One of the most unsettling experiences we encounter is that moment when someone you think you know says or does something which completely contradicts the impression you have of them. It’s natural to respond to these moments by reflexively reassessing the type of person they must be, to reevaluate their position on the scale from bad person to good person based on the new information.
But in times like these it isn’t the person’s values or beliefs which have suddenly shifted, only our understanding of them. Our understanding of reality is painted and reflected in our perceptions, so any time our perceptions are shown to be distorted it feels like the world has changed even when it hasn’t. The fact that part of our worldview often has roots in a perceived commonality between our beliefs and values and those of the people with which we associate only makes these sudden cracks in the foundation of our relationships more difficult to handle.
The funny thing I’ve realized as current events have brought more and more discrepancies between my assessments of people and their expressed beliefs and opinions is that, deep down, it’s not surprise or shock I’m feeling as much as the loss of hopeful denial. I want to believe that the people I enjoy being around share my beliefs and values, and often this means not poking into the darker corners and assuming all is well. As reality is brought to light my reactions have become less angry and more resigned.
“Oh, so-and-so, I really hoped you were better than that…” ::blocks on facebook::
And the more it’s happened, as I’ve wondered how many of my friends have sighed in frustration and taken a step away from me over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that this may be a significantly positive cultural shift in the making. When we disagree over things or discover, suddenly, that we disagree with people we are close to over things we consider of vital importance in life, anger and combative confrontation have proven time and time again to be ineffective tools of change. Our gut reaction is divisive, reinforcing everyone’s conviction that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They are reactions rooted in a worldview based firmly in the authority of the majority, the morality of might. It’s a worldview which cannot survive if it turns out the majority is not firmly seated in power, that they might not have an accurate grasp on reality after all.
The more we are confronted with the fact that the people we know and love don’t always see the world the same way we do, that our beliefs and values are not universal, the less we can rest on the idea that must stamp out the detrimental beliefs of the errant minority. The truth is that, when it comes to some belief or idea or feeling, we all belong to a group on the fringe, we all are left out of the group consensus at some point. So every time we are confronted with a surprise revelation about someone we thought we knew and valued and respond with a quiet sigh of disappointment rather than a sudden escalation of righteous rage, it’s a victory for humanity. It’s a step towards a global society which recognizes that differences are not grounds for oppression or violence.