The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, July 26, 2014
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

I’m not always the most politically correct guy on the block, admittedly. I don’t go around calling people names, and I do generally believe in the principal of human equality. But I don’t instantly buy into every particular complaint regarding prejudice, injury or unfair treatment to alleged victims who are gay, female, persons of color, or members of a certain religious heritage. (E.g. I didn’t automatically jump on the liberal bandwagon for Treyvon Martin; I felt that Martin’s tragic death was a rather nuanced situation, one not entirely free from prejudice, but not entirely driven by it either.)

I’m even more wary when such claims are based on the alleged “subconscious intent” of the alleged oppressor (who is usually a white male, just like me — or sometimes ALL privileged white men are cast as the “oppressor class”). I.e., that I’m a racist or anti-feminist or gay-basher or anti-Semitic without even knowing it. Human beings come in all shapes and sizes, and some humans are known to take historical wrongs and use them to drum up exaggerated or distorted tales of personal exploitation, so as to claim attention and perhaps money from their accused oppressors.

On the other hand, I will admit that I did grow up and developed my present ways of thinking under social circumstances that contained many misunderstandings and unhealthy or fearful presumptions regarding minorities, women and gays. Even though I try to be open-minded, even though I try to take each individual that I deal with one-at-a-time regardless of what they look like or act like or profess to believe, I certainly was subject to biases and presumptions about people who aren’t like me. Over the years I have become more and more aware of these biases, and have tried to eliminate them; but I can’t be sure that I have fully rooted them up.

I’ve noticed that there are various white, privileged men of my age group who consider themselves “enlightened” in this regard, and therefore go out of their way to compensate for their own corruptions. They seem to accept the theory espoused by some activists that they themselves are incapable of seeing the truth about their attitudes and actions towards those not like them; so they will almost instantly defer to even the slightest hint that they are being “regressive” in some fashion. I even know one or two “truly sensitive” fellows like this.

But to be honest, I’m not “truly sensitive” myself, not by modern progressive liberal standards. I don’t accept that I should instantly yield to any claim or implication from a woman, a person of color, a gay person, or someone of a particular heritage or other distinction, that I am being insensitive to them. This holds whether the accusation is made to me personally, or to a group that I may be part of, e.g. aging privileged white males. Actually, I’ve been pretty lucky in my life – I haven’t had many personal accusations of insensitivity or racist bias. But by the same coin, I’m not lauded for my ‘exceptional sensitivity’ either.

Perhaps the difference between the fellow who is “exceptionally sensitive” and myself is that I still make my own decisions about whether I am right or wrong about my own potential prejudices. I have faith that I CAN identify any defects in my thinking; perhaps not always instantly, but usually before I would do any harm or render any insult to another. I don’t accept that just because I’m an older straight white guy who never was poor, that I can’t identify, understand and sympathize with the legitimate concerns from those who too often are treated unfairly. I don’t agree that I’m implicitly a racist.

My confidence in myself – along with my recognition that I need to be ready at all times to question and second-guess my immediate impressions, that I need to be able to chide myself and later admit that I was wrong — is based on the notion of “adaptive optics”.

As a science guy, I keep up a bit with our overall efforts to peer into the heavens and learn more about the cosmos. Since the days of Galileo, the telescope has helped human-kind to learn much about “what’s out there” beyond our tiny little niche in the universe. Humans have built increasingly bigger and more powerful telescopes using not only visible light but many invisible forms of radiation to learn about the heavens. But no matter how big we built our eyes on the sky, they have always been subject to what our atmosphere lets them see. Cloudy nights will obviously cancel an astronomy event, and pollution, moisture and background lighting is increasingly making the atmosphere more of a problem for high-precision astronomy.

But in the past 50 years, humanity learned how to use rockets to put sophisticated instruments and objects into space, including telescopes themselves. Space-based telescopes obviously don’t have to worry about clouds or distortions from humidity, winds, dust, pollution, etc. Thus we built and launched various forms of high-capacity space observation satellites, including the celebrated Hubble. We now have in the works a next-generation space telescope called the James Webb observatory, taking up where Hubble leaves off.

So what does this all have to do with the prejudices of the human brain? Well, here’s the analogy – let’s think of a telescope akin to the way that we observe other people and groups. Just as a telescope cannot perfectly see every star or planet or comet or galaxy out there because of humidity and dust and pollution, our minds are also given blurred and sometimes inaccurate views of other people. If we follow this analogy, then perhaps some of us need “telescopes in the sky” to help us get beyond the inner prejudices and fears and past experiences that can blur our understanding of others. Obviously, my “sensitive” friend looks to the “victim class spokespersons” as his own Hubble, his own way of getting accurate information about what lies beyond the fuzziness of his own inner psychological atmosphere.

Admittedly, there is some value to this — although it’s not guaranteed that self-appointed spokespersons for the exploited class are always being objective and are never acting primarily for their own financial or political enrichment. So, to take the astronomy analogy even further, in recent years there has been renewed interest in building ground-based telescope observatories. There are certain places on the earth in high mountain regions where a lot of pollution and humidity can be avoided. But not enough, really, to be as good as what you can get from the Hubble. So why waste money on new ground-based telescopes? Because, in recent years, advances in electronics, lasers, computers and optics have allowed ground telescopes to figure out how the atmosphere might be distorting their view at any time, and compensate for that.

Space-based telescopes are limited by the rockets needed to launch them; rockets are very dangerous and expensive, and can hold something about the size of a bus, at maximum. For the same money or less, you can build a much bigger telescope on earth, one that can gather much more light from a distant galaxy than a bus-sized telescope. And now, with adaptive optics, you can adjust your focus for how the atmosphere is bending your light rays.

Right now, a consortium of nations is building the Giant Magellan Telescope on a mountain in Chile. When this facility goes on line in 2020, it will be 10 times more powerful than the Hubble — thanks in large part to adaptive optics. And there are others like it being built in other places, including Hawaii.

Adaptive optics – it ain’t just for telescopes. To me, it’s a philosophy of life; i.e., that I can ultimately trust my thoughts about those unlike myself. It’s faith in myself, belief that I ultimately will get it right about those around me. BUT, it is also a warning and a duty, i.e. that my mind does NOT get things right automatically, that I need to remain open-minded, to listen, to learn, to question myself, to sometimes admit that I was wrong about someone or some other class of people. I AM subject to prejudices and mental distortions, and that never goes away. I will always need the “adaptive optics” of self-questioning, in order to be – well, I don’t claim that I’ll ever be a Buddha or a saint . . . but I hope that if anyone has reason to look back at me after I’m gone, they could say “even though very imperfect, he was a person of good faith”.

(Actually, we ALL may need adaptive mental optics; recent studies suggest that there is a genetic basis for prejudice and stereotyping. Those genes would likely NOT be unique to privileged white males. Working on our own personal prejudices would be better, IMHO, than back-and-forth accusations of prejudice and counter-prejudice, which our society seems to be engaging in more and more. Conservative commentators are getting quite good at hurling counter-racism charges back at liberal and minority groups on behalf of whites and males. I’d say that it would be better to seek the beam in one’s own eye versus the mote in your neighbor’s. “Adaptive mental optics” is basically looking for the beam, and trying to see around it.)

For now – back to the adaptive optics of life!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:02 am      

  1. Jim, I’m not at all sure I understand the analogy you are making in this post, mainly because the science you are talking about eludes me for some reason — likely because I understand so little of any kind of advanced science at this point in life.

    However, I do think I can speak to the “insensitive man” part of what you posted. It would seem to me that everyone is in some ways insensitive to how another person feels, experiences life, why that person reacts to things that happen in a particular way, etc.

    Simply put: While often an individual will empathize with another person, there will always be something missing in the empathy. And that missing part is simply the fact that, no matter how truly another parson may *want* to appreciate what another person experiences in life, the simple fact is that it’s impossible as only the person experiencing life lives it. That living of life is unique to the individual; no other individual, no matter how much that person may try, will be able to or can experience the exact same thing.

    Even in a situation where two people may experience the same “episode” (for want of a better term) of life at the same time, still the two individuals will experience something different, no matter how slight that experience is. Each person comes to an experience with his/her own peculiar “vision” of life.

    Thus, in some ways everyone is “insensitive” to every other person. Yet, there is always the aspect that in some ways another person may appreciate at least some aspect of that life. The greater the difference between people the greater will be the gap in understanding the experience. Thus, a woman will never be able to experience life from the standpoint of a man; a man will never be able to experience life from the standpoint of a woman; people from one culture will have great difficulty in appreciating life as an individual from another, totally different, culture, etc.

    The important thing, it seems to me, is to make an attempt at understanding the experiences of other people. While you may have your own particular set of difficulties with “insensitivity”, I sincerely doubt you could be addressed or considered “insensitive”. I know you to be a person who is open minded, willing to listen (if not agree) with another who has a different opinion and/or different experiences. When it comes to putting in some kind of order (of sorts) individuals who are insensitive, I would tend to think that you would belong close to the area that may be labeled “sensitive” to others, no matter how different from yourself.

    I think you need leave no apologies to anyone when it comes to being insensitive. You may not be at the highest level of what might be called “sensitive”, but you are close to that highest level. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 26, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

  2. While we would like to believe that we are open minded, in reality, none of us truly are. We can’t help but be disproportionately biased by events (or lack of events) that affected us personally. I would agree with you that we should not defer to other people to determine “the truth”, as other people have biases too.

    We tend to associate with people who are similar to us because it is frankly more comfortable to do so, They probably have had similar experiences as us and they reinforce our view of the world. But those who are different than us are perhaps our greatest teachers,

    [Thanks, Steve — very good point !! Jim G]

    Comment by Zreebs — August 27, 2014 @ 5:00 am

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