There is this odd notion that I’ve heard, primarily from the regressive left, with the idea that a person from one demographic can never understand a person from another demographic. I find myself somewhat perplexed as to why a person would argue this and stop there, instead of going further and saying that no person can ever understand another person at all – after all, if I’m incapable of understanding a person with a different skin colour, what makes these people think I could understand someone who looks similar to me, either?
The thing is, though, that wherever this notion comes from, it’s a load of bollocks. Sure, maybe you don’t see a situation the same way that I do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t understand my point of view! Maybe you see that I’m working on mathematics, and that I’m happy, and I tell you that I’m ecstatic because I just figured out an important step in a theorem I’m working on. You might think to yourself that you can’t understand what I’m feeling, because you don’t like maths. But let’s back up a moment: you know what it is to feel ecstatic, right? And you know what is making me feel ecstatic? Then congratulations! You understand how I’m feeling.
As another example, perhaps you are not the sort of person who gets attached to pets. One day you see I’m sad, and I say it is because my pet rabbit just died. Now, that happening to you might not make you particularly upset, but: you know what it is to feel sadness, and you know what is making me sad. You understand how I’m feeling.
Similar remarks apply to just about any two people, however. I read the remark by a white college student saying ‘I know I cannot understand how people in the Black Lives Movement feel.’ Really? Have you tried, I don’t know, asking them? Because they’ll come right out and tell you they are angry and frustrated. So: do you know what it is like to feel angry and frustrated? Do you know what it is like to feel like your life might be in danger (I do, through medical issues)? Then guess what. You understand how they feel. In fact one might also think that you would feel the same way, assuming that you agree with their premise. After all, if you agree that there’s a great deal of violent racism going on, are you really such a demographically absorbed asshat that you are incapable of being upset by it unless you belong to the demographic of the victims? I’m not palestinian, but I’m upset when I see palestinians losing their homes because Israel is screwing around again. I’m not jewish, but I’m upset when I see victims of anti-semitic violence.
Concomitant to this idea that people can’t understand others outside their demographic is this odd idea that a person who has lived through something (say, a culture, or an event) knows more about it than others. This is an absurdity. Let’s take some event like the battle of Waterloo. A soldier who participated in the battle probably knew a lot less about the battle itself than any historian – some soldiers who were present did not even realize they had been in a major battle until other people told them. As another example: who knows more about, say, Irish culture? An Irishman who lives their whole life in one town in Ireland, or a Frenchman who extensively studies Ireland and the Irish? I think it is pretty clear that the latter will know a great deal more about Irish culture than the former. The idea that this could never be the case seems to derive from the idea that people cannot overcome their own bias. But there are two points about this:
- If people can’t overcome their own bias, then being born into and living in a culture does not let you understand that culture, because you yourself are biased. In other words, if you think an ‘outsider’ can never understand a thing because of bias, then you really have to conclude that nobody can understand a thing. Because being ‘inside’ will carry its own set of biases. If a non-Irishman can never understand Irish culture because of their biased viewpoint, then an Irishman can’t understand it either – because of their biased viewpoint. If outsiders are incapable of true knowledge because of bias, then everyone is incapable of true knowledge because of bias.
- The fact is that we can overcome our biases, and we constantly work on methods to do so.
Finally, I’d like to note, with regards to the idea that being an ‘insider’ grants greater understanding of a thing: people often don’t even understand themselves. People go to psychologists so that they can understand themselves better, and often the psychologist understands more about that person than they do about themselves.