Between Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome
Part 58: Recognizing the Many Biases in our Belief Systems
-Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
When the far mountains are invisible, the near ones look the higher.
-Henry Thoreau (1817-1862)
As defined in the Oxford Dictionary, to believe means "to accept (something) as true; to feel sure of the truth of." Thus even in the most absolute sense of the word, there seems to be an element of subjectivity in the verb.
Nevertheless, in many corners of the world, men would kill each other on a daily basis merely for what they believe. Last week, for example, the Associated Press reported that nearly a year after a mob in Lucknow, northern India, killed Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim man, over rumors that he had slaughtered a cow, his family faces prosecution for alleged cow slaughter following a neighbor's complaint. In other words, slaughtering a cow seems to be a problem, but slaughtering a man is not. As Bertrand Russell once stated: "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."
And doubt we do, because what we believe should be a work in progress thanks to our many biases. Researchers, scientists, sociologists and psychologists have identified dozens of biases which should be considered to critically self-evaluate our own beliefs: from confirmation bias to group consensus bias, from self-serving bias to false-memory bias. Needless to say, men are motivated only by their self-interest.
Even with the best intentions, how we perceive reality is constrained by our biases and limitations. If there is an illustration that underlines these biases, it must be Rashomon (1950), a Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa. Available on YouTube (or for streaming through Amazon Video for a small fee), Rashomon has always been considered a classic. Winner of an Honorary Oscar in Foreign Language Film category in 1952, it is based on "In a Grove" (1922), a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). Such is the influence of the film, that the word 'Rashomon' has become a catchphrase to describe a situation in which the truth cannot be certainly known.
Rashomon aptly shows how humans—being humans—never fail to provide alternative, self-serving and even contradictory narratives of the very same incident. The bandit's story is different than the samurai's story, which is different than the wife's story, which in turn is also different than the woodcutter's story. Who is telling the truth? What really happened, factually speaking? Clearly, each character perceived the same event from their respective perceptions which are clouded by their own biases. Human perception is limited, relative, and even conveniently selective.
Which brings us to the second chapter of Chi Wu Lun (The Equality of All Things) of The Inner Chapters written by Chuang Tzu about 2,400 years ago. Chuang Tzu wrote that the truth can never be proved and only be suggested (as translated by Lin Yutang in My Country and My People):
In an argument between you and me, you think you have got the better of me, and I will not admit your superiority. Then are you really right, and I really wrong? I think I have got the better of you and you will not admit my superiority—then am I really right and you really wrong? Or perhaps we are both right, or perhaps we are both wrong? This you and I cannot know. Thus we are encircled in darkness and who is going to establish the truth? If we let a man who agrees with you establish it, then he already agrees with you, so how could he establish it? If we let one who agrees with me establish it, then he already agrees with me, so how could he establish it? If we let one who disagrees with both of us establish the truth, that he already disagrees with both of us, so how could he establish it? If we let one who agrees with both of us establish the truth, then he already agrees with both of us, so how could he establish it? Thus you and I and other people cannot know the truth, and how can we wait for the other one?
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter