2013-11-05

Personal Lens

I. Everyone Plays The Hero Of Their Own Story
To say that people are fundamentally self-interested would be an understatement. Everything anyone knows about life, the universe, and everything comes from their own inner world, their own sense of consciousness. Even the most altruistic among us can see life only from their own point of view.

A robust sense of empathy enables us to imagine what someone else might feel in response to the actions of another person. Really, this is a bit of a ruse. When we experience empathy, we're not imagining what the other person feels, we're imagining how we ourselves would feel, were we placed in a similar set of circumstances. Empathy is a noble lie. We're not feeling for others, we're feeling for ourselves.

We should keep this in mind when someone rubs us the wrong way. It's tempting to suggest that another person is selfish; it's tempting to suggest that the other person ought to pay more attention to our own point of view instead. It's tempting to insist on having our way, and it is especially tempting to convince ourselves that the other person is, on some level, a knave.

No, those "other people" are most assuredly not knaves. Rather, they are exactly like you and I. They are self-interested individuals who are cast in the leading role of their own private, universal movie. In their movie, you're the knave.

We can all appreciate this idea conceptually. If I end the blog post here, we'll all pat ourselves on the back for having had this clarifying discussion about mutual understanding.

II. Two Against One Isn't A Fair Fight
The real problem occurs when two or more people cast the same third person as the primary knave. I'm not talking about times when a conflict is definitely caused by one person and misery is felt by more than one other. I'm talking about situations in which conflict arises innocently - a genuine misunderstanding, if you will. These situations are inevitable, and we all encounter them quite frequently.

The power of a group is the power of social alienation. It certainly makes Jones and Smith both better off if they manage to make Wilson a scapegoat for all the recent conflict. But where does that leave Wilson? Wilson can attempt to reason with the two of them, but in the words of Geddy Lee, "Two against one isn't a fair fight." In other words, if you're out-voted, it simply doesn't matter how right you are.

III. Patience With Knaves
The solution here should be somewhat straight-forward. It is pretty important to feel empathy for others and to place oneself in their shoes. It is all the more important to do so when it's two-against-one, and you're one of the two. The reason it's so important is because a total defeat of the one who is currently cast as a knave will poison the well in all future conflicts.

If Smith and Jones gang up on Wilson today, what happens tomorrow, when Smith and Wilson happen to object to the behavior of Jones? Jones goes into it expecting everyone to be reasonable, because he doesn't realize that he treated Wilson unfairly. Smith smugly supposes he is right all the time, because he has now been right in two recent conflicts. Wilson, though, knows what it's like to be defeated.

Wilson, having been corrupted by mistreatment in an earlier conflict will simply take what he can get from Jones. Jones thus learns his lesson: he took what he could get from Wilson; he watched Smith and Wilson take what they could get from him. When it's Smith's turn, the entire group relationship will be irreconcilably destroyed.

Destroyed, that is, unless the individuals all choose to take it upon themselves to treat each other fairly and empathetically in all scenarios.

IV. Conclusion
I haven't written anything that anyone didn't already know. Sometimes, though, it pays to state the obvious. We might always determine to make Wilson a scapegoat, but never forget this: Wilson is the lead role in the movie of his life. You wouldn't want him to tell his story as a persecution narrative. You wouldn't want to poison the well.

The next time you're having a group conflict, I challenge you to bend over backwards to see things from the point of view of the knave. You might surprise yourself at what you see.