Mind Games II: Ideocentrism*

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, working under the direction of al Qaeda in Yemen tries to blow up an American passenger jet. Is this a crime – a law enforcement issue – or an act of war? It’s a matter of perspective. Especially since there is no chemical composition to human acts, and no formulary by which to clearly distinguish them as they mutate throughout history in new contexts and conceptions – “war” without a state actor, for instance – it is a matter of how one contextualizes the event, and context is almost infinitely complex.

In Mind Games 1, I discussed perspectivism and noted three variations of it:

  1. There is a real object of perception, which can only be perceived from a particular perspective – the standpoint of the perceiver, which is singular and not total, and therefore, perforce, partial.
  2. There is an object that is, theoretically, real outside of perspective, but the perception of which, for the observer, is influenced –  shaped – by the observer’s way of perceiving (personal, cultural, historical, religious, gender-based – add the influence on perspective of your choice).
  3. There is no completely independent object of reality uninfluenced by the act of perception. The object exists for us only through the act of perception. We cannot know it apart from our standpoint. To perceive the object is, in part, to construct it.

These are partly gradations along a line, and one of the factors both grading and emerging from them is a conception of truth. Given the influence of perspective, what can we know of truth?

I mean, what’s the truth? Is Abdullah a criminal or a combatant? Well, now, legally, he is a criminal, so declared – but conceptually, what is he?

It’s a matter of perspective.

An act – an attempt to blow up a plane – is not, properly, an object, like an orange, so even theoretically we can’t propose some objective, absolute truth to it. We place the act in a context, which constructs for each of us a reality and a truth, and we live by it. If we have open minds, we entertain the contexts proposed by others, incorporate to a degree some among them that appeal to us, ideally on the basis of reason, and our vision of reality becomes less narrowly focused and more panoramic. This is an approach to truth arising out of variation 1 of perspectivism. Here, we arrive at the truth collaboratively, generally provisionally, adding, improving, correcting, revising, sometimes overthrowing. This is not to say that it is not real, or that it is subjective, but that – with the exception of Slavoj Zizek – it is too great for any individual, from his singular perspective, to arrive at alone.

eye of beholder

The other day Yaacov Lozowick, in his continuing work of monitoring the anti-Semitic blog Mondoweiss, and a similar effort to fathom its community, attempted to post a comment at the site. In his comment, he posed to that community a vital question:

Ask yourselves a simple question: is there a theoretical interpretation of the facts as they seem, which might lead you to a different understanding of the reality; is there any explanation of Israel’s actions which might weaken the template always used here at Mondoweiss? Not: Do we agree with that interpretation, simply: could it exist?

No form of clear and critical thinking can proceed without the ability to construct, even only theoretically as Yaacov terms it, such alternative interpretations of reality. Without it, we live in a world that is nothing but an egocentric projection of our own impulses, whatever the sources of those impulses may be: insecurity and simple-mindedness, intellectual limitation, dogma, pathology. Yaacov might have missed (or happily forgotten) an attempt Phillip Weiss himself made last June to theorize just such an alternative interpretation of reality about Israel to the one he holds. It came after a trip he made to Gaza:

…many in my delegation began to hate Israel. I felt that hatred myself.

I also wondered why Israel could be so cruel. The usual explanations are racism, colonialism, Jewish chosenness, the psychological brutalization of permanent war, the Holocaust, and the endless permission granted by the Israel lobby. All are true, but insufficient. When I was in Gaza, I wondered why Israelis were so afraid of Palestinians. You are in an incredibly poor place. Hamas has rockets but mostly they have ski masks.

Later it occurred to me that the Israelis are terrified of Hamas because of Hamas’s words, that they deny Israel’s existence. As John Mearsheimer has said to me, “Jews are people who believe that discourse really matters,” and look, the Hamas discourse denies Israel’s right to exist. That rhetoric creates a powerful sense of insecurity and wrath among Israelis.

The sympathy I felt for Israelis was the feeling that their sense of belonging anywhere is so fragile that they are easily disturbed by someone saying, We don’t recognize youso they go out and savage innocent children.

You will notice that I’ve done some italicizing. Really, one could italicize, for demonstration purposes, the whole thing. Weiss attempts here, in his strikingly limited way, to understand Israel, but from the very first sentence he cannot escape his own ideocentrism. He cannot pretend to see matters from an Israeli perspective without immediately superimposing on it his own, so rather than any sympathetic imaginative projection of theoretically legitimate Israeli desires, what he attempts to understand is Israeli “cruelty.” He tries to do better in the next sentence, identifying what conceivably could be understandable factors in Israeli behavior – the Holocaust, the “psychological brutalization of permanent war” – but even before he gets to them he has committed a confusion of categories, offering up not potential Israeli explanations, but his own derogatory perceptions: racism and colonialism among others. “Later” it “occurs” to him that Israeli’s are “terrified” of Hamas because of “Hamas’s words, that they deny Israel’s existence.” This has never “occurred” to him before? He has never heard it actually said and discussed? But we see Weiss spends little time outside of his own mind and its pathologies. After all, he “wondered why Israelis were so afraid of Palestinians.” Can’t even imagine?

Meanwhile, this profound act of “sympathy” goes so far as to project the Israeli conception of its response to Hamas’s refusal of recognition as one in which “they go out and savage innocent children.” Note, though, how he gives himself away: he can stray from his own bias for only words at a time, for the “we” that begins that last sentence is not Israelis – it is Hamas. Then he switches to “they.” He is incapable of entering – even as an intellectual exercise – into the Israeli perspective.

Amidst all this, Weiss entertains the wisdom of John Mearsheimer, that “Jews are people who believe that discourse really matters.” This puts me in mind of my professor in a graduate school seminar on Thomas Mann, who replied to some apparently fervent statement of mine: “You’re talking about all this as if it actually matters.” But religious, cultural, and ideological commitments to murder Jews and destroy Israel fall somewhere beyond the pale of the aesthetic commitments of Thomas Man, or at least Mein Kampf one might imagine Mein Kampf that Jews Mein Kampf might have some reason to thinks so Mein Kampf.

* Ideocentrism is the belief in the superiority of one’s ideas so fixed that one is unable to credit opposing ideas as worthy even of sustained exploration; the incapacity to intellectually stand outside one’s own point of view.

2 thoughts on “Mind Games II: Ideocentrism*

  1. I appreciate this sentence:

    No form of clear and critical thinking can proceed without the ability to construct, even only theoretically as Yaacov terms it, such alternative interpretations of reality.

    Very true.

    Though I might wonder about the distinction between empathy and perspectivism.

    Might you not say that Weiss is really flirting with the possibilty of empathy with the Israelis, not truly balancing different perspectives?

    Ptolemy was wrong to believe that the earth revolved around the sun. Jefferson was wrong to own slaves. Yet maybe if I explore and reach out, I can sympathetically imagine how the world looked to them.

    [Just as, to cut more close to home, I don’t much countenance the possibility that Islamic terrorists or global warming deniers or torture apologists have a viably accurate perspective. But it is still possible for me to reach for empathy for how their experience is constructed.]

    Then again some people like to represent things objectively and some people like to represent things mythologically. Some people like to work hard in their career and some people like to focus on their family. Different people like different religions. Some prefer a large government social safety net whereas others prefer higher risk/lower taxes. Among all these conversations there is a range of different perspectives that are viable.

    It may end up being the same thing. Because in my experience, it comes down to: if you know yourself, you know how often you are wrong and you have sympathy for how other people get it wrong too. People who lack empathy for others don’t know themselves well because they are afraid to look at how often they are wrong.

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