Do you realize that every human being on this Earth alive today believes he or she is right?
It’s true. The Wall Street millionaire, the villager in Somalia, the Chinese general, the Amazonian Indian, the homeless wino in Chicago, the president of the United States, and you and I all are doing what we think at the moment is the right thing to do, based on the belief that our perceptions of the world are correct.
This is a built-in defect in the way human beings are constructed by nature. Human beings are brain-directed animals. We can’t lift a finger or speak the simplest word without directions from the brain. Yet the brain has no source of information except the human senses — sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste.
Throughout the millennia, humans have developed elaborate codes, called languages, with which to describe and process the data we receive from our senses. We have an irresistible impulse to name things. Using the English code, we name a certain segment of reflected radiation "yellow." If we use the Spanish code, we name it "amarillo." These names are chosen arbitrarily, vary from language to language and, as we often forget, are not the things they name.
The president’s "axis of evil," for example, is neither an axis nor an evil. It’s a judgment he (or his speechwriters) made about three countries whose governmental policies he disapproves of. The countries were not allies. In fact, two of them (Iraq and Iran) were enemies. North Korea has a different culture, different language and different interests than the other two.
As we grow up, we grow up in a particular place, using a particular language code, learning a particular history and a particular set of customs. The concept of the universal citizen of the world is just that, a mental abstraction that has no counterpart in reality. A common mistake we Americans often make is to assume that people in foreign countries think the same way we do. In fact, of course, people in our own country do not think exactly alike.
The cornerstone of human existence is perception. We normally act on the basis of our perception of reality, which easily can be defined as the way things are. The perception, for example, that we can beat a train to the crossing has life-or-death consequences if we act on it. Prejudice is the offspring of misperceptions. Millions died because of the perception that yellow fever was caused by noxious vapors from swamps. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that 90 percent of human conflicts and tragedies are caused by misperceptions of reality.
Therefore, we all should attempt to sharpen our perception of reality in an attempt to make it as accurate as humanly possible. For the same reason we don’t wish to drink dirty water or eat contaminated food, we should be careful about accepting other people’s perceptions of reality as fact. Generalizations and excessive verbalization both hinder accurate perceptions. Propaganda, which is a deliberate misstatement of reality, is voluminous and constant in our times.
Ayn Rand said it well when she observed that we can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality. Dogen, a great Japanese thinker, pointed out that "flowers die and weeds flourish without our permission." Our ability to affect reality is quite limited. We age and die whether we wish it or not, for example.
The point of all this is that conflicts are difficult to avoid, even under ideal circumstances. A good start would be to set harmony and balance as our goals rather than domination.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.