Other People October 2019

A core value that people have to decide upon is whether or not they feel they know best for other people. It is so tempting for all of us to conclude that our determinations and convictions about the world are the correct ones. Because rationalization and lived experience are so present in our thinking, it is almost impossible to truly step outside of ourselves and consider whether our world view is accurate. Because the concept of a world of billions of people is highly complex, and our brains are relatively limited in bandwidth by comparison, it seems highly unlikely that any one person could possess a unifying concept of understanding of humanity.

Because of this, it seems highly unlikely that any values system which implicates deciding things for other people can hold water over the long term. I’ve been shocked by the complex and opaque world of the opinions, values, beliefs and lived experiences of my immediate family. Let alone countless others who grew up in my proximity but who I did not share the majority of my experiences with. I can’t fathom the combination of things these people have lived and perceived. It is a very thin line to walk holding values closely without extending their application to other people. I think it’s valid to have any values you like, as long as it doesn’t impact others.

We should be the most careful and considered with the values we have about how it is and is not appropriate to interact with others. The challenge is that we spend very little time arguing the obvious ones (I think everyone agrees that murder is bad, generally speaking, and to be avoided). Anything we believe, and especially anything that we put into action on the basis of the beliefs we have, should very carefully take into consideration the impact it could have on others. What might be righteous for us, could be perceived as an act of violence by another. And those perspectives, while diametrically opposed, can also be equally valid perspectives. That’s why navigating values conflict is so hard, and so often regresses into base violence.

Instead of continuing down what feels like a political argument for libertarianism, let’s instead consider whether there are things that can be done to account for this kind of bias. The goal is to reduce the violence that others perceive in our actions by increasing our awareness of how our values are turning into actions. People (at least practical ones) don’t tend to view opinions as violence, but they very much consider actions formed and acted upon to be viewed through the lens of the values that led to them. Often violent criminals feel that their violence is justified. In rare cases, that might even be true. The challenge is always to be fully aware and restrained.

Keeping in mind that the definition of violence accounts for physical and non-physical violence. It’s more or less anything intended to hurt or destroy. You can see how through this lens, much of social life is really a sort of meta proxy surrogate (wow, let’s unpack that one) of violence. Meta, because it isn’t directly violence but rather posturing and signaling about violence. Proxy, because often we’re carrying out violence on behalf of some kind of identity (ie. feminism, Make American Great Again, go Leafs go). And surrogate, because the subject often isn’t us (ie. political leaders or athletes are often the subject of fierce non-physical violence).

It seems like one possible way to disarm a conflict would be to ask someone what you (or whatever you represent) has done in the past to make the other party perceive violent intent. It seems like this would be a good way to tease out values based conflict. Because people rarely act with violent intent, and rather seek to satisfy one or many desires and values motivated needs, we could determine how the other party viewed us differently. Intent could be established, understood and explored. It still requires this rare and challenging skill though, of being able to step outside of the direct violence of interaction and consider each other’s view.

Last, I think there is still a strong argument for the basis of leadership responsibility to be divided among those who consider these issues most core. There is an abundance of people willing to step up and make decisions for other people. These people are often the least aware of anyone of the impact the decisions they are making have on other people. We should instead seek out and vaunt anyone willing to do the hard work of considering how their actions could be perceived as violence and minimizing the impact they have on other people. It goes against a great deal of our own ego benefitting behavior to attempt to do less for others. But often doing less for others, or benefiting others in directly selfish ways, can be less violent than trying to help but instead creating dependence. Everyone’s goal should be to enable people to lift themselves up, rather than to do the lifting yourself (and take credit for the eventual heights).

And people are (almost) always capable of lifting themselves up, providing the right unblocking. The violence therefore is actually often found in the blocking, rather than in the lack of action. You have to take your foot off a person’s throat in order for them to start breathing again. I worry that our current politics focuses on providing an alternative means of breathing. It is concerning how much time people spend with politics, as though one scapegoat can really materially impact someone’s quality of life. The machine is too big to be meaningfully led by a single person. It requires extensive buy-in and careful effort from every member in order to meaningfully work. Most people who do the actual work aren’t elected, and generally don’t get much recognition. It is strange how much stock people place in leadership (as opposed to individual “leaders” who come and go over time). Perhaps we should place more faith in ourselves instead.