Monday, August 28, 2017

On passing judgements

My AZIndiaTimes column for June.


We make judgements all the time. Making them is easy. You get some inputs when you meet a person and based on your state of mind and what prior knowledge you have of similar situations, you form an image of the person. These are what we call First Impressions. From what little knowledge I have of evolutionary psychology, it’s System 1 that is making these snap judgements. Our limbic system makes these calls- for a part of the body that has not evolved much over the last 50000 years and is still stuck in the African savannah, it is imperative to gather as much information about a foreign body as soon as it can. It worked for simpler times.

But we now live in a mind-bogglingly complex world that, forget System 1 (the automatic, intuitive part of the brain), even our more evolved System 2 (analytical, rational part) cannot begin to understand. Yet we still choose to judge people based on our first impressions. We do not live in such hostile environments to need to make those conclusive approximations. The heuristics are just not good enough especially when we put our phenomenal imagination to work even before meeting the other person.

More of life happens in our heads than out in the real world. Thousands of intentions can manifest into only tens of actions. So should we judge a person by his motivations or the shape of his actions? Which raises two important questions: 1. Can we ever judge a person based on a handful of insulated interactions or do we need an accumulation of thousands of moments to even get a brief idea of what the person is like? 2. Presuming we can get a fair idea of how he might behave in the future, do we still have the right to moral grandstanding? When the personality of a person is a fairly fluid concept that is under constant change, how valid are previously held notions?

‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.’ - Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a universe inside a person, literally, for those who believe in Advaita. True, we cannot deal with notions as abstract as soul and essence if we are expected to learn as much about a person as fast as we can but can then one deign to know all about someone based on one meeting; especially because we always walk in with preconceived notions. I love the game Chinese Whispers because it conclusively proves we don’t hear and transfer what has been said but only that we’re conducive to listen. What Social theorists call the Latitude of Acceptance. Nothing I say is going to make an impact on you as long as you sit on the assumptions that you brought from home. All good will come across as pretence and all bad as proof.

Judgement, for the most part, has nothing to do with rational thought. It stems from a person’s ego, and like almost everything that’s got to do the ego, everyone else has to be condemned to a lower pedestal. Admittedly, humans are not all rational beings and the opinion of instinct has to be given substantial weight, and I know from experience that it’s a fairly accurate indicator. The problem comes when we use one of instinct and rationality to undermine the other based on our need to satiate the ego.

'A man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress.' - Ayn Rand

From what I’ve been studying about my behaviour, I see that instinct serves the ego. Instinct is a hack created by the brain to ensure it doesn’t have to take unnecessary load processing all new information unless its very important. Like all hacky systems, its core function is to see to it that most new cases fall into as few generic buckets as possible. And lo, we have the stereotype.

I think that the path to a person’s mind is like a funnel. Most of what comes in is junk and has to be distilled for persistence. But snap judgement, by definition, comes from the sources closest to the exit to ensure processing power is not wasted. This is also fine until we start tying instinct to the ego. That, then, becomes an insidious combination. Now not only are we saying stuff without thinking rationally but because we’ve tied our fragile personalities to it, we will find ways to subvert all new information until it fits our theories.

I’m not saying rationality is supposed to be the only mode of thought. Instinct is unparalleled in exigencies. Intuition and faith, things that nudge us in directions we can’t really articulate, are also modes of thought that make us human. We need to cherish them. The problem exacerbates when we act as deterrents to our own long-term good because of our obsession with self-image. From what little I’ve learnt from Advaita Vedanta and Sufism, I understand that annihilation of the ego is the final step on the path to self-realization and liberation. Ego is a collection of thoughts that hold onto a tiny part of the events of the universe and say, ‘This is you’. And we guard it vehemently because we think it makes us unique, gives meaning to our life. It is the brittle branch of a tree that we hold tightly to stop being pushed down the flooding river. Yet, until we let go of that little branch, how will be ever open our arms wide enough to embrace the universe?

Not only do we not comprehend the repercussions of our actions but also in most cases don’t understand our own motivations. Then do we really have a right judging someone else for their behaviour? I’m not saying we need to descend into a meaningless world. I’m saying we should be doing Karma without having to feel smug about it.

‘Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.’ - David Foster Wallace

What I call my personality is just one certain arrangement of a handful of experiences. If I had different experiences or in another order, would I have been another person? If yes, why should I be so attached to these? If not, what would change even if I let go? What is this ‘I’ that I’m so obsessed with and is it helping me live a better life?

We are all blind men trying to describe the elephant. It is imperative we question the basis of our assumptions and tread gently across this delicate, wonderful life.

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