Grand Unified Theory of Marginalisation and Normalised Perceptions
This has been a major theme of a writing I’ve been working on and I’m still developing it. But essentially, I’m growing increasingly convinced that a number of major problems in society result from the fact that people have unconscious biases and are rarely given cause to question those biases.
I will probably need to start at the beginning. Humans are incapable of perfect perception. This actually begins at the most basic biological level: the human brain subconsciously discards or minimises signals it regards as irrelevant purely to enable concentration. If we perceived everything we experience, we would experience the world as incomprehensible chaos. There are too many details out there to keep track of. So the brain subconsciously discards ambient noise to allow us to focus on conversations, and so on.
And we do this at the conscious level, too. The world is simply too large and complex for us to focus on and remember all the details we consciously experience, so our memories prioritise ones we perceive as important, and we construct narratives linking our memories of the world in order to give ourselves some form of understanding of our experiences.
But those understandings simply won’t be perfect. They can’t be perfect. Models are intrinsically imperfect, and our narratives are a form of model. We’ve left out details for our models to function – which is fine in and of itself, as long as we recognise that we’re doing this. That we’ve left out details; that our models won’t always apply to reality.
The problem, of course, is that most people aren’t conscious of this. Most people don’t even realise that their perceptions don’t match what are around them, much less that their memories are imperfect. It’s well established by now, for example, that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable. There are a number of reasons for this, starting with the obvious fact that the mere act of thinking about a memory changes the memory. This means witnesses are often highly suggestible to motivated questioning, and there are a number of other consequences for our legal system that often result in highly unpleasant outcomes.
But the problem extends far beyond the legal system, to everyday interactions in nearly every possible form. The more general problem is simply this: People whose preferences and needs are normalised in society rarely have cause to question their behaviour and the assumptions that result from their experiences, or even to realise what they are doing. If people keep giving them the message that what they do is normal and healthy, they will continue to believe that what they do is normal and healthy.
I honestly suspect that this is where a rather large number of forms of marginalisation come from. To be clear, I don’t mean all of it. Some marginalisation comes out of sheer malice. But I suspect an awful lot of it also comes out of ignorance. Indeed, I have quite a lot of relevant life experience that suggests that this may be the case.
As I have mentioned several times by now, I am sure, I am on the autism spectrum. I’ve gotten to the point where I can communicate online fairly well to the point where people probably wouldn’t realise it unless I told them, but in real life it still affects my communication in numerous ways. The example I keep coming back to is eye contact.
I hate making eye contact with strangers. It makes me viscerally uncomfortable on a level few other acts do. The reason for this is that I feel I am revealing an incomprehensible amount about myself to a person I have no cause to trust, and gaining no understanding of others in the process of doing so. I would be more comfortable having a stranger see me naked than I would be making eye contact with a stranger. I’ve tried on several times to train myself out of averting my eyes when interacting with strangers, and have never once had success in doing so. The reason for this is that establishing eye contact with strangers always requires conscious effort and is incredibly draining to me, and I end up feeling so uncomfortable that I inevitably need time to recuperate. Because it is not something I am capable of doing without conscious effort, and because the process of expending that effort makes me incredibly uncomfortable, it is not something I find myself capable of learning to do habitually.
I eventually gave up. It’s a harmless act. Some people might think it’s rude, but frankly, I’ve given up caring. If they’re offended by a harmless action, that’s their problem, not mine. It’s coded as rude in the United States, but other countries like Scotland have no problem with it. I’m not so desperate for friendship that I need to make friends with people who are bothered by my averting my eyes, and I’m not in a professional situation where I need to interact with strangers often enough that it’s likely to pose professional harm to me.
But the problem overall affects a lot of other people who don’t have my advantages, and it’s directly a result of unconscious biases that result from people not questioning the assumptions underlying their attitudes about what is and is not socially acceptable. A lot of assumptions based on “common sense” (i.e., unconscious biases) wind up arbitrarily excluding some specific demographic. And this is the root of a large number of forms of marginalisation.
Not all of these assumptions are even necessarily malicious. The idea that Asians and Jews are smart, for example, could be considered a form of benevolent racism. But at the same time, it can harm members of other minority groups by unfavourably comparing them to Asians and Jews, and it can also harm Asians and Jews whom society does not consider to live up to that stereotype.
I’m still working on what the implications of this are, but I suspect it applies to nearly every form of marginalisation on the planet to a certain degree. In many cases, many people have simply never even taken the time to think about these forms of marginalisation enough even to realise that they are forms of marginalisation, much less to question the assumptions that bring them about. This is one point where I think media representation may prove quite helpful: stories about the difficulties faced by under-represented groups can cause people to question their view of how the world works and maybe even begin to think about it in a different way. But the overall principle is more difficult to address.
I think some of it comes from a simple basic assumption that most of us have been taught from childbirth: the Golden Rule. It’s been criticised several times on this forum before, for good reason. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The entire assertion centres around what you want. That isn’t always the same as what others want, and it’s based around the assumption that they are functionally equivalent. In many cases, treating others as though they want the same things you do is functionally equivalent to treating them in a way that they don’t wish to be treated.
The correct rephrasing is, of course, “Do unto others as they would like to be done unto.” This places the emphasis on how others wish to be treated, not on how you wish to be treated. And, of course, another underlying implication in this rephrased version is that, if you do not know how others wish to be treated, it is incumbent upon you to find out.
If this were more widely adopted, this could go a long way to alleviating a number of difficulties many marginalised populations face. I’m not entirely sure it’ll be sufficient, though. For one thing, a one-line slogan isn’t always likely to trigger intense self-reflection among the entire populace. For another, many people simply haven’t even reached the level of ethical development necessary to understand the phrase and its full implications. And I don’t know what the solution to that is.
The other problem, of course, is that people like to think of themselves as essentially rational, well-meaning people. Everyone is the hero of their own story, as they say. But in reality, people aren’t rational. We’re actually deeply irrational, impulsive animals. We make decisions on impulse and then supply ex post facto reasoning to justify it. And of course, most of us don’t recognise this at all.
I’ve come to a strong understanding of how my life experiences have shaped my worldview. I’ve been deeply marginalised in some respects, and deeply privileged in others. I’ve struggled to establish a relatively stable, happy existence, and in the past year or two I’ve managed to do it. My understanding of how greatly advantageous those privileges were and how much suffering those forms of marginalisation caused me have resulted in an understanding of power and injustice that I suspect that, given different life experiences, I would never have arrived at. The fact that these forms of marginalisation continue to exist is an ongoing source of rage for me, and it means that I am likely for the rest of my life to continue sympathising with the marginalised and despising the people who intentionally perpetuate their marginalisation.
This is not remotely rational. However, I fully recognise it. I suspect the vast majority of people have never had cause to examine the origins of their political beliefs. To be perfectly honest, until I wrote down my life story, I didn’t fully understand mine. I’d always been sympathetic to the underdog, because I’d always felt like an underdog myself – I struggled to find friends for much of my life and had to try several schools before finding one that suited me. But it wasn’t until I graduated from high school that I fully began to understand how much of an outsider I was, and it also wasn’t until I graduated from high school that I became an anti-authoritarian leftist. I have an intense distrust of hierarchical authority because my life experiences have led me to understand that power frequently corrupts even those with the noblest intentions. The solution is, naturally, to eliminate disparities of power from society as fully as possible.
But, of course, other people don’t have such an understanding. Few people even have a vision of what a society without power disparities might look like. The best fictional vision I’ve read remains The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a depiction of a flawed society that still has some de facto sources of power – but because of that, it’s also believable. It’s imaginable that humans could set up such a society, because it doesn’t depend upon perfect human behaviour to exist. And that’s what makes it so appealing to me, because I recognise fully that there is no such thing as perfect behaviour.
Anyway, as I said, I’m still working on this theory. But ultimately, I think a lot of society’s problems come from the irrationality of humans, our assumption that our experiences are universal, that our perceptions are perfect, and that we’re rational creatures without bias. We simply aren’t given cause to question the assumptions we take for granted, and this creates many of the forms of marginalisation in society that exist. I suspect I will be mulling over how to penetrate people’s assumptions for the remainder of my life, because I suspect that doing this on a widespread basis could create a more thoughtful, caring society.
(P.S. I should thank one Mr Lisa Pea because I suspect some things she has written may have clarified some of my thinking.)
“All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” -Adam Smith
“If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself.” -Mikhail Bakunin