Originally posted on 06-01-07:
I got involved in the electric bicycle project yesterday, and forgot all about the morning post. I wrote a couple of paragraphs after dinner and gave up, struggling with brain fatigue.
I’ve been thinking about Douglas Hofstadter, who I mentioned the other day, and his latest book, I Am a Strange Loop, which I read a couple of months ago. I began to realize that large differences in our points of view could be attributed to our different backgrounds.
He grew up in a culturally rich university environment, son of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, while I grew up in a small southern town, and neither one of my parents graduated from high school. My environment grew incredibly richer when my folks bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias, for which I am very grateful.
In addition to our differences in early intellectual stimulation, I was a poor kid, and while I wasn’t at the bottom of the economic scale, I was far from the top—which in our little town wasn’t that high anyway. I felt the disdain of the richer kids; left out.
It reminds me of what one of my Arizona friends called, “The wounded turkey syndrome:” in confined quarters, a wounded turkey will be pecked to death by its fellows. The behavior is not unknown in human beings, either: I, too, have felt disdain for certain kinds of woundedness in my peers, despite my early treatment.
I have a specific memory of being in the hallway between classes in the seventh grade, and overhearing a conversation about an upcoming event—a party, perhaps—and eagerly asking those involved for details. Their reaction to my inquiries were scornfully ignored, and while I’m fairly sure it wasn’t the only time, that incident scarred me, and I puzzled over it afterwards.
I decided it would be better to feign a lack of interest than risk another experience like that. Maybe it wasn’t so much that I acted indifferent, but that I avoided that kind of over-eager inquisitiveness, and it seemed to me that my social treatment improved. I think it’s possible that more thoroughly trained children are instructed in such social niceties, but I had missed that.
So perhaps because of my background, I have had a long-term interest in why people discriminate against each other and treat each other badly to the point of death. There are many reasons of course, but the one that has attracted my attention is pride, with its implicit—and often overt—disdain for those of lesser achievement, lower status. (No doubt the scarring incident I described above has something to do with my interest.)
What seems to underlie pride is the sense of authorship, that I have a right to claim responsibility for my efforts and accomplishments, and for being the kind of person who could accomplish such things. People even pride themselves on their taste, on their preference for certain kinds of art, music, food, etc., as if they deserved credit for their likes and dislikes.
There is a wonderful essay by Galen Strawson, on the Naturalism web site, called “Luck Swallows Everything,” that debunks this idea. There are many other resources on that site, and of course there’s my essay on free will.
A more objective understanding of ourselves can do more than undermine our feelings of pride, it can alter our relationship to the rest of the world on every level. Imagine the soldier who realizes that he is trying to kill his “enemy,” simply because they were born in different parts of the world, that he is causing and risking death because of a series of accidents over which he had no control. That realization in itself could alter his behavior.
Mount Shasta Is Proud of Being Taller; So Is the Cloud