We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are – Anais Nin
Having just passed through an election, plus anticipating the Presidential Election a year from now – and also facing the current situation in the Middle East – I am once again reminded about the reality of clashing views and realities. A perfect time to reflect on competing truth claims and clashing perspectives.
Here’s my view (or part of my view): we see the world through a lens – through many lenses, actually. We believe that what we see is the “truth” – even though scientists tell us that the table we see and feel as solid is not. Here are a few samples of bias at work, from Wikipedia:
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.
Cultural bias is the phenomenon of interpreting and judging phenomena by standards inherent to one’s own culture, also known as the knew-it-all-along phenomenon..
Hindsight bias, or creeping determinism, refers to the common tendency for people to perceive events that have already occurred as having been more predictable than they actually were before the events took place.
A self–serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem, or the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favorable manner.
The conviction that there are multiple truths – and no one Truth – has not always been popular. It is associated with what we now call postmodernism. Recognized as a late-20th century philosophical and cultural movement, postmodernism emerged in reaction to the certainty of the scientific perspective, and to the absolute faith in the power of reason. What has emerged is a growing recognition of the subjective and relative nature of our views of reality: you have your truth and I have mine. We see things through our own lenses, shaped by many forces (culture, race and ethnicity, religion, historical period, and from a more psychological perspective, our own experience, family history, personality style, etc.).
On an individual level, someone who views the world through a postmodern lens (I’ll come back to that phrasing later) can appreciate diversity and multiple truths. So in a political context, those with postmodern leanings are passionate about the rights of those who have been oppressed or marginalized in society. In a therapeutic context, postmodern counselors may be particularly sensitive to the experience of those whose “truth” has gone unrecognized or whose voice has been silenced.
One of my favorite ways of making room for different individual lenses on life and reality is the Enneagram. Understanding my own Enneagram pattern, and the different styles of those around me, has made a huge difference in my ability to be less reactive and more compassionate. In my work, I have found it easier to appreciate perspectives that are very different from my own, and to respond more effectively. When clients are also interested in exploring their own patterns of interpretation, their own priorities and motivations, they develop more self-awareness, more capacity for choice in their responses, and more understanding in their relationships. “Oh! You see it that way?!”
So our preferred political candidates may, among other things, have some characteristics that are more compatible with our own personality leanings! If I tend to have a more mental/cognitive flavor, I may favor a candidate with a similar style. If I am more gut-based and respect powerful energy that can match my own (or represent what I wish I had), I may have more respect for candidates with that capacity. If I am more of a heart and feeling type, my attention may be more drawn to those who share this orientation. This is obviously over-simplistic, and there are many other forces at work, but I hope the possibilities are glimpsed.
Let’s shift to a more collective view. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist whose work has focused on the psychology of morality, has developed a theory of “moral foundations.” He suggests there are at least six innate moral foundations which are the basis of different cultural moralities (like the tongue has six different taste receptors): care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. These basic human orientations, he says, not only shape moral orientations on a cultural level, but also explain political differences. In his view, liberals are more oriented towards the care and fairness “flavors” while conservatives favor all five more equally. Interesting theory. Differences in perspective and preference.
From some religious and spiritual perspectives, the hope is that some day, in this life or after, we will know Truth. St. Paul says “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face….” (1 Corinthians 13:12). On the other hand, some firmly believe that we can see and know truth now, without limits or distortions, either because of a text that transmits knowledge from a revered source or because of some powerful direct experience. (If we take a developmental point of view, these perspectives are typical of stages prior to the postmodern, in which the guiding principle is conformity with a group, or an absolute morality – sometimes described as a “conventional” orientation.)
It is crucial for us to acknowledge that the postmodern lens is by no means universal or even widespread, but remains a minority view at this historical point. Is it possible that there may be “higher,” “deeper” truths? Can those of us in the helping professions open our minds and hearts beyond our own point of view to meet those who bring different convictions when they come to us for support and help?
To return to an earlier comment, what the postmodern perspective usually fails to see is that it too is a perspective, a lens. Let’s consider the possibility that the way we look at “reality” may be unfolding on a larger cultural/historical level, similar to the ways we see development on an individual level. Of course, some will argue vehemently that a developmental lens only applies through adolescence, and that we can’t make any generalizations through adulthood. I talk about this at more length in my book on The Interplay of Psychology and Spirituality.
Postmodernism does make judgments: it isn’t open to all views. The embrace of diverse points of view in postmodernism typically stops short of embracing the rational scientifically-oriented perspective that it is reacting against – an orientation that is still widespread on the planet. Likewise there tends to be a significant amount of criticism of the more conventional, authority-oriented viewpoint that is also prevalent in the world, whether we view that as parallel to a phase in individual development or as a different moral foundation (more oriented towards principles of loyalty and authority), in line with Haidt’s view.
When we consider the possibility that the postmodern, diversity-oriented lens is just that – a lens – then we open ourselves to more questions:
What might unfold beyond that, in terms of human potential? Might we envision a capacity to honor the radical appreciation of different perspectives AND to refrain from throwing all deep values and principles out the window? Might there also be a deeper, wider perspective from which it is possible to honor some truths as more compelling and powerful than others (without harsh judgment)? Might we also develop an ability to understand and relate to all perspectives as part of the human journey, bringing greater compassion and skillfulness to those orientations that postmodernists now judge with impatience?
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.