing drone strikes or Hamas beheading children, is equally antithetical to the kind of evolution of reasoning and practice of constraint that is conducive to the survival or flourishing of our species, and I am against it. Anyone who is celebrating the harm done to innocents on either side of the conflict, of which both tragically exist in Palestine and Israel today, is unwell and unfit to collaborate with meaningfully in the effort to engineer a better future for the human race. Anyone proudly indifferent to the suffering of other humans is someone who is not yet ready to participate meaningfully in society as an adult.
This is the symptom of an illness that will spread to every country and begin to dominate every level of social and political exchange. There are no national policies or leaders remotely capable of dealing with global crises.
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are."
Unfortunately, the only cure for apathy is discomfort, and the only cure for extreme apathy is extreme discomfort. The discomfort will keep growing globally, in the form of extreme weather, social and economic dysfunction, compromises to food security, earthquakes, diseases and conflict until enough people care enough to stop wishing it would go away or attributing it to “them” or “they”.
We are all someone else’s “they”.