14 October 2006

On the outer limits of certainty

This started life as a comment to Jim Putnam's post earlier today, post of earlier today, referring to my A chink in the armour of certainty? a couple of days ago. It "growed", though, to the point where I felt it would be more courteous and more honest to make it a post in it's own right.

JMP> It's not so true in other arenas, or for other people.
JMP> And perhaps, again, as one who is a US citizen I would
JMP> believe that, wouldn't I?

That, I think, is the crux of it.

It certainly is not so in all other arenas or for all other people. But for a significant proportion of other people in a significant proportion of other places, it is so. More importantly, that significant proportion of people in that significant proportion of places believe it so. Were this not true, the amorphous movement of terrorist action against which the US has initiated its equally hazy "war on terror" would not have come into being.

Also in a significant proportion of cases, the harm is inflicted not by the US directly but by some other member of the hard to define but nevertheless real entity which we sometimes call "the west" or "the north" or some other imprecise label. But the whole of that hard to define entity orbits around the US, and is shaped by it.

That a more than usually thoughtful, perceptive, honest, humane person such as Jim is nevertheless unable to believe the reality of how the US is seen from outside, and at the same time able to believe that you have done so ("as a whole, yes, we've witnessed"), is both the root of the problem and the clearest illustration of it.

Jim has quite rightly pointed to the impossibility of defining a concept such as "liberal" or "conservative" or "US citizens", or any other labelled group of human beings. They are analogous to the gas envelope around the earth - it's impossible to define exactly where the atmosphere ends and space begins. But it is possible to say fairly confidently the altitude at which (for example) human respiration tends to become difficult. Statistical descriptions can be given - "at such and such an altitude, the average density of the atmosphere has dropped to five atoms per cubic metre". Human groupings can be described in similar ways. "Roughly 1% of people who describe themselves as conservative agree with statement 1, while roughly 97% of them agree with statement 2", and so on. And the views of national populations can be generally quantified in the same way.

In a sample of US citizens, around 30% express some degree of uncertainty about the morality of US actions abroad; that drops to less than 20% for some degree of discomfort about it. (The numbers are considerably larger when the question shifts from morality to whether such foreign policy actions benefit the US.) Asked to exclude Iraq and consider the rest of US foreign policy, those percentages plummet to 5% and 1% respectively. In this sort of statistical description, the degree of discomfort which Jim feels makes him the equivalent of an oxygen atom in the unbreathable mesosphere.

I don't criticise the US for this. We are all products of the worldview generated by our societies, and struggle to transcend them. On the contrary: my illustration is a salute to Jim's unusual desire and ability to stretch that envelope.

As I said at the beginning: that Jim, one of a small minority wanting to see clearly and striving to do so, can honestly and sincerely believe that "as a whole, yes, we've witnessed", and that " It's not so true in other arenas, or for other people", is the clearest illustration to me of the degree to which US perceptions are armoured by certainty against external realities - and thus rendered chronically vulnerable to their consequences.

No comments: