Respect of Others Simple Does Not Mean It Is Easy
Respect of Others: Simple Does Not Mean It Is Easy©
March 18, 2013
I have often been called a simpleton, (Figure 1) a title I have learned to embrace. By my own admission, if I am able to grasp a concept, then it cannot be that difficult because I am not the brightest bulb in the pack. One of the reasons for this label is the perception that I do not appreciate the complexity of human interaction. I try to start a discussion from a basic premise and build my way up. This methodology is useful when I am trying to understand the insanity that is human. I cannot take credit for the invention of this methodology; it was formally introduced by a 14th century logician, Franciscan Friar William of Ockham. (Fig 2)
William of Ockham
Ockham thought we should not complicate theories of understanding unnecessarily. He advocated that a researcher should start with the simplest answer first, and then if it does not satisfy the inquiry build upon it. While I do not apply Ockham’s razor to every aspect of life, I find that it is a useful tool to keep in the back of my mind. Ockham understood that simple does not necessarily mean simplistic or that it is easy to accomplish. Looking at the many human relations issues that face this country, a simple approach appears to be the best course of action. I say this because there are an infinite number of multifaceted theories that try to explain the phenomenon of human interaction. When people jump right into the middle of the conversation they become lost, or overwhelmed by the volume of often-conflicting information. Seeing the oncoming avalanche of data many leave the exchange and do not return to the discourse or they simply do not progress in their comprehension of the subject. Every once in a while the public discourse has to return to the basic concepts to create a solid foundation for the discussion to take place.
Point of Departure (POD)
To discuss the state of human relations in America in the year 2013, there are a number of very different starting places a researcher could choose. Picking the right point of departure (POD) is important, because each one has the potential of leading the inquiry to a different conclusion. This particular interaction will use as the POD two simple phrases, which represent the foundational statements of the American mythology. One was penned in 1776, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (The Declaration of Independence, Figure 3). The other POD was written in 1892 which simply states that as a country we pledge, “Liberty and Justice for All” (Pledge of Allegiance). Taking Ockham’s razor to what it means to be an American, these two statements can be labeled as the base elements to our society. Even with the knowledge that our history shows that we have fallen short of these ideas.
Ockham did not say find the simplest answer and stop the inquiry, there is still the task of applying the findings to life. Even though the PODs are simple phrases, with seemly apparent definition, they are a continued source of heated debates. Some would argue that they represent the American idea of a society where people are treated equally regardless of superficial differences such as race, gender, religion, disability, etc.
Represented in the PODs is one overriding ideology (Figure 4) that People Are Equal, in the sense that everyone has access to and experiences three concepts: 1) We have Rights (Life, Liberty, and the pursuit Happiness), 2) Liberty, and 3) Justice. A sense of equality of all people is the foundational premise for this society.
Note that the when you look at the two PODs together they apply to all. When the Declaration of Independence was first written, the framers understood that “all men” applied only to white male property owners. Everyone else outside of that group had access to limited rights. The theoretical hope was that it would cover all humans. When the Pledge of Allegiance was introduced and later adopted the linguistic limitation was eliminated with the phrase, “With Liberty and Justice for All.” With these two PODs it is saying that the society demonstrates a high level of tolerance for the differences people bring to the table. It recognizes that a society is made up of people, and as Hobbes claimed, has a life force of its own. “For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man.” (Hobbes page 82) Later in 1762, political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, made the claim that members of a society are under a social contract. “Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” (Rousseau page 148) A part of belonging to a group is giving to the collective a part of the self. This does not mean that the individual has to give up everything to be a part of the larger group.
Part of the problem is the lens through which society views people is constantly shifting. As we continue to evolve as a nation, our understanding of what it means to be equal is expanding. The shift influences how people view others. One lens is represented by a statement made in 1896 by Justice John Marshall Harlan (Fig 5), “Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” (Justice Harlan Plessy v. Ferguson) What makes this quote even more interesting is the context in which it was presented. It was filed as a dissenting position of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, where the Supreme Court legitimized the separate but equal standard. The Court supported and validated a society that did see color/race and placed a value to a person based on the color of their skin.
To summarize the case, in June of 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in the “white car” of the East Louisiana Railroad. The law (Separate Car Act) in Louisiana established that the races must ride in separate rail cars. The challenge was based on the belief that the law’s existence represented a violation of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments. The Court however found that “A Statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races – has no legal tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.” (Justice Henry Brown, Plessy v. Ferguson) It was this decision that established the separate but equal standard which legitimized the practice of segregation. This standard was applied to everything from lunch counter to schools. To clarify, Justice Harlan did not say that we should be “colorblind” or ignorant of a person’s heritage, only before the law all people should have equal protections. He was looking at the U. S. Constitution and saw that color/race should not be the determining factor in a person’s protection under the law.
There is a children’s book by Dr. Seuss, which highlights the concept of color blindness called the Sneetches. The thesis for his tale is that superficial differences should not determine a person’s value. The good Dr. opens the story by introducing the readers to the main characters and the problem that faces their society.
Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And, whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking. (Dr. Seuss page 4)
There was a value judgment being made by that society that those with a star on their bellies were better than those who had no star. While this was an over simplification, it serves as an accurate representation of society, where superficial differences appear to play a significant role in the class structure as it exists in America. The story goes on to tell about how the society was manipulated by a salesman, Mr. McBean, who told each side of the society he could make them better than the other. The Sneetch without stars, he was able to put stars upon thars and to the others he took the stars off. Then the Sneetches repeated the process indefinitely until he had taken all their money. At the end of the day, he laughed about how stupid they were for placing such value on a superficial difference. Dr. Seuss ends the story this way:
But McBean was quite wrong. I’m quite happy to say.
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether
They had one, or not, upon thars. (Dr. Seuss page 24)
While Dr. Seuss was teaching children, an important lesson about the fruitless nature of creating a value system based on superficial differences, it was not the complete story. Even if we had reached a point where we were all “colorblind” under the law that alone would not enough to ensure equality within a society. The law represents only one step in the process of achieving the goal of equality for all. Being colorblind to the other members of a society has the opposite effect and it helps to maintain the disparity. Being color blind implies a total disregard of a person’s race, gender, heritage, and mental or physical capabilities. By being purple, the individual is lost.
John Stuart Mill introduced a concept call “tyranny of the majority”, which was a system that overlooked the needs of the individual. “Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.” (Mill page 7) Mill’s warning is saying you cannot reach a state where “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” applies to all, when large segments of the population are subjected to the will of one group. Individual needs have to be taken into consideration.
Seeing The Person
The following quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 28, 1963, speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. helps to explain the disconnect. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (King page 219) Overtime his profound statement has been subjected to manipulation. A cursory reading of this segment of the speech has led some to claim that Dr. King was looking for a “colorblind” society and that he did not believe in the principles of affirmative action or diversity. As one commentator put it, “An agenda that advocates quotas, counting by race and set-asides takes us away from King's vision.” (Spalding) In part Dr. King was hoping for a society that looks past the superficial, to see him as human. He also said, “There must be recognition of the sacredness of human personality. Deeply rooted in our political and religious heritage is the conviction that every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth.” (King page 118) At the core he wanted to be seen as an equal human with rights.
Dr. King’s idea of seeing the individual can be seen in the work of the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung, who theorized in his book, The Undiscovered Self, A Methodology of Understanding an Individual. “If I want to understand an individual human being, I must lay aside all scientific knowledge of the average man and discard all theories in order to adopt a completely new unprejudiced attitude.” (Jung page 9) To understand the individual you must take them out of the group. “Judged scientifically, the individual is nothing but a unit which repeats itself ad infinitum and could just as well be designated with a letter of the alphabet. For understanding, on the other hand, it is just a unique individual human being who, when stripped of all those conformities and regularities so dear to the heart of the science, is the supreme and the only real object of investigation.” (Jung page 10) The science is looking at the generalization of a grouping of people, which inhibits access to the individual. The scientific study tries to make the person fit the theory instead of see the person as an exception to the rule. This idea is problematic when looking at a society as a whole, where there are many individuals that have to be taken into consideration.
Being involuntarily placed into a category and being judged by that association is the product of stereotyping. The textbook Strangers to These Shores: Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States describes the phenomenon as, “One common reaction to strangers is to categorize them broadly. Prejudice at the cognitive level often rises from false perceptions that are enhanced by cultural or racial stereotypes. A stereotype is an over simplification generalization by which we attribute certain traits or characteristics to a group without regard to individual differences.” (Parrillo page 75) If a person claims that they do not stereotype others they are either self delusional or they are lying. As we come in contact with larger numbers of individuals, it is impossible to escape stereotyping. Even though it is a natural part of our makeup it can have a negative impact. The American Philosopher Paul Feyerabend explained what happens when some people meet the unfamiliar for the first time. “Encountering unfamiliar races, customs, points of view, people react in various ways. They may be surprised, curious and eager to learn; they may feel contempt and a natural sense of superiority; they may show aversion and plain hatred. Being equipped with a brain and a mouth they not only feel, they also talk—they articulate their emotions and try to justify them.” (Feyerabend page 19) Even in situations where there is a familiarity with the race and not the individual the assignment of people into categories is a natural response.
In the creation of the individual, we now have competing forces at work, there are personal needs, the needs of the society and the placement of individuals into categories whether it is voluntary or not. The trick is to treat people with equity under the law, while recognizing their individuality. While this may sound easy it is a difficult thing for people to accomplish. It is like looking at a picture which has multi possible images. This psychology methodology is called Gestalt, which means "unified whole”. Dr. George C. Boeree, of the Shippensburg University Psychology Department, describes this idea “Basically, we seem to have an innate tendency to perceive one aspect of an event as the figure or fore-ground and the other as the ground or back-ground. There is only one image here, and yet, by changing nothing but our attitude, we can see two different things.” (Boeree)
The picture (Figure 6) is either of goblet or of two people looking at each other. It is difficult to see both at the same time, but in reality it is both. Using this same principle, depending on the version of the person you are looking and the lens you are using will determine the image that you will see. When the theory is applied to people it becomes even more difficult, because instead of two possible views of the image there are multiple. With the shifting views the person does not change, only the perception of them shifts with the light. Humans are complex creatures; even the simplest can be seen under multiple lights. Depending on the context and lens used the image will appear differently.
The racist is recognizing only the group’s perceived individual identity and bases their application of equality on limited information and they do not have to see or acknowledge that there are many sides to an individual. They can take one look at a person and see an illegal Hispanic farm worker, and female African American welfare abuser, a middle aged racist Caucasian male, or you fill in the blanks. When people look at me they may see a white male, a father, a state employee, or a liberal and each of these labels comes with its own set of values.
While others want to look only at equality “creating the purple society” while missing the value of the individual identity. Looking just at the individual outside of the context of the society and their group identity gives an incomplete picture. When viewing an individual there is an understanding that there are many viable ways they can be seen. But to look at them as purple is not to see them at all. This may sound simple, but it is by no means easy. Seeing a person as purple and stereotyping both have the same effect, they prevent the society from seeing the whole person, while denying the individual access to their own identity.
It is simple to say that we believe in “Liberty and Justice for All” and a way to get to that point is to provide equality under the law, while still recognizing the individual. The society has to be viewed in this same way. On the one hand it has to take the good of the whole into consideration, while at other times the focus has to be narrowed all the way down to one person. It is impossible to reach equality under the law without recognition of the self. A society cannot exist without some sense of solidarity, a binding agent that holds the individuals together. History shows that when a culture fails to recognize the individual as a person with rights, there is an opportunity for abuse, oppression and genocide. Every totalitarian government recognizes only the power of the state and abuses the principles of unity. The author of book Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books makes an astute observation of the nature of totalitarian state. “Of course, all murders and all oppressors have a long list of grievances against their victims.” (Nafisi page 43) Her book is a reflection of her time in Iran at the start of the revolution and danger she and other women face by reading literature. The dominant section of the society used superficial difference in people to justify their actions of false imprisonment and murder. In such a society individuality becomes the most hideous of offenses against the state.
Now for the ironic part of this piece, because people are involved it is not perfect. Even if there was a utopian society where all the residents tried to respect the rights of other, mistakes will still happen. Note the founding fathers said, “In order to create a more perfect union” and they did not say, “In order to create a perfect union.” There is an acknowledgement of the humanity involved with every decision. Humans are imperfect and when you add to the mix someone who is guided by greed or malice the system is ripe for abuse. But if the individual and society are honest in their attempts of understanding other there remains the opportunity for productive and fair relationships to exist.
1A label that has been placed on the friar’s theory
2 Racism, sexism, religious intolerance, discrimination ….
3 Just because they are superficial does not mean that they are not important.
4 Justice Marshall Harlan dissenting position in Plessy v. Ferguson 1896
5 Thirteenth amendment abolished slavery and fourteenth amendments gave equal rights to all citizens of the United States.
6 You can replace racist with sexist, or bigot, or homophobic etc.
7 White males do not have the corner market on bigotry.
Figure 1: Portrait of the Author by Rod Hage. November 2012
Figure 2: William of Ockham. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_of_Ockham.png (Accessed September 21, 2012)
Figure 3: Declaration of Independence. http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/image.htm (Accessed January 9, 2013)
Figure 4: Basic Premises
Figure 5: John Marshall Harlan. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cwpbh.04615/ (Accessed September 24, 2012Figure 6 : http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/gestalt.html
Continental Congress. Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America. July 4, 1776 http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/. (Accessed January 9, 2013)
Bellamy, Francis. Pledge of Allegiance. Composed by in 1892. Formally adopted by Congress in 1942 and modified 1954.
Boeree, C. George. Gestalt Psychology. http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/gestalt.html. 2000. (Access January 22, 2013)
Dr. Seuss. The Sneetches and Other Stories. Random House. August 28, 1961 (renewed 1989)
Feyerabend, Paul. Farewell to Reason. Verso. 1987
Gallup, George H., The Gallup Poll Public Opinion 1978. Scholarly Resources. 1979
Gallup, George H., The Gallup Poll Public Opinion 1997. Scholarly Resources. 1998
Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan. Penguin Classics. 1985 Originally Published 1651
Jung, C. G. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. The Undiscovered Self. A Signet Book. 2006. Copyright 1957.
King, Martin Luther Jr. editor James M. Washington. The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. I have a Dream. 1963. Harper San Francisco. 1991
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Utilitarianism. On Liberty. Bantam Books. 1993. Originally published 1871
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Random House. 2003 (paperback 2004)
Parrillo, Vincent N. Strangers to These Shores: Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States 3rd Edition. Parsons
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Translated by Donald A. The Basic Political Writing: On the Social Contract. Hackett Publishing. 1987 original production date 1762. Cress Page 148
Spalding, Matthew. King’s Conservative Mind. http://old.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-spalding012102.shtml. Accessed April 20, 2010
US Government http://publications.usa.gov/epublications/ourflag/pledge.htm
© 2013 Mark Monroe
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