Friday, November 18, 2005

[Essay] Points of View

I find it strange at how people will generally tell you that there are several sides to every story, yet when faced with a particular encounter, will seek only one and follow that interpretation as if it were the gospel. It could be something you were taught in school, a statement a friend said, or perhaps your own personal belief. As a writer and a moral human being, I try to view everything in as many perspectives as I can. The quest for truth, after all, will constantly be elusive, and I am far from wise to discern which is true and which is deceitful. Perhaps the best I can hope for is to gather as much information as I can, and make the appropriate judgment.

There are various reasons for having different points of view. Some simply result from a misunderstanding, while others end with much malice involved. Yet people in my experience, more often than not, assume the latter, or when they discover it’s the former, refuse to reconcile. But that’s part of the human experience I guess.

I honestly love giving gifts. I love seeing people happy. Unfortunately, not all gifts are truly gifts: some are tributes, bribes, or even Trojan horses. I once gave a gift to someone I was acquainted with, but didn’t know well enough. On my side of the story, the gift was born of true affection, seeking nothing in return. It was a gesture, a selfish gesture perhaps, but a sincere one nonetheless. I didn’t know any better back then, but the recipient eventually became mad at me. From her point of view, I wasn’t giving a gift. It could have been a bribe to get into her good graces, a show of wealth, or something else entirely. Both of us had good and honorable intentions, yet it ended badly. Was I to blame, or perhaps her? Some of you might say it’s the latter’s fault, that her own paranoia caused the rift. That’s an easy conclusion to say, but who knows what her history was? Perhaps she was betrayed in the past, or had a similar experience: that’s not to justify her actions, mind you, but give them a basis. Some of the best intentions, after all, end badly. That’s true in this case. It reminds me of a commercial by the bank HSBC: two executives, one Asian, one Western, were having dinner at a ramen shop. The latter was trying to impress the former, so he finished his bowl of noodles, since it was rude to leave food on your plate. For the former though, emptying your bowl meant that one had not eaten enough, and that the host lacked generosity Not to be outdone, the Asian host requested more food, while the Western executive continued to eat and eat, not wanting to upset the other party. Obviously conflict arose, but it was not something intentional, but merely because both parties had differing perspectives, and they weren’t aware of it.

Striking something closer to home, I often hear the Filipino phrase hindi ko na problema ‘yon (“that’s not my problem”). I hear it in the workplace, with the people I talk to, and sometimes even my friends. Most people, I think, want to live in a specialized world, where all they need to focus on is their tiny but specific duty. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way. For employees like me, we have bosses, and people above us in the hierarchy ladder (or simply people who’s tasks are entwined with ours, but we have no control over). For employers, there are several factors governing them, from economic variables, their target market, the government, and perhaps even rivals. Now when someone approaches me to do something, they want immediate results. I want immediate results as well, but some tasks assigned to me is beyond my power. It could be waiting for my boss to approve something, or waiting for a coworker to do this and that task. When I give my reasons to the other party, they don’t want excuses. They utter the all-too familiar phrase. Yet when the tables are reversed, they blame their bosses, their coworkers, the government, virtually everyone else. Now I’m understanding and I know when you can’t bleed blood out of stone. But other people are not as considerate. My coworker was recently requesting a permit from a certain company. Now I was tasked with talking to the other party, and much like Murphy’s Law in action, the other side didn’t have the permit ready yet. They said that everything was done, and that they were just waiting for their boss to sign the form. Now I understand that situation, and I’ve faced it myself often. So did my coworker. Yet when I relayed that message to my coworker, she was infuriated, again stating the familiar phrase. She’s experienced such a situation herself, yet expect others to climb out of a hole she herself can’t escape. The problem I have with the statement “that’s not my problem” is that it lacks empathy; we make a separation between us and the other person, when in truth we actually share a lot of things in common. It’s separating our problems from theirs, when in actuality, they’re interconnected. Does conflict arise in such a situation? Yes. The perspectives are actually the same; we just refuse to acknowledge that the other side’s excuse is as valid as ours. Your problem is my problem; that’s why I’m so affected by it. I know it’s out of your hands, yet I blame you nonetheless. And that is perhaps the root cause of this problem: we want someone to blame other than ourselves. When people complain about the government, not solving do they ask themselves what they would do if they were in the politician’s place? Sometimes the solutions we come up with are no better than those of our scapegoats.

Ever been in the middle of a conflict between friends? They’d tell differing accounts, each one portraying the other to be the villain. For example, I have this friend who had a quarrel with his girlfriend (let’s call him Friend A). I also have this friend who’s a friend of the girlfriend (let’s call her Friend B). Now Friend A and Friend B will tell identical accounts… up to a certain point. From that point on, it’s either Friend A that’s the villain, or the girlfriend that was in error. Obviously, Friend A and Friend B were telling the truth up to a certain point. After that, some lies and confusion have been mixed in. Now there are several causes for that. I’m sure some of you have experienced exaggerating a story, and have it grow in the telling. The original story might involve ten people, then when passed on it becomes twenty people, then thirty, until it reaches a thousand. The more people it passes through, the greater the inconsistency. Or it could be something intentional, people blinding themselves and others to the whole story. In high school, I got into this fight with one of my classmates during PE class. He hit me in the nose, giving me a nosebleed. When the teacher asked me what happened, I told him my classmate hit me in the nose because I constantly kept blocking him in the basketball game. Which was true. What I didn’t tell my teacher was that my classmate goes so infuriated with me constantly blocking him that he elbowed me in the stomach, causing me great pain. In retaliation, I spat at his face, and he retaliated in return with the punch. Would my omission have changed who was wrong? Perhaps not, but it’s an important piece in the gigantic puzzle of human conflict. My case probably would have been less sympathetic had I mentioned it, yet I deluded myself that it didn’t matter. I didn’t plan on omitting that part yet when it came to the situation of attaching blame, yet I did. It’s not something I’m proud of, yet people twist their narratives in small but integral ways: it could be omitting some events, or a small lie. Friend A, for example, after a series of reasons for breaking up, mentioned that his girlfriend cheated once on him. Yet when I talked tot Friend B, it was the reverse: it wasn’t the girlfriend that cheated but Friend A. Of course that wasn’t the only reason for the conflict (many reasons were stated) but it could be that one fact that swings your opinion of the person. Truth mixed with lies, sometimes intentional, sometimes delusional; digging into the heart of the matter is more difficult to ponder than an outright lie, and is perhaps one of the easiest things to assuage our conscience, even if we were the ones at fault.

In grade school, two people who bullied me were friends (let’s call them Bully A and Bully B). Now in order to start fights, Bully A would tell lies to their target. “Person X said this about you,” Bully A would say, while Bully B would confirm that statement. That way, my classmates would get into fights that wouldn’t have started. Or if the person refused to be intimidated by the insult, either Bully A or would Be would chide the person to fight and keep pressing him on the whole day. “He said this and that about you, you’ll just let that pass?” was something they’d say. Now both Bully A and Bully B were in the business of spreading lies. The thing I found funny and ironic is that when Bully A told lies to Bully B, the latter didn’t realize it, despite having known Bully A for quite some time. One quarrel Bully A wanted was between me and Bully B, so he told Bully B that I insulted him, despite not doing so. Of course Bully B believed him, and we started to quarrel despite me constantly denying what Bully A said. Now that’s simply malice. It’s not a fact that was twisted to their own purpose, but sheer spite. The statement had no basis, yet it was believed. Both sides have entirely different accounts, and obviously, one of them is lying. But who do people believe? I mean Bully B knew Bully A’s track record of lies and deceit yet it was him who he believed, not me. Just goes to show that people don’t always believe what’s rational, but what they want to believe. Just look at people’s opinions. Supporters of FPJ believe that president GMA poisoned him. Local conspiracy theorists believe that as well, along with the other crimes of GMA. More level-headed people attribute GMA to graft and corruption, but not outright assassination, at least that of FPJ.

So you have these four scenarios for conflict, each with differing perspectives. Which one is the correct one, and how do we find out who’s telling the truth. A conclusion some people might come up with is that we go with the vote of the majority. I mean surely there were a lot of witnesses to verify the truth, hence the majority of believers of which side was right.. But that’s not an accurate measure of what really happened. Many people believe rumors, and they aren’t always true. A majority vote only proves how effective your propaganda is, not whether you’re truly innocent or not. I mean in the scenario of me giving gifts, the only people who’ll know my side of the story is if they ask me, and what if I’m an unpopular guy? Or worse, people take the other person’s story at face value. So it merely ends up as a race of who tells the story first. Or in the case of Friend A and Friend B, it becomes a popularity contest: who knows the most friends? So the real story, again, becomes elusive, and we’re left with these multiple views. What’s the use of having multiple perspectives if you can’t discern which is right? (Some would even settle for merely knowing which is wrong.)

There are telltale signs though. In the case of Bully A, Bully B, and me, it comes down to character. While it doesn’t always work (since some people do become repentant of their ways, and just because you’re a liar doesn’t meet you always lie), integrity can lead us to who’s right and who’s wrong. Bully B, after all, knows Bully A’s personality. I’m surprised he didn’t doubt Bully A’s word. It’s like the reverse of the Boy Who Cried Wolf: believe the liar. Of course such tactics are less clear. In the case of Friend A and Friend B for example, who’s the liar there? If you didn’t know them very well, it’s hard to tell. But I was very familiar with both of them, and it’s not the first time that Friend A had a case of manipulated truth: stories which were identical to the other side, except with a few details altered. Of course I could be wrong and he might have been innocent this time, but one’s previous actions are the only thing I have going for me. Others need more investigation, whether comparing other accounts, or digging up more information. Did president GMA poison FPJ? An autopsy report would solve that. And at times, there’s no real conflict to be resolved: we just want to attach blame. It’s like blaming an employee for the faults of his or her employer, even if the employee is powerless to change the company’s policies.

People often think that their point of view is the best one. I, however, think there’s a certain flaw in that kind of reasoning. How can we come to a valid conclusion if we’re so self-centered? Do we know what the poverty-stricken feel by remaining in our ivory towers? Do we find the answers to our questions without doing research, but solve it through sheer cognitive will? The best way is perhaps to view it from another person’s point of view, and understand their motivations. We’ll still come up with our own conclusions, but it’s a theory based on the experience of others, and not just ours.