Thursday, November 5, 2015

Proportion And Perspective

I used to be a news junkie. I turned the news on first thing in the morning, listened to news radio, and read multiple newspapers and news blogs on a daily basis. I then commented on all of that on my own news blogs, though mine were usually a bit more sarcastic and centered on certain specific pieces of the news. I slowly dropped following the news as closely because doing so wasn’t making me happy. Have you watched the news lately? How could that make anyone happy? It’s one obnoxious story after another, and either the journalists or the people discussed (or often both) seem to be in a competition to see who can do the best job at making a bad situation even worse. For someone who once studied journalism with an eye toward possibility making a career of it, the tendencies and trajectory of the modern news media is rather disheartening.

Don’t get me wrong. I still stay informed. I’m just more selective about it now. In our modern, connected world, I see headlines almost nonstop. I just choose to follow less of those headlines to the story. If I see something of interest or concern, I will look more closely, and try to find multiple sources to better distill the truth out of the hype and hysteria that often seems to pass as journalism these days. To be fair, this phenomenon isn’t new. We didn’t invent yellow journalism, by any means. We just appear to have increased its scope and output by about a thousandfold. We seem to have increased the number of people who actually fall for it too, which leads to its own set of problems.

The advent of the Comments section was, at first, a new form of entertainment. I enjoy a good exchange of ideas, and even a good debate, so I would go into these comments with verve and enthusiasm. Then, over time, it became clear that ideas were not being exchanged and no actual debate was happening. Debate requires that both parties speak the same language and use agreed-upon words to mean the same things. It needs very little time spent in most comments sections to know that, while most people give the appearance of speaking the same language, they are often not using the same words to mean the same things. People shout past each other, usually using the most extreme ideas they can envision, and nothing gets said. Nothing that has any possibility of being heard, at any rate. Today’s Comments section is the epitome of language being used to disguise meaning.

The two things most commonly lacking from these exchanges are proportion and perspective, seeing things as they are and as they compare to other things. We tend to make things bigger than they are, or more important than they are, or more difficult than they are - or all of that in reverse, depending on the point of view of the speaker. If it matters to me then it is of utmost importance. If it doesn’t matter to me then it doesn’t matter at all. If it matters to me and is not being done the way I believe it should be done then this is the greatest tragedy since absolutely ever, and any means of correcting this problem are acceptable means, or maybe even not enough. You don’t understand my struggle! If it doesn’t matter to me and I don’t care how it gets done then anything done to correct the situation is an overreaction, and maybe there isn’t even a problem to solve. Why are you making things so difficult all the time?

As you can see, it really boils down to “me, me, me,” and that is something that most of us are guilty of from time to time. It’s not even a problem, really, when it is only the natural from time to time. Looking out for yourself is part of being human, and sometimes that is going to at least begin from a selfish location. It’s when it stays in that location, or goes there more often than “from time to time,” or, as sometimes seems to be the case, takes up permanent residence in that location that things become a problem. It’s also a problem that can’t be solved without changing the point of view. We are a bunch of individuals surrounded by individuals. If we make no effort to live together, we are not going to succeed at living together. That effort is made by seeing things from a point of view other than your own.

The easiest way to see things from a point of view other than your own is to start from a zero point, that is seeing things as they are, or as close to as they are as you can get, with no embellishment and no interpretation. Sometimes you may not have all of the facts and will not be able to achieve a true zero point, but acknowledging that is part of the process. If you don’t have all of the facts, admit that you don’t have all of the facts, and don’t insist that your view is the Right View when you know that you do not have a complete picture. In this way you will be more ready and more inclined to adjust your view when new facts become available.

Don’t extrapolate. Extrapolation may be necessary down the road, and it usually is, but you can’t use it to reach a zero point. Extrapolation is, by definition, going beyond the present facts and interpreting past what is. Most of our decisions are based on extrapolation, since we often have to decide without having all of the facts, but know that and acknowledge that, and make a distinction between the facts you have the what you have extrapolated. Extrapolated knowledge should be the easiest to discard when you gain new facts, if you want an honest understanding of any situation.

Once you have a zero point, look at the difference between that and your own natural inclination. What bias led you away from the zero point? We’re all biased, and sometimes that’s even a good thing. Experience is one of the ways we get bias and that is typically what we call learning. Bias is a problem when it is falsely applied or used as a crutch, If you know what your bias is, and can see where it came from and how it is being applied, you can usually tell whether it is being useful or harmful.

Once you understand your own bias, it becomes easier to understand the bias of someone else. Like you, their bias may come from an honest or dishonest source, and may be used in an honest or dishonest manner, and that bias will steer them away from a zero point, just as yours did with you. Understanding all of this helps to facilitate communication, and communication is how we turn biases into solutions.

It is often difficult to tell the difference between what is true and what is merely own own impression of true, but that is usually because we don’t like admitting to our limitations and biases. We want to believe that we have the answers, even if that means we stop looking for the answers. We want things to be the way we want them to be, and we don’t want any delay between the wanting and the having. The trouble is, there usually is a delay, and ignoring that will only make the delay worse. If there is a problem, we won’t make it better by pretending that something is other than it is.

Proportion and perspective. Take the time to see things as they are and as they compare to other things, and try to understand how other people are doing the same. If more people start doing this, we’ll have less issues that require doing this in the first place. If we act like hype and hysteria are all we want then hype and hysteria are all we will get. Things can only get worse going down that road, and eventually they may even get as bad as the talking heads present them as on the nightly news. On the other hand, we could try a little proportion and perspective and see what that does. It can’t be worse than the alternative.

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