Humanity exists in the nuance. Perhaps this is what Chimamanda Adichie tries to talk about when she speaks of the danger of a single story. Or what Teju Cole is trying to say when he talks about the problem with first world problems. Simple explanations, while necessary, often erase the people blanketed by the explanation. It is in the grey that life happens. Somewhere between the ethical (often the absolute) and the practicalities of survival. Many words to say that despite knowing the nature of extractive capitalism, we still pursue ‘high flying’ careers, or despite knowing that cigarettes kill – we smoke.
On a more curious level we know of things like racism, but still give deference. We understand things like sexism but still silence. There are ways that we are which we are constantly trying to not be. And there are ways that we are not which we are constantly trying to be – growth and unlearning.
In this way we are constantly running into the many ways we are not who we would like to be. This is interesting to me because I would like to think about how much of dealing with this inadequacy generates anger. How, when we are shown a way in which we do not meet our standard, we react. Ashamed at being noticed it is easy to see the person who called this fact to our attention as the enemy. For if they had not made this apparent to you then you would be able to continue to live in bliss – in this knowledge of your goodness, your bubble of perfection unpopped.
And this is how simple explanations come in handy.
Because when things are happening to you – you have no knowledge you have popped someone’s bubble. Only that they are angry. You have no knowledge of the history of the issue (within the individual). And not every single time something baffling happens to you will you be able to sit down and have a conversation about it. In this way simple explanations allow us to let things go – to say “this is what is happening here” and carry on with what we were doing.
There’s something dangerous in this.
Often it is because these simple explanations are rooted in shaky histories – or outdated sciences. Things like “women are emotional” just allows for unlistening rather than engagement. This like “men are logical” end up allowing for silencing of the self rather than understanding. These simple explanations become the ground on which we build entire identities. What might have been a way of reading the world finds itself becoming a way in which we create our own. A way in which we define ourselves – the blueprint for this person we would like to be.
This person we are constantly failing to be.
In this inexact way we become as our environment. Like mirroring speech, but maintaining one’s own voice. We become organized repositories of knowledge. Our manners, our ways of seeing our inflections and perceptions a mash up of things we have accepted, rejected or are struggling with.
“As children, we didn’t have the opportunity to choose our beliefs, but we agreed with the information that was passed to us from the dream of the planet via other humans. The only way to store information is by agreement. The outside dream may hook our attention, but if we don’t agree, we don’t store that information. As soon as we agree, we believe it, and this is called faith. To have faith is to believe unconditionally.”
- The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz
In adulthood we believe conditionally – our faith becomes clouded by skepticism as life continues to prove the things we believe to be wrong. But there are those things that we already agreed with as children. It is the moments when we realise the ground on which our faith has been built is shaky that we question ourselves – or blame the person who took the ground from under us. How we handle these situations define how versatile we become. Which is to say if people learn that you cannot hear anything about yourself then they will stop telling you this stuff out of a bid to protect themselves. And if they don’t tell you then you are less likely to learn.
Especially if they already have a simple explanation that will both handle the situation and avoid the trouble of a lengthy difficult conversation with you. In this way, unless you are open to understanding the problematic versions of yourself, you will always remain where you are.
And towards this end, knowledge itself becomes a trap. Just because you are aware of oppression and the many ways in which it works doesn’t mean you have analysed the agreements you had made with the world. And because the agreements you have are based on factors rooted in this same world you are critiquing then how much of that world exists within you? Which of your decisions, attitudes, mannerisms and biases were decided for you – do they align with who you decided you want to be?
This is not to say that knowledge itself is a problem.
Instead, to see knowledge as tool for self-critique. To find ways not only to know, but to use the knowledge that we have to allow us to better navigate the world – to better navigate ourselves. To use those same eyes that we use to find the monster in others to see the monster within ourselves. To move away from absolutes and look for the nuance, it is there that we shall find our humanity.