Friday, March 23, 2007

I know what is best for everyone

A book I’m reading touches on the idea of two types of knowing: the authors refer to the concept of “separate knowing” and “connected knowing”.

Separate Knowers attempt to be distance themselves from emotion; they are methodical; they highly value logic, empirical proof, and direct experience.
Connected Knowers are more empathetic, look for common ground, avoid direct contradiction, seek connection in order to understand.
For more, see here.

Needless to say, CKers and SKers often approach life and relationships differently. Sometimes they have trouble communicating with each other, or seeing the other’s POV.

In my mind the dichotomy is related to the question of objectivity vs subjectivity.
A subjective approach includes context and the condition/perspective of the observer as part of the evaluation process.
The objective approach strives to isolate & identify facts/attributes of the subject of study that are independent of the observer and the context. In practice, since nothing exists in a vaccuum, we have to settle for identifying and controlling (or controlling for) as many contextual influences as possible.

To a Separate Knower (that would be me), our way of knowing seems infinitely superior (ie, more useful). Connected knowing is (to a Separate Knower) unreliable, inconsistent, inherently biased and untrustworthy. To SKers, connected knowing seems the best way to be wrong; connected knowing looks like evaluating things based on how they make us feel (ie, the way a toddler evaluates); connected knowing seems like a good way to get killed. Separate knowing is a skill; it takes practice to perfect; and it’s tremendously useful in almost every scientific or technical endeavour. As far as we (SKers) are concerned, feelings or opinions we bring to a situation should be discounted in favor of a limited set of confirmable and unchanging facts.

On the other hand, I surmise that Connected Knowers find separate knowing to be an interesting approach, nice for scientists perhaps, but not terribly useful in real life. To a CKer, I imagine the objective approach feels sterile, limited, a gray-on-gray picture of the world – a thru-a-glass-darkly snapshot of an ever-changing and infinitely complex reality.

And they’re both right, in a way. Each approach has its uses.

It’s not always the case of course, but statistically (and in my experience), men are more likely to be SKers, women to be CKers. I attribute this to the following, inherited from our cavepeople ancestors:

In traditionally male activities – hunting, fighting, building, etc – an objective approach is far and away the more useful. How you feel about things doesn’t matter – in fact, it tends to hinder you from doing what you need to do: kill things, carry things, build things.
The practical matters of survival – of paramount concern to a protector/provider – respond best to a non-emotional, objective approach. Things *do* have characteristics and attributes that have nothing to do with how we feel about them; and cavemen who don’t learn what those attributes are don’t live to procreate. (Just ask Thag Simmons*.)

OTOH, in traditionally female endeavors – childcare, village/community activities, influencing males who are physically stronger than you, etc – the ticket is emotional intelligence, sensitivity to – and connection with – other human beings.

And the SK/CK gap is hard to bridge sometimes.

A SKer wants to have his/her words understood in their most specific, accepted meanings; he/she wants others to use their words in the same way. The SKer thinks there are things that should be declarable and accepted with equanimity, simply because they are true.
To a CKer, context and feeling is everything; he/she says: My mood (the context in which you are operating) is more relevant than whether what you just said is truly something a reasonable person should be angry about most of the time.
This drives the SKer crazy, but the reality is that there are times when someone's highly subjective manner of feeling (a panic attack, PMS, a heart attack, grief, depression), will be far more relevant to them than other topics. To expect to have an emotionless, completely objective discussion in this context is not terribly realistic, and the objective approach not particularly useful. It would be a SKer who asked “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

For more on objectivity, see here. Some have gone so far as to attack objectivity in no limited way, calling it non-existent or flawed or even a false construct employed to discredit female/feminist research methods.

To an objectivist like myself, it feels like a lame strategy to elevate (note male-centric value presumption) anecdotal evidence to the level of traditionally accepted scientific research (eg, a “study” in which the researcher and the subject spent two hours in tearful commiseration about how they feel would carry the same weight of fact as a double-blind study of a large cross-section of individuals.)

In actual fact, the anti-objectivity position is more sensible than that: it’s an effort to acknowledge inherent bias, to make use of the observer’s involvement rather than denying it – in a way, it’s a way of embracing and co-opting the Heisenberg principle.

My feeling is that outright worship of objectivism is indeed a waste of time; it almost never truly exists, since everything tends to exist within a context.

But on the other hand, we wouldn’t even be here (let alone have a civilization) without the ability to objectify – to separate ourselves from our feelings and preconceived notions about an issue and focus as much as possible on inherent characteristics of things. You can’t build bridges, or machines, or even make a pencil, without relying on thousands of pieces of objective knowledge.

And even tho there’s no such thing as complete detachment, or a view from nowhere, that in no way diminishes the usefulness of the objectivity tool. As long as you don’t seek it as an end in itself, it’s exactly like calculus: X may never be 0, but our ability to approximate the Limit of Y as X approaches 0 (ie, our ability to shoot for objectivity) is why we have skyscrapers and space shuttles and microscopes and TV and telephones and best of all, Jessica Alba in her swimsuit on a 30-foot movie screen.

An example that came up in a discussion about objectivity:
If a lion is attacking you, you need to flee; in this situation, both a subjective approach and objective analysis is likely to yield the same conclusion: run away.

But it’s objective analysis that identifies the big sharp teeth, carnivorous tendencies, and superior strength of the lion -- and recommends action to avoid being eaten. In this respect, objectivity works every single time.

The subjective approach only gets you there *most* of the time (ie, as long as you’re properly scared to death). If you're tripping on acid and think he's actually a big lollipop, or if you've been raised in a herd of toothless, declawed, pet lions, or if you feel no ill will toward him and really dig his lion-ness, he still has those big teeth. Those teeth are independent attributes of the object, observable from just about every point up to the fictitious "view from nowhere". As X approaches 0, the value of Y is "Big effing teeth – run away."

In fact, I believe that in many cases, the more the observer brings to an analysis, the worse the analysis is. The subjective approach has a good chance of leading you completely astray (in the worst case, into being dead.)
OTOH, communicating effectively about relationships is almost always better accomplished by being sensitive to context, to the history and mindset one brings to the discussion.

So why is this a feminist issue?

- men find it easier than women to compartmentalize, to subjugate emotion. this is part of the reason male-dominated science has worshipped objectivity. we like what we're good at.
- similarly, a female predisposition toward an emotional outlook* and tendency to embrace a gestalt view are part of the reason feminists like the No Objectivity model. (it's noteworthy how closely the methods of analysis in the article referenced above parallel traditionally feminine approaches to life).
*if you accept its existence

I do think relationships are more successful when each partner learns to employ a little of both the traditionally feminine (ie, connected) and the traditionally masculine (separate) approaches.

Feminist or cro-magnon, one needs to learn empathy. In fact, I think it’s critical to a healthy relationship. It’s one of the things my Ex and I did very poorly at. Knowing that your feelings and your needs are understood – and more importantly, that your partner is motivated to try to understand them – is essential to making us want to be in the relationship.
But as well, relationships benefit greatly from a healthy dose of objectivity. If both partners let their feelings completely dictate their actions/reactions, the result would often be disastrous. The more physically powerful partner *must* hold to an objective, absolute value of not smacking the other partner around, no matter how much he/she deserves it (and deserve it they would, if we allowed truth to be defined by letting feelings trump objectivity). The concept of sexual harassment virtually disappears if the harrasser’s feelings on the subject are allowed to influence our interpretation of his actions.

So anyway, there you have that. It’s long-winded, but at least it adds nothing whatsoever new to the sum of knowledge in the earth…

*10 points to anyone who recognizes the Thag Simmons reference


At Fri Mar 23, 03:25:00 PM PDT, Blogger blogball said...

Kind of hard to recognize the reference when the name is split up to the “far side” of each end of your blog post.

At Fri Mar 23, 10:24:00 PM PDT, Blogger Cal said...

blogball beat me. Me and Thag... both "late".

At Fri Mar 23, 11:13:00 PM PDT, Blogger bryan torre said...

Dang, you guys are quick. And good.


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