Thursday, July 27, 2006
Perspective Taking
In the parenting book I'm currently reading (Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn), he has a section on what is called "perspective taking", which essentially means being able to step outside your own viewpoint and imagine how the world looks through the eyes of another person (both literally and metaphorically). He explains how this ability is the foundation for moral development. He writes:

People who can - and do - think about how others experience the world are more likely to reach out and help those people - or, at a minimum, are less likely to harm them. Kafka once described war as a "monstrous failure of imagination". In order to kill, one must cease to see individual human beings and instead reduce them to abstractions such as "the enemy". One must fail to realize that each person underneath our bombs is the center of his universe just as you are the center of yours: He gets the flu, worries about his aged mother, likes sweets, falls in love - even though he lives half a world away and speaks a different language. To see things from his point of view is to recognize all the particulars that make him human, and ultimately it is to understand that his life is no less valuable than yours. Even in popular entertainments, we're not shown the bad guys at home with their children. One can cheer the death only of a caricature, not of a three-dimensional person.

Less dramatically, many of the social problems we encounter on a daily basis can be understood as a failure of perspective taking. People who litter, or block traffic by double-parking, or rip pages out of library books, seem to be locked into themselves, unable or unwilling to imagine how others will have to look at their garbage, or maneuver their cars around them, or fail to find a chapter they need.

To work on seeing things as others see them is to live a very different sort of life. Consider a different kind of example. While many people dismiss those with whom they disagree ("How can she hold that position on abortion!"), those accustomed to perspective taking tend to turn and exclamation point into a question mark ("How can she hold that position on abortion? What experiences, assumptions, or underlying values have led her to a view so different from my own?").


Interestingly, he also goes on to talk about how the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.") is actually a rather immature form of perpsective taking. He quotes George Bernard Shaw regarding this:

"Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Shaw advised. "Their tastes may not be the same" - or, we might add, their needs or values or backgrounds. Older children and adults can realize that it's not enough to imagine ourselves in someone else's situation: We have to imagine that person in that situation. We have to see with her eyes rather than just with our own. We have to - if I may switch metaphors - ask not just what it's like to be in her shoes, but what it's like to have her feet.


For some people this may seem like an obvious insight, but when I look back, I am amazed at how long it took me to figure this out. I distinctly remember a conversation during my freshmen year at college that I had with my girlfriend at the time in which she actually pointed out to me that "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" really ought to be "do unto others as they would have you do unto them". And I remember being blown away by that insight! At the age of 18! Here I thought I was so smart, and yet it wasn't until I was legally an adult that I realized a basic moral insight like that one.

In fact, as I think back on my high school years, I can really see how this failure of perspective taking on my part - this tendency to confuse what seems best for me with what is best for everybody - led directly to the social isolation I experienced back then. I was an arrogant, spiritual jerk back then. I was a Pharisee. I looked down on people who didn't live up to my moral standards (I may have treated them with respect outwardly, but inwardly I always held myself superior to them.) I also held stubbornly to my own moral, political, and religious opinions - unable or unwilling to really consider other people's points of view. I was dogmatic in my view of the world because I had never really learned to see the world through another person's eyes.

And once I finally did learn how to do this, it's amazing how radically it has changed and continues to change my entire life. In retrospect I can say that a lot of who I've become, this whole emerging journey that I've been on, was sparked when I finally learned how to see the world from someone else's perspective. To realize that there is more than one way to look at things has been the catalyst for nearly every transformation in my theology, politics, personal philosophy, etc., that I've undergone in the last 10 years.

Simply amazing... it's simply amazing that it took me so long to get what Kohn says can be taught to older children. Looking back on the mistakes I made, I sometimes wish I could have figured it out a lot sooner. I wonder if my life back then might have been a lot different.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 11:34 PM | Permalink |


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