Saturday, April 12, 2014

Filtering Reality

Sometimes I suspect that one of the greatest achievements of human beings is also our greatest failing. I’m not talking of tool use, although we’ve managed to turn that into massive crimes against our own planet with drones, bombs, blanket poisonings of vast areas in the name of warfare. Tool use was supposed to be something that made us unique from other animals but we’ve seen that other animals also use tools.  Nor am I talking about speech and communication per se, because we are still unaware of the levels of conversation among many of our planetary co-inhabitants like the whales, dolphins and elephants, who appear to communicate some fairly complex ideas.  Our failing is our addiction to language and abstract thought that tears us away from the reality of what we do.

In her book Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin an autistic professor of animal behavior, has described our tendency to take an word for an object and essentially substitute the word for the actual object and then to act on that object as though it were real.  As an autistic, she points out that this is something that humans do partly as a function of the fact that humans use a different part of our brains than most animals do, but autistics often seem to fall between other people and animals in brain use. So while a person going for a walk in a park is doing something very general “going for a walk” in a very general place “in a park”, most riders are aware that for a horse this is anything but general, since going for a walk is different for them every single time and “in a park” has no real meaning most of the time because it is specifically this place with these trees and those people and HORRORS! that picnic table that wasn’t there last week.

I remember reading her section of her book on this and thinking how fascinating that was for me as a horse owner and trainer. If you are aware of the fact that horses do not see four cows one after another while riding in a farm area and say to themselves “Those are cows and they are not important”, it explains a great deal about the fact that the horse in question may have no problem with the spotted brown one, the red one, and the black one, but the spotted black and white one is definitely some sort of monster.  Thinking about this tendency of ours to smooth over life’s little eccentricities with our powers of generalization is rather comforting. We can bring the chaos and buzz of a busy world down to a few things, which are in fact not even real, so that we no longer have to worry about each one. Rather than walking in a park and considering each and every tree individually as oak, sycamore, or palm, they are all just trees and generally not dangerous.  Squirrels, birds, rabbits and the dog chasing a ball are just animals and part of nature, whatever that is. The world is infinitely simplified for us.

But there is a dark side to this ability of ours.  In the world I find myself living in now, words have taken on new importance and power that they never had before…or at least with the proliferation of verbal means of communication, they have an audience hugely larger than ever before.  Where once you would say something to a person in conversation, now you can write it in a Facebook status and if for some reason other people find this funny, profound, or dangerous, you might find your statement being read by and shared by hundreds or thousands of people. This is a rather seductive idea, to be heard by thousands, but that in itself is a symptom  of our verbal addiction.  Too much of the time, we speak to speak, and the words we use are not chosen to speak specifically but are chosen for their emotional power rather than their reality.

The term “War On Terror” is a perfect example of this use of language.  In the general unexamined sense, the users of this phrase are indicating that certain kinds of behavior will not be tolerated, but the exact behaviours nor the response is elaborated.  What does terror actually mean? It is an emotion of extreme fear that can cause people to behave in irrational ways without thinking clearly of the most appropriate response.  Terror is not actually a thing, or an action, it is an emotion. But it is currently used as both a thing and an action.  And what about war? This word has been used so often that for most people it has lost most of its meaning. In the old days, a war meant a mobilization of usually the male portion of a population to either attack or defend a particular place where a similar mobilization had probably also taken place.  The encounter between the two groups generally involved extremely nasty physical contact ending in death, dismemberment, injuries, capture and slavery or ransom, and the general destruction of the geographical area where that encounter took place. So when someone speaks of a war on terror, in theory, the actions taken could include those up to and including the killing of vast numbers of people and the destruction of land, people and property in order to stop an emotion of fear….. and that really doesn’t make much sense because faced with these possibilities, the only emotional response that initially comes to mind is fear.

I’m watching what is happening in Egypt these days after almost a year of our War On Terror, and I haven’t seen much of what Egypt really needs, which is building and strengthening, but perhaps that isn’t a surprise when it is, after all, the military running the show and their purview has always been war, the tearing apart and destruction of an opposing group or force.  Without war, what use is a military after all, because all their training and thought has always been about destruction? But as long as we are engaged in a war on terror, the military would be our best group to handle things since wars are what they do, at least in theory. So the words and generalities being used not only direct what we are seeing but also who is handling the problem. Those using the terms have decided that “terror” includes the wearing of beards, the involvement with a particular group of people, and even the description of reality in ways that do not agree with the aims of the initiators of the term.  The fact that the word “war” is used, not only promotes the use of the part of the government that uses force but it also promotes the actual force used.  But oddly enough, I suspect that most people who casually read the phrase or even repeat it are actually aware of the implications of what they are reading or saying because they never get past the generalizations.

When a social program that depends on broad generalizations is initiated, very few people stop to think about what the program actually means to them because they never drop to the specifics. This is a very handy tendency for any government. It is interesting to me, however, how most of the terms for grand schemes involve military language. The war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty (which is an oxymoron if I ever saw one), all of these programs in the US have been undertaken over the past fifty years, generally with very little success. On the other hand, if a program were to be called “Enabling Growth and Prosperity”, the connotations would be much different, there would be little call for force and arms, and it’s pretty clear that the goal is some kind of improvement of life for society.  About the last time I saw something like this it was the Head Start program to introduce early education through television such as Sesame Street, which may have had its problems but was on the whole a benevolent program that, like most benevolent programs, has had its funding slashed in the US.  The last real program for improvements in the US took place during the Depression when the government took unemployed men and put them to work building the infrastructure of roads and dams and so on that the country needed, and that has received insufficient maintenance ever since.  Once the good old military industrial complex latched on to the usefulness of war in the 1940’s they’ve had the strongest hold on how reality is being presented in many countries, not just the US and Egypt.

We all use language all the time. I had to use it to write this and to organize my thoughts. But at the same time, we should stop to consider Temple Grandin’s ideas on how much we filter what we hear, say, see, and feel. We have the tendency to take generalized responses to generalized issues and not even stop to consider the specifics in a conversation, experience or situation.  Words for people are not just sounds that transfer information. They are filters for experience and at least once a day, we each need to remove our filters for a bit and let reality actually sift through. In other words, spend a few minutes a day being your horse or dog or cat or even your bird. Despite our perceptual differences, there is a world out there that we are all experiencing…but for the most part, the other creatures in our world are experiencing it without a verbal filter.

copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

No comments: