The Benefit of Bifocal Thought
Ideas are never stagnant – they move, they change, they make way for other, better, more enduring ideas. In every mode of thought, circumstance dictates just what remains useful and the extent to which inquisition should eventually reach. But we never think without a framework; we’re always bound by a directive, a whispered voice of reason, in one way or another. Writing in The Scientist recently, Steven Wiley pointed out the inherent flaw in presuming that research can be conducted without a theoretical base, that the information ‘out-there’ can somehow speak for itself. Hypotheses, he argued – whether explicit or not – provide a “level of simplification” at which meaning can be usefully extracted from data.
We need similar guides to the broad sweep of thought, directions in which to look for everyday answers in an ever-puzzling world. I wrote recently about the flexibility of ideology, how it remains as a sort of uber-hypothesis when circumstances change. Marxism dies, you might say, but the quest for social justice remains. But now I want to ask a more pointed question, given the passing of doctrines, given just how fast lives can reconfigure themselves without much effort from those concerned (think of a death in the family, or the community, and its repercussions). How can we know that our way of thinking is sufficiently developed, appropriately fine-tuned, to help others?
As with many of the questions I’ve been asking here recently, I only have a partial, tentative answer. It springs from my struggle to balance Greetings Earthlings! as a blog of sometimes wayward ideas through which I’ve mixed a heavy element of activism and A Death in Hong Kong, a blog of activism in which ideas are very carefully administered. This blog is my own, I can write what I like; the other belongs to a group, on behalf of which I write. Quite often the content is similar or the same – most of my recent writing has been a reaction, in one way or another, to Vicky Flores’ death here in Hong Kong.
You could point to that preoccupation as my guide, the thesis to which I’ve been writing on both blogs, the hypothesis for more developed thought. But a greater concern, a more specific concern, has been to see things from a different perspective.
To explain, allow me a short detour. A recent edition of the Economist provided an interesting overview of a study conducted in America that sought to show how a “win-win” situation could best be obtained from a two-party negotiation. Now, negotiations aren’t terribly renowned for providing happy endings – one party more often dominates, and benefits. But Adam Galinsky presumed that if both parties were to benefit, a slight change of analytical direction was necessary. Instead of considering empathy and the ability to take another person’s perspective as one and the same thing, Galinsky separated them.
Empathy, he reasoned, was an emotional attribute – the ability to feel for the other party. Perspective-taking, as awkward as it sounds, was the “cognitive power to consider the world from someone else’s viewpoint”. Not surprisingly, Galinsky’s experiments showed that perspective-takers were far more capable of striking a mutually beneficial deal than were empathisers.
We all too often presume that emotion is enough. It prompts us to help, to give, and struggle alongside, or so we think. But it turns out that empathy doesn’t really cut it. We need to use the other person’s logic as our own, to travel down unfamiliar paths and think unusual, probably unsettling, thoughts.
That’s what I’m trying to do by maintaining two blogs that take different perspectives, that have different aims. It’s not really about thinking otherwise because I’m trying to think the same. The same as those migrant workers who are far less likely to have the time or the inclination to join the blogosphere. The concern groups that I have had the privilege of cooperating with. Those people who can already think bifocal thoughts.
I’ll make mistakes along the way – many, most likely – but the result, building on the efforts of countless others, could well benefit us all.
Addendum: An earlier version of this post carried Roy Blumenthal’s superb image Lifekludger first idea as its initial graphic. I sourced the picture on Flickr, and used it because it under a Creative Commons licence. What I didn’t realise in my rush was that the image was the first draft of a logo for Dave Wallace’s Lifekludger blog, a revelation in itself – especially his musing’s on people, networks and social isolation. Dave left a friendly comment here, and after checking both his blog and Roy Blunmenthal’s photostream I removed the image. But I’m inspired by what I saw on both sites and will post on them as soon as I receive specific permission to use Roy Blunmenthal’s images on a blog.
To both men I apologise. But I’m also thrilled that they’ve given me new perspectives to think about and engage with. Thank you both.