Sunday, May 8, 2011

Don't Listen to Mama! Be an Iconoclast!

In what seems like a pleasant coincidence, I recently stumbled upon a rare remark made by Edward Said on the American culture, where he laments its "moralization of reductiveness".

And while Said's particular concerns revolve around a certain manifestation of this American penchant, namely what he calls "formulas of what not to do and read and what to consider culture and what not", I will be using it as a starting point for voicing another more general concern, in which the American society is but another society, albeit a one in which the symptoms are more apparent; the human tendency to seek an understanding of what is going on around.

One might be wondering, understandably, what can be of concern here. That will be got into in a bit, but at this point it is most appropriate to introduce the two concepts of Confirmation Bias (which belongs to a larger family of biases termed Cognitive Biases) and Cognitive Dissonance (attentive attendees of TedxRamallah should be familiar with both terms). The former describes the human tendency to seek what affirms one's narratives and views on life, and to ignore what does not, while the latter refers to a feeling of pain caused by holding contradicting ideas in the mind at the same moment.

By the mere act of evocation, a connection between the two phenomena is established, which is best viewed within an evolutionary framework. The human brain, it has been frequently shown, is more of a haphazard collection of heuristics and biases selected for optimal operation in a Savannah like environment, than a centralized logical inference machine designed to deal with the contemporary sweeping pour of data and information insulting its sensory receptors. From this chaotic brain constitution, what had been previously called a natural affinity for narrative construction arises.

The brain handles this aforementioned besiegement by the flux of information through constructing narratives (generalizations and chains of causality, which are not necessarily true), assessing these information against its own narratives, neglecting what do not get along (Confirmation Bias), but if the contradiction was intractable by means of ignoring, then Cognitive Dissonance ensues until the narrative is amended to accommodate or resolve the conflict.

This is a very simplified explanation of how a human brain perceives the world around it, but a one from which serious consequences flow. Most of the time what we perceive as reality is nothing more than a way for our brains to sift through and be able to retain select parts of the world external to the senses.

That said, it does not mean that our understanding of the globe is flawed beyond redemption, but rather that we should always be critical of our own views and narratives as much as we can, challenging them on every possible occasion presented, reviewing our collective and personal pasts constantly and never committing ourselves to any idea or ideology, let alone venerating.

Failing to do so, history has taught us by countless examples, is a menace, and no where this menace is capable of reaching devastating potentials than through the political agency and its sphere, both of which, alas, have been resting on nonsensical commitments and the emotional mobilization of masses ever since the first polis was formed!