Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Exposing the Affinity Myth

When we hear people dismiss what we have to say about their ideas or behaviour on the basis that we cannot possibly understand them, because we do not share their experiences, how should we react?

It has become so common that we could be talking about anything, and someone would play the ‘But you are not like us, so you’ll never get it’ card. The difference could be linked to a religion, a sect, a purported ethnic group, some tradition or custom, socio-economic background, or even experiences tied to a particular locality or a close-knit community. The idea is that since we are ‘different’ from them, we cannot sensibly make any comment about them, least of all criticise them in any way.

Now while it’s obviously wrong to go on about certain aspects of other people’s lives or actions without any real understanding about them, it is equally mistaken to assume that we have to be, from their point of view, practically one of them before we can grasp the rights and wrongs of what they are up to. Understanding comes from a combination of knowledge and imagination, and group affinity is seldom, if ever, a necessary prerequisite. To debunk the myth more swiftly, let us consider three claims relating to the importance of ‘being one of us’.

[1] You cannot understand what is different from you.
The notion that an observer must be just like the observed to know anything significant about the latter may sound plausible at a very superficial level, but does not actually bear the slightest scrutiny. Entomologists can learn a lot about insects without being remotely like insects themselves. Astronomers can predict the behaviour of distant planets without possessing much resemblance to a planetary object. Oncologists do not have to be suffering from cancer themselves before they acquire expert knowledge on how to diagnose and treat the disease. Understanding of behaviour, of what constitutes a normal pattern, and what indicates deviation from the norm, come from systematic studies and review of evidence. Being the same type as what is studied is certainly not necessary. Otherwise it would take a sociopathic serial killer to explain one.

[2] You cannot understand without emotional connections.
There are times when being able to relate to the joy or despondency of another person is crucial to sharing their feelings. But even in such situations, it is a matter of degree rather than an absolute either-or. Only those totally lacking in empathy are unable to take some delight in seeing others happy, or feel sad at the sight of someone sobbing inconsolably, even though they are relative strangers. At the same time, a clearer understanding, or a more objective assessment, may require precisely the distancing of emotions. It is more difficult for us to consider if someone has done something wrong and should be penalised, if we were too close to the person in question. If our judgement were to be affected by intense love, anger, fear, or admiration felt for the individual being examined, we might well not truly comprehend what has been done. Often the more detached we can be from a given subject, the better we can come to understand it.

[3] You cannot understand what it is like without having had the same experience.
It is sometimes claimed that men and women cannot possibly understand what the other sex experience. Similar divides are deployed for people with diverse religious beliefs (or those with none at all), ethnic backgrounds, or even class differences. But the key here is one’s capacity for psychological understanding and moral imagination. The development of one’s emotional intelligence enables one to have gradually higher degrees of understanding of what others may be going through even though one’s physiology, ancestry, habits, or income may be very different from them. Conversely, anyone who insists that no one can understand anyone else except those who are virtually identical to oneself slides down a solipsist path that closes off all avenue of understanding. We are all unlike in some ways, and interpersonal understanding is built on mental bridges that overcome those dissimilarities, not on futile insistence on eliminating them all.

So don’t be deflected by the affinity myth. If anyone tries to play the old ‘you’re not like us, you’ll never understand’ card, that’s already a good indication that their attempts to hide from critical appraisal by others is an all too familiar one.

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