The Outsider Perspective

Observation is a powerful tool, and we use it from the moment we're born until the moment we die as a way to gather information. Our culture has formalized observational technique into multiple disciplines such as anthropology, behavioral biology, quantum physics (paradoxically), sociology, and so forth. The list is long because of how important observation is to our ability to gather information, and our senses seem designed to operate in a way that allows us to be absent as an agent but present as an observer.

Some will state that it is impossible to be an observer in our society, that we are all influenced by the situations we see and the way in which we process them. This is absolutely true, but only to a point. For the most part, the faculty most incapable of remaining impartial is our emotive capability, and the influence of our emotions seems directly tied to our investment in the situation at hand. To put it another way, the further removed from a situation you are, the better you will be at observing it impartially.

This premise is difficult to argue with; it is relatively clear that emotions and logical processes inhabit separate locations in our minds and while they certainly create feedback, noise, and difficulty for each other at times, it is theoretically possible to distill one without the other. Philosophy finds this as the ONLY method by which to approach problems of life, the universe, and everything.  The scientific method is based on this idea, on the assumption that there are facts and laws and mechanisms that can be known and understood based on observation and variable elimination.

And yet, almost to a person, we believe that the most essential way of knowing a person or a group of people is to be that person or a part of that group of people.  The distinction is incredibly important, because there are intrinsically subjective elements to being a unique organism or being part of a unique culture that cannot be understood from a separate context.  We have words to describe the inaccessibility of this knowledge, the most notable is Empathy.

To be empathetic is to have, for a split second, an understanding of what it means to be a part of the situation being observed.  This point of reference is used from that point onward in order to alter the situation, but at no point has the observer become the observed.  This is akin to our forays into astrophysics, which are based entirely on snapshots--generally stationary--of systems we cannot touch, feel, or measure directly.  We know that in all reality, this is the closest we'll come to a true understanding of the cosmos or of each other.

Interestingly, there are cases in which we do trust others to have more knowledge about ourselves than we do.  Psychotherapy is a perfect example of this, in which a total stranger is asked to help illuminate things about ourselves that we would otherwise be relatively blind to or in denial about.  The methodology surrounding psychology/psychiatry is such that rather than building a catalog of all the possible personalities, a good therapist will look for markers that indicate more common TYPES of personalities or ways of coping with life.

All of this is just a lead-up, though.  I want to talk specifically about efforts to "improve" the world (quotes for subjectivity).  Activist groups are a special breed, passionate to an intensity head and shoulders above the rest of their respective cultures and generally interested chiefly in solving problems that affect them at their specific social locations.  Western progressive activism tends to center itself around the concept of intersectionality, under which characteristics of a person decide their unique social location and end up creating subtly different communities underneath the larger progressive umbrella.

Race, class, gender, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, body type, educational level, and geography all play into this matrix of forces that influences us every day.  People at certain locations have more privileges than others due to history, context, and the Isms that describe the multiple types of discrimination faced by regular people every single day.  And thus, activists tend to rally in order to overcome these Isms.

(Full disclosure:  I'm white, male, well-educated, generally straight, without any disabilities)

The general feeling within these activist groups is one of emotional support, empowerment, re-education, and direct action.  There is not a huge amount of room for scientific discovery, which is in part due to the rejection of science as a valid way of describing human society (see this post).  However, there also seems to be a general sentiment that empathy is not enough.  To effectively  fight an Ism, you have to be affected by it.

And that's fine!  I'm not whining that I can't participate in empowerment campaigns for groups I don't belong to.  Being a progressive, forward-thinking individual, though, I do see room for improvement.

Activism could benefit greatly from a big dose of Outsider Perspective.  Not the hostile, "what are you whining about?" type, because this is given all too willingly and all too often.  I'm not even talking about the sort of white guilt that results in somewhat well-intentioned but ultimately doomed efforts to "save the children" of poorer, less-western, less-white cultures.  What I'm referring to is the perspective held by those of us who empathize with the cause but cannot participate due to the hypocrisy that would result.

And this is where I tend to get into trouble.  How do you approach a group of legitimately marginalized people and tell them, here, my privileged life has yielded a more helpful way of doing things!  I used to do this as a kid, before I understood the error I was making, by questioning the submissiveness and lack of academic integrity embraced by many young girls my age simply because they were girls.  It just wasn't my place to tell them that something was off, but it didn't change the fact that I knew.

Rather than end with a resolution, I end this post with a dilemma:  how do the well-intentioned, entirely devoted outsiders of a cause make a positive impact?  There has to be a way, just as there was a way to overcome the problem of powered flight, just as there was a way to fuel the civil rights movement in the 1960s, just as there now is a way to communicate nearly instantly using invisible ones and zeroes over thousands of miles.


Lori said...

Community organizing is a way to be involved as an activist with communities you may not be a member of. "Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in Your Community" is a book that describes this well. Community organizing involves helping a group of people set up their own structures and leaders to serve them and their needs best.

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A blog about social change, written from Brooklyn, New York. Currently looking for contributors.