Friday, August 13, 2010

Reality and social interactions

When I went back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree a few years ago, my first class was Anthropology 300, Foundations of Anthropology. While to most people this sounds like a boring required course in a discipline they care nothing about, it was an important step on life path, not just my education. This class forced me to evaluate my assumptions about where I got the things I thought.

I thought science was an obvious, empirical way to look at the world. I thought math was universal. I thought there was scientific evidence for many of the founding ideas behind social sciences. I thought I knew where my chosen discipline had come from, and I thought that the past was written in stone. By the time the semester finished, I was certain I knew nothing. I was certain that reality is not concrete and that I was now lost.

Funny thing is, the uncertainty actually made me a more aware person. I had to pay attention to the ways in which people, especially authority figures, presented reality. I had to listen more and react less. I became very conscious of the need to qualify my explanations and to not defend my observations; after all, I was here in my body, thinking my thoughts, while you were over there doing something similar. I began to look at other people’s perceptions and circumstances and being aware of mine. I applied Charles Lemert’s “On Social Theory” (pretty sure that’s the opening chapter to one of his books, but I only read that part) to my life. His hypothesis is this: we all create, modify and apply social theory (which we begin developing as very young children and continue to modify throughout our lives) to our interactions with other people.

Our entire lives are filter through this lens of our own social theories. This makes us all social scientists and all subjects of experimentation at the same time. I parent with this floating through my head: the kids are just formulating their social theory; they are not trying to drive me insane or cause a heart attack. We base our decisions on our past experiences and the success or failure of our social theory.

In all of this I suddenly realized that whatever you think is your reality. Our realities can touch, but we can never truly experience each others. So now, when I disagree with someone, I try to remember that I have not had their experiences and they have not had mine. In order to communicate, we need to find some common reality and then we need to explain our realities to each other with a desire to really hear what the other person is saying.

If you tell somebody that what they think is wrong, you are committing an act of violence on their reality. You are saying that your point of view is more real than theirs, when you can’t really be certain of that. Try to remember that religious and social views are heavily influenced by and influence the events of our lives. When we argue about “right” and “wrong” we are merely failing to see that we are trying to force our reality onto someone else. Society can consent to abide by certain standards, but you can’t force everyone to believe they are truths. This is important as California deals with the aftermath of Prop 8 and as leaders debate abortion and war and the idea of equality. Making something legal or illegal does not change the reality of people’s experiences, only meaningful communication can. Be careful about imposing your reality on somebody else, they may show you that it isn’t very “real” after all.

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