Cultural Dialogue and Humility

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2It is difficult to observe the world these days without being struck by the ubiquity of conflict both in the US and around the World.  All our politicians seem to do is fight with one another. A new terror attack is an almost daily occurrence as are shooting incidents in schools, homes and stores abound some even perpetrated by toddlers. Racial tension and strife continues. The rich get rich and the poor get poor.  Income inequality grows and society grows less and less civil.

In all this we do not seem to be able to talk to one another and to work through difficulties.  Real dialogue is becoming more and more elusive.  Why? In this short essay I would like to suggest two among myriad explanatory contenders: the lack of social humility and courage.

As finite beings, you and I really can not interpret the world around us from anyone else’s perspective.  We can empathize and try to see things from the perspective of another but we can not, for example, actually leave ourselves and look back at ourselves from the other’s point of view. We can imagine. We can project. At best, we can approximate.

This reality is very easy to forget.  The experience of our own self-awareness–our consciousness– can fool us into thinking that we have stepped out of ourselves and taken up a kind of universal and decontextualized perspective from which we perceive ourselves and others objectively, clearly, truly. The fact that we experience, to one degree or another, what psychologists call, a subject/object relationship with ourselves can deceive us into thinking that we can have an almost unlimited and disembodied point of view on all of reality. While most of us have no trouble acknowledging that we do not have all the answers to vexing life issues, we much less frequently acknowledge that our perspective itself is radically constrained by the conditions of our finitude.

One of the conditions of that finitude is the fact that our lives are deeply contextualized.  We exist in time and space–we live in a particular time and place.  We all enter that time and space with specific genetic potential and limitation. Experience, both profound and apparently insignificant, teaches us about life, shapes our identities and our views of what is good/bad, wise/unwise and right/wrong.  We become who we are and live as we do within a context of past and present experience.  We do not live or perceive outside of that context. The notion of decontextualized perspective is an illusion.

One aspect of our radical contextualization is culture.  We are all encultured and see our world through the lenses of the various cultures and subcultures that have shaped us and which we continue to shape in turn.  Enculturation is both a good and somewhat problematic feature of our lives.

On the one hand, enculturation enables us to interpret the world around us in the real time of everyday life.  Without a cultural framework we would be, metaphorically, stumbling around in the dark without any sense of the “lay of the land” and without reference points and “aids to navigation.”  In this sense, culture affords us what Archimedes, over two thousand years ago, called “a place to stand.”


archimedes 1

On the other hand, because cultures seem to those who live in them and have been shaped by them to define the natural and normal way of things, they make cultural realities other than one’s own seem unnatural, odd and in many cases even invisible. For example, it is difficult to see economic or racial privilege for what it is from the point of view–cultural perspective– of privilege itself.  In other words, each culture limits the perspective of its members to its own confines and because members of a cultural group see their own cultural norms as the natural “way of it,” they default to the assumption that their own cultural lens is more revelatory and less limited than it actually is or can be.

These qualities of contextualization put us in a difficult position.  We need the guiding light of our cultural cues but if we follow that refracted light alone, we will miss the guidance of other refracted beams and fall afoul of the dangers no single cultural light can illuminate.  Are we stuck? Must we simply stand still or continue going along merrily oblivious to our cultural myopia.

To proceed we need the virtues of humility and courage simultaneously.  The Latin root of the word “humility” is humus which means earth or ground. The humble are those who recognize that they are of the earth.  Dust we are and to dust shall we return.ashes

The humble person is the person who realizes and accepts his/her earth bound finitude–their humanity in all its limitations.  The humble person embraces and accepts the conditions of finitude and does not fall victim to imagining themselves on high free of all the conditions of finite existence and enlightened by some universal light.  The humble person takes themselves to be seeing their way through life lighting their path with their own unique light along with all others who are doing the same.  The humble person takes their light to be a light like any other–no better no worse.  In this sense, humility shares a great deal with being firmly grounded.

The Latin root of “courage” is cor which means heart and, by extension, innermost spirit.  In its earliest usage, the word meant to speak or act one’s heart and later to mean an inner strength in the face of fear.  Accepting that we are finite, mortal and profoundly limited in a variety of ways can be a fearsome prospect and requires real courage but without a courageous acceptance of finitude (humility) we sentence ourselves to a future of tunnel vision confined to our own limited context and unable to see beyond our present cultural limits.

Real social dialogue requires both humility and courage.  Without a deep acceptance of our finitude and the humility that ensues, we can never really open ourselves to the individual and cultural lenses of others.  While we consider ourselves “mighty,” “exceptional,” “special” and “more enlightened than thou,” dialogue remains a pipe dream.

It’s not my fault. It’s yours.

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2We all like to be able to better understand and explain the world around us, especially when times are difficult, threatening or in some other fashion profoundly unsettling.  Recent deadly shooting incidents between police officers and young Black men and the subsequent public protests raise troubling questions in our minds whether we are Black, White, police or civilian. We look around us for the reasons that will help us to understand events, protect ourselves, punish culprits and “prevent this sort of thing from happening again.”  In this process, we often move quickly to assign or attribute blame.

Infrequently do we start this problem solving process by attributing the cause of the situation to a factor internal to ourselves.  For example, the police do not start out trying to understand an incident like the shooting of Michael Brownmike brown by declaring that a primary reason for the incident was a negative attitude toward Black male youth in general on the part of police in general (or the particular officer/s involved). The police do not attribute their action to, what social psychologists call “the internal disposition” or moral character of the involved officer/s.  Rather, the tendency is to point to some aspect of the external situation for an explanation.  In this circumstance, the police are most likely to point to the situation in which the officer/s find/found themselves.

Not only will the police tend to explain the incident by focusing on situational considerations to characterize their actions but also they will tend to focus on the internal disposition or character of the person who was shot, in this case Michael Brown et al. to bolster their argument.

Police are not unique in explaining contentious events in this way.  We all have a tendency to do this.  This very human tendency is so ubiquitous that social psychology even has a name for it: the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias.  Simply put, the error is to blame personal flaws in others when accounting for their behavior while explaining our own behavior in terms of situational factors rather than any personal internal flaw.

Consequently, just as police will focus on justifying situational factors in explaining their behavior, those affected by that behavior will likely attribute the lion’s share of the blame to the internal disposition of the officer/s rather than any situational factor.  Individual racism, cowardice, fear and fury will be the sort of language used most frequently.

Community or societal failure to realize our natural tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error (FAE) can lead to a vicious cycle of FAE upon FAE until groups of similar people no longer consider varying life situations at all and simply attribute all behavior to the internal dispositions of the members of a particular group.  All Black men become shiftless and criminal.  All policemen/women become rigid, violent bullies.  All poor people become lazy social leeches. All rich people become greedy and uncaring. All intellectuals irrelevant and all who care impractical.  Et cetera, et cetera in an ever descending vortex of social disintegration and devolution.

Not a pretty picture of the human condition or early 21st Century America.  But, this is where we might be and that we got here by reflexively blaming “the other guy.”  Perhaps, there is a note of hope in this latter, simple realization.  If we got here by blaming the “other,” perhaps the hope lies in the realization that there really are no “others” per se only others-like-ourselves.

American Society & the Fundamental Attribution Error

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Did you ever overhear a conversation between two people discussing the ills our our society that went something like this?:

“Did you hear?”


“They want to raise the minimum wage again.  Small business people are going to suffer and pass all the cost along to you and me!!”

“I know but people have to eat and right now you can’t make a living wage even if you have two minimum wage jobs.”

“They don’t have to work those minimum wage jobs.  They are just to lazy to work hard and get something better.  They have a choice don’t they? Besides look at how many kids they have and none of them with the same father!  They are so irresponsible that they have kids they can’t afford and expect the rest of us to pick up the tab!”

“But, the deck is stack against most of these people.  They are on the bottom rungs of the social ladder and the way our society works it is very difficult for many to even see a way out of the drudgery of their lives.  It’s sad and depressing.  As a society we need to do more to help those with the least among us.”

No way!  This is a matter of personal responsibility and accountability.  There is no such thing as a free ride.  These people simply make bad choices and are too lazy to earn a better living.  They would rather sit around drinking, doing drugs and collecting!”

The conversation sounds pretty familiar doesn’t it?  Most of us have taken either  the blue or green side at one time or another in our lives.  The speaker in blue tends to attribute the economic state of the poor to something in the character or traits of the poor person:  they are lazy, irresponsible and make bad choices.  The speaker in green tends to see the condition of the poor as a function less of their character and more of the social situation which oppresses them.

The person taking the blue position and attributing the condition of the poor to individual internal disposition or character trait is making what social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error; i.e., attributing too much weight to individual traits and character and not enough weight to the social situation in which people find themselves and, in this way, blaming the poor internal disposition of the poor for their being poor. We tend to reverse this process for the rich.  In the end, many think, each category, rich and poor get what they deserve, more or less .

Individualistic cultures like the United States tend to make this error more readily that do more collectivist societies.  Across the political spectrum, conservatives make the fundamental attribution error more readily than liberals while the most liberal among us may miss those aspects of social problems which are in fact grounded in the internal disposition of others.

On balance, at least in the West, we have had a significant tendency to blame the “have nots” for not having the internal disposition necessary for success and to laud the “haves” for their supposed strength of character and  internal disposition in favor of hard work.  Assistance to the poor and least advantaged among us is even argued to be an encouragement to further indulge the natural disposition to sloth and debauchery of the poor, while aid to rich, usually in the form of tax breaks, is thought to be providing additional resources to those with the moral character to make the best use of it.

Maintenance and even re-enforcement of the fundamental attribution error presents a major impediment to the resolution of complex social problems which  only worsens as economic disparity increases.  The rich will need more aid and the poor less, as we continue to tilt with the wrong enemy.  As Bill Clinton might have said, “It’s not the people. It’s the situation, stupid.”

Notice that simply by adding the word “stupid” to the sentence above,  I have committed the fundamental attribution error myself.  It is way to easy and natural a sin to commit and should have be included in any list of deadly sins.  Like any sin, this sin too must be repented of by creating a new mental situation in which we forgive ourselves our missteps, humble ourselves before the complexities of existence  and open ourselves to a more profound realization of how each of our life situations, and the relationships we have in those situations, impact both who we are in any given moment and who we, as a people, will become in all the moments to come.

A short graphical summary of the attribution error.

A simple example from a work situation.